Reconstitution of the Heart as a Spiritual Discipline – Ash Wednesday and Beyond

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10

Last week and on Ash Wednesday, there was another school shooting – this time in Parkland, Florida.  Among the heartbreaking images, was of an anguished parent.   A cross of ash was etched across her forehead while her right arm clutched another woman overcome with terror and grief.    As if hitting the replay button, a crescendo of news flashes and responses from DC and elsewhere followed:

“Let us hold those affected in our prayer,”
or “Our thoughts are with the students, parents, teachers and first responders,” and this,
”Now is not the time to talk about [the lie that shackles the very institutions charged with protecting its citzenry].”

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right Spirit within me,” wrote the psalmist.

Take note there is no mention of cleansing the heart. Nor is the psalmist’s petition to amend or correct it.
Instead, its author implores the Creator God to act…decisively.

We know that the Holy Writ sees the heart more than a mere organ within the human body.  As the seat and foundation of human personality, the heart is the determiner of one’s ability to differentiate and understand, impacting the choices made even when the welfare of the many is at stake. But this same heart when diseased behaves as scar tissue. It becomes wholly desensitized. Reduced to cauterized tissue: the heart becomes hardened, unable to distinguish truth from fiction, the material from the merely trivial, the indispensable from the consumable.

Going back in Biblical history, the repercussions that come with the hardening of the heart are well documented.  One extreme example is recorded in the Book of Exodus – where chapter one records what had been a pattern of lethal violence directed at children.   Years later, Moses, who had raised in the royal household, is sent back to Eygpt by God to confront Pharoah. However, even on the heels of this directive – Yahweh cautions him – lest Moses hold onto the expectation that reasonableness and good intentions will be sufficient to change the despot’s disposition.

“When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform all the wonders I have put in your power; but I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” (Exodus 4:21)

Given the devastating implications, why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? For that matter, why would God harden anyone’s heart? Or could the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and the vast multitude of pharaohs since then be the inescapable outcome of their cruelty; a callous indifference kept under a guise of respectability?  Was what ailed Pharaoh then a malignancy; that insatiable and diabolical malady that renders senseless any appropriation towards the good, the just and the peaceable?

So what of us, who are summoned to confront the pharaohs of our day? What of us, tasked with unmasking the pretense of religiosity and self-righteousness; who speak for the marginalized, the foreigner, the forgotten, and this fragile, blue planet we call home. We whose hearts are also at risk of being hardened, by the very forces we face.

Perhaps the reconstitution of the heart is a necessary spiritual discipline – not only for those whose hearts are hardened – but those of us who are at risk. What if last week’s alignment of Ash Wednesday AND Valentine’s Day was not coincidental at all?

Unison Prayer – 2 Kings 2:1-15

Unison Prayer

  God of the Whirlwind, you have gathered us to be wholly present in this moment. Acknowledging your providence, we offer our gratitude for this place of worship and community – even while we ponder what lies ahead.  What if as in days of old, we too have been passed the mantle of discipleship?  What if as Christ’s followers we are summoned to be the champions of mercy, the beacons of justice, and the embodiment of love?

  In this season of life, give us the grace to ask for a “double portion of your spirit.” So that by faith we might step into the riverbed of life’s Jordan – aided by your mercy, claiming the charge and blessing given us at baptism. In the surety of your promises, we boldly ask this in Jesus’ name, the One who was and is and is to be. Amen.

Prayer(s) for Illumination – Isaiah 40:21-31 & 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Dear Friends:

Inspired by the work of Maren Tirabassi, author, poet, workshop leader and pastor, AND in the context of this week’s State of the Union Address, I offer two Prayers for Illumination in anticipation of this Sunday’s lectionary readings.

Prayer for Illumination – Isaiah: 40:21-31

You, the Source of All That Is and Was and Is to Be, just as you spoke through generations past, offering them words of assurance and inspiration…we too have been sustained by your Word.   But now, many of your children find themselves overcome with trepidation. Long-standing divisions have resurfaced; the assaults upon the land and it’s most vulnerable continue on relentlessly. We concede that we know not from day to day, much less week-to-week what the future holds.

So allow us to hear these words afresh…as if perceiving them for the first time.   For you are God.  The One who is as near to us as our own breath.  The One who strengthens us in our weakness.  The One who calls us by name.   Hear now these words of scripture, we pray…

Isaiah 40:21-3 (NRSV)

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Prayer for Illumination – First Corinthians 9:16-23

God who speaks to us through the living Word, we are a people caught between competing loyalties…. particularly now.    As Christians, we discover that when we seek to make God’s love known through our actions as well as our speech, then the Gospel becomes real.   But as depicted in this ancient but relevant text, Christians can also do irreparable harm when self-serving actions and/or policies undermine the costliness of the Gospel and thereby the beloved people of God.   O God, as people of faith who are free in Christ – save for the utmost obligation to love – open our hearts and ears to the hearing of this passage.

First Corinthians 9:16-23  (NRSV) 

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

 

“What Have You to Do With Us?” Mark 1:23-24

“Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and [the man] cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”  Mark 1:23-24

   Have you ever wondered how long the man with the “unclean spirit” had been coming to the synagogue in Capernaum? Could his presence that day have signaled the first time he had crossed over its threshold and joined other members of the congregation? Or had this tormented man been showing up for as long as anyone could remember?

There is the understandable tendency to keep the onus of being in the thrall of a chaotic or unclean spirit – as being the problem of this lone individual – when reflecting on the significance of this passage.    After all, only one man cried out – even if it was in the presence of a gathered congregation.   For that matter, who would want to be labelled as completely unhinged be it in Jesus’ time or our own?  Such that this man’s anguished cry, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” remains the problem of this one man and thereby has nothing to do with the congregation or the rest of us.

But what if this tormented man had been a ‘fixture’ in that community for years?    A nuisance, perhaps.   Something to be tolerated.   But utterly alone.  What then?

What if we were to read this account differently?   Rather than have a crazed man cry out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth,” suppose we were the ones asking the question?

“Jesus, what have you to do with us?”

We who are in over our heads?

We who try to be faithful but flounder in the wake of it?

We who are commanded to love our enemies but are consumed by anger?

When we’re really honest with ourselves, is this passage only about this one man?

Or is it a story about us?   We who need to hear the definitive word of God spoken.   We who have given up hope.   We who are numbed beyond recognition.

“Jesus,” we whisper, “what have you to do with us?”

And in that moment – Jesus does not turn away – but turns to us, speaking the definitive and healing Word.

 

Musings on Mark I:14-15

“Now after John (the Baptist) was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near…”   Mark 1:14-15 

Take note of the timing of this scripture.   It wasn’t until after John the Baptist was arrested that Jesus proclaimed the good news of God. 

It was after a righteous man was arrested

after John the Baptist was imprisoned and condemned,

…that Jesus heralded the good news of God.  

Am I the only one who has difficulty seeing the connection here?

How could the imprisonment of an upstanding man be the basis for announcing that the time is fulfilled?   How could this terrible incident be evidence that the kingdom of God is near?   How could the event of an innocent man being incarcerated – be an occasion for good news?

The broader narrative does draw the parallel between Jesus being driven into the wilderness for forty days following his baptism, as preparation for public life and ministry.    That all three synoptic gospels record this wilderness account offers that crucial connection between Jesus’ experience at baptism and his entrance onto the public stage. That he was in the company of wild beasts, hungered and thirsted, summoned and interpreted afresh the Word of God in the face of temptation and deprivation, provided not only necessary preparation but was evidence of Jesus’ unique identity and fidelity for ministry.

Yet what if the event of Jesus’ entrance into public ministry

AND John’s arrest was not a coincidence?

  What if the association of these two seemingly incompatible events was and is a way of seeing evidence of God’s realm – but in a manner previously thought not possible?   What if injustice –be it retaliation for speaking truth to power, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, deportation, the exploitation and misuse of natural resources, forfeiting healthcare for the most vulnerable, voter suppression and increasing the coffers of the wealthy at the expense of the poor – when met with faithful and persistent resistancesignifies the emergence of God’s kingdom?    What if seeing and naming injustice for what it is  – is not an occasion for powerlessness in the face of oppression but instead is a divine summons, heralding that the time has come to head to Galilee?