Rend Your Heart

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on February 14, 2016)

‘Even now,’ declares the LORD,
‘return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning.’
Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the LORD your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity. (Joel 2:12-13, TNIV)

Yesterday Elaine asked me if I was going to say anything about Valentine’s Day.

“Nah, we’re talking about repentance and weeping and Lent.” I’ve always been a romantic…

Last Wednesday was the official beginning of Lent, this season of examination and preparation before Easter. As I said last week, we’re using a metaphor from Jesus’ parable of the seeds to take us through Lent, this idea of clearing ground in our lives to make space for God’s seeds to grow in our lives.

Clearing ground recognizes that thorns grow in our lives, thorns that choke out what God wants to do in us. These verses from Joel connect that clearing image with repentance…an image that for many is a beautiful, helpful one, and for others is confusing at best and negative at worst.

For me, repentance is a beautiful word. If it isn’t for you, I want to try and redeem it today. On this Valentine’s Day where we are talking about repentance, we find there is another “V” word at the core…vulnerability.

Vulnerability, honesty, openness.

So many things in life encourage something different than vulnerability–whether it’s our pictures carefully staged and curated on social media to create an image of who we want to be; or whether it’s the crowds that seem to prefer tough, dishonest, confident declarations over honest admissions of mistakes. So many things in life push us away from vulnerability.

To be vulnerable, though…to be honest, to be open, to actually take the risk to repent…to do this, you ultimately have to trust that something better will come of it than just being kicked when you’re down or stabbed in the back. These beautiful words from the prophet Joel point to exactly that kind of trust.

Return to God, rip your heart open before God. Why? “He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.”

Can you think of times where you saw the willingness to be vulnerable and repent prove this truth about God?

One foundational one for me was a classic example of a worship service where people were moved to repentance. The summer after I graduated from high school our church took a busload of us to Camp Baker down by Florence, Oregon. One of the nights, there were a lot of people responding to what had been spoken, people going forward and praying for forgiveness, some choosing to commit their lives to Jesus for the first time.

I looked across the room, and I saw one of my good friends with tears in his eyes as he watched, and I was so excited. During most of my senior year, I had been praying that this friend would say yes to Jesus. We carried the conversations from our Humanities class on comparative religions into our lunch time. He started coming to our church. And now, it looked like he was ready.

I went over to him, sat next to him on the bench. He was quiet for a bit, and then he looked up at the people at the front, and then he looked at me. “It’s beautiful!” he said, strong emotion in his voice. And then he looked at me with utter sincerity and said, “What are they doing?”

I laugh about it now, because it was such a surprise to me. But even before he had any idea exactly what was happening, my friend was moved by the way people showed brokenness and openness before God. Their honest weeping as they asked forgiveness was beautiful to him, reminding me that even before it’s understood–even before people can have enough trust themselves to be open–vulnerability and repentance draw people in.

But of course knowing personally what they were doing is what proved life-changing. I talked with my friend about Jesus; how his death brings forgiveness for all we’ve done wrong, how his resurrection proves God’s power to give all of us a fresh start no matter what we’ve done or has been done to us. He asked God’s forgiveness through Jesus that night, and committed himself to trying to live obediently, and he’s still following Jesus to this day. Seeing what God has done in and through him over the last three decades has been powerful proof to me how God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.

But as we touched on last week, vulnerability and repentance are not just one time things when we first decide to follow Jesus.

I made my way through the last two years of high school and most of college scared to death of vulnerability. Instead, I worked to perfect looking like I had it together, hiding and shoving down the things that I was ashamed of, things that I thought would ruin how others thought of me. I took home the lesson that you have to keep trying on roles, you have to keep doing the expected thing to get by in life. You can’t break from the mold, you can’t be honest, you can’t be yourself, because that’s when you get hurt. That’s when you are rejected.

I had so many epiphanies, so many moments of clarity where I saw through all that. High school friends who told me they had freedom to be themselves because they didn’t build their self-image on achievements or what others thought of them, but rather that their value as a person rested on the unchanging truth that God created them. The solo time during college, sitting in silence on a mountainside, journalling eloquently about the masks I had worn in life and how I wanted to set them aside and be the real me.

But the epiphanies didn’t break through. Raw and honest parts of the bible like Joel 2:12 and 13 didn’t do it. Instead, it was a drunk man in the middle of the night calling for honesty about lust and pornography that dragged my secrets out in the open and forced me to be vulnerable in front of my roommate… and that made all the difference.

The truth is, I had cried out to God in private so many times, asking for forgiveness and help before then. But the idea of tearing holes in the good image I had created for myself, the idea of tearing open my heart and revealing the things I was most ashamed of and felt most powerless to do anything about…I didn’t think I could survive that. Maybe God is gracious and compassionate, but the world isn’t. Being honest just wasn’t safe.

Until it was forced upon me, and I discovered the unexpected power that vulnerability had over shame.

No, I can say that better. Part of the reason that repentance is so important is that being honest about the thorns in our lives begins to break their power, power that we are actually giving to the thorns by trying to cover them up and hide them from the world.

When we try to hide these things from the world and from ourselves…our jealousy, our bitterness, our lust, our greed… when we won’t admit that the thorns are there…the very act of hiding and faking is making the thorns grow stronger. Putting on a good appearance doesn’t clear ground. Minimizing our junk doesn’t clear ground. Justifying ourselves by thinking we are a little better than the next person doesn’t clear ground.

This is why God says to us through the prophet Joel: “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” It isn’t until we are saddened by our thorns that they can begin to die. It isn’t until we mourn over the wrong choices we have made and the good choices we haven’t made that ground begins to be cleared.

“Rend your heart and not your garments.”

Don’t just go through the motions, generically admitting you’ve done stuff wrong. Don’t go through the rituals of “safe” honesty. That’s like the ancient visible act of tearing your clothes in a ritual act of mourning, an act done in front of others to show how “spiritually good” you are.

Tear open your heart, God tells us. We actually have less to fear from God when we are raw, broken and bleeding than when we give lip service to the rituals of spirituality. God’s graciousness, compassion and love are truly transforming!

This is why I strive for honesty and openness. This is why I ask forgiveness and aim for humility. I’ve learned my lesson over and over and over again. When I try to keep it together and look good and impress God and others, I get to the place where I have to work harder and harder, give more and more energy to covering up and hiding the things I’m ashamed of. It is a never-ending cycle of destruction and sin that I am giving more and more power.

But when I rip the heart open, tear off the scabs and let myself bleed in front of God and others, it’s then that I have the chance to experience the transforming power of God’s grace, compassion and love.

My friends, I stand here today to tell you it is worth it! 

I stand here today to add my voice to the prophet Joel and say that God is calling you and me to clear ground, tear open our hearts and be raw before God so that we can experience in a real way the transforming power of God’s grace, compassion and love.

Sometimes it’s that first-time honest confession and acceptance of Jesus, like with my friend at camp long ago. Sometimes it is confessing the brokenness of a sin done over and over and over again. It is always worth it!

And sometimes, it is not just yours or my individual ground we are clearing. Sometimes it’s repentance we do together, as a community.

There is strong evidence a few verses down that Joel is leading all of Judah into a worship service where they will fast and confess.

Verse 15: “Declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly.” Verse 16: “Gather the people, consecrate the assembly.” Sometimes the ground we have to clear is corporate ground, community ground, together ground.

It’s been almost 10 years now, so I think it’s ok to tell a story again. I try not to repeat myself too much, but this one has come to mind so often over the two weeks.

In May of 2006, I was out in the back part of our property, trying to reclaim some space to be a garden. For decades before we moved into our house, the back field was an untended pasture, where horses and pigs grazed and pooped and lived. I was out with a borrowed rototiller, trying to bang and pound the ground into fresh tilled earth, but the reality is the rototiller was pounding me. My arms and shoulders ached from trying to break through the years of accumulated manure and weeds to bring out soil that seeds could be planted on.

In the hours when this tiny patch of land slowly broke and turned over, I realized how rich all that stuff had made the soil. Turning it all over and laying it bare before the sun brought out the richness, the potential for growth.

God began using this living metaphor, the one right before my eyes, to teach me. I was supposed to speak that night at a community gathering for the National Day of Prayer, and the message became crystal clear. I was supposed to confess on behalf of our church.

We were the first church here in Chehalem Valley, begun and shaped by William Hobson and his holistic vision for what we could be part of building: “A beautiful valley filled with prosperous homes, connected with the outside world by railroad and telegraph, Friends Quarterly and Yearly Meetings established, a flourishing town with a Friend’s college, and with all, a strong Christian Community.”

As I’ve learned more about the years at Newberg Friends since those early days, there have been times where we have lost that early vision for outreach and for a holistic gospel. We’ve not always been faithful to follow the original beautiful vision God gave and established us to fulfill.

So that night I confessed and asked forgiveness on our behalf from the other churches gathered.

It was rich and deep. The grace people offered ministered to me, and I think it brought us all to a place of openness and humility, instead of subtle competition with each other. And then a month later, I told this story here at NFC and I led us here in confession before God.

I feel God’s leading to repeat those confessions, and then I will add a new one for today.

Here is the prayer of confession and repentance I led us in 10 years ago. If you are willing, join me in praying this in your own heart and mind:

We confess, God, the sin of spiritual pride.

We have sometimes thought of Newberg as our little Quaker town, and it is not. It is the town that God loved so much that he has worked here in powerful ways for more than a century, drawing people to himself. God, we ask forgiveness for our pride, forgiveness for forgetting that you gave William Hobson a holistic and huge vision for all of God’s people in Newberg.

Forgive us, God, in the name of your son Jesus. Create in us clean hearts, and renew a right spirit within us. [PAUSE]

We confess, God, the sin of limiting how you want to work.

Instead of continuing to follow your leading to meet all the needs of our society, the poverty, the drug use, the pain and struggles, we have sometimes focused only on ourselves. We have sometimes thought our church exists for ourselves and our preferences. We have forgotten your call to reach out. As Newberg has grown over the years, we have missed opportunities to be your witnesses to many who have never known you.

Forgive us, God, in the name of your son Jesus. Create in us clean hearts, and renew a right spirit within us. [PAUSE]

And now, here is what I am moved to confess on our behalf today. 

We confess still, God, the sin of spiritual pride.

We have sometimes thought our speaking of the truth is a substitute for our own humble silence at your feet. We have ignored and wounded others with our many confident words, without letting your Spirit convict us and overwhelm us with love. God, we ask you to be the one to “guide us into all truth” and to “teach us how to love one another.”

Forgive us, God, in the name of your son Jesus. Create in us clean hearts, and renew a right spirit within us. [PAUSE]

We confess still, God, the sin of limiting how you want to work.

We have sometimes grieved the loss of our position of authority in the world as Christians, grieved our loss of privilege more than the wounds of the oppressed in our city and our world. We have forgotten your words that it is the weak and oppressed you go to be with, that you compelled your disciples to go to the highways and byways to bring all people to your feasting table. Help us worry less about what we have lost in our culture, and more about how you will heal the broken…including us.

Forgive us, God, in the name of your son Jesus. Create in us clean hearts, and renew a right spirit within us. [PAUSE]

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