Breaking Up On Purpose

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Image Source: Spectator Health, UK.

One of my middle school friends was broken up with today. He is a basketball star, she is one of the cool kids. After a couple weeks of dating that consisted of little more than sitting together at lunch and texting after school, he was convinced she was the love of his life.

He loved her with his whole 14 year old heart.

Now, you and I know better. We know this was infatuation. We who have the wisdom of years know that love is more than butterflies and more than the excitement of reciprocated attraction.

But the pain my friend is feeling is real. Even though this was not a deep, committed love, his heart is breaking for the loss of relationship. It stings.

And this sting of the heart is the invitation in season of Lent. We are invited to let it hurt.

On purpose and for good cause.

Lent often begins with a call from the prophet Joel:

Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your hearts,
with fasting, with weeping, and with sorrow;
tear your hearts
and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is merciful and compassionate,
very patient, full of faithful love,
and ready to forgive. Joel 2:12-13

Those of us who are human have a tendency to get our hearts caught up in things that are not full of love. Not real love. At least not the faithful love of God.

We are captivated by cute and shiny things, much like middle schoolers. We are enamored with mutual attraction. We like being liked. The butterflies, the status it brings, the fun of young love infatuation.

Unfortunately, these infatuations are not as innocent as they were in middle school. They distance us from God and God’s desires for us. They cheapen our commitments to each other. They fill us with empty things. They call for our allegiance. They distract. They numb. They consume. They block out any conviction that might otherwise call us back to the right path. 

They tell us we are loved and they ask for our whole hearts. The first part is a lie and the second is a death sentence.

What starts out as a fleeting middle school romance quickly turns into full fledged idolatry and adultery. What seemed fun and harmless becomes the thing that destroys our faith, our witness, our church, and/or those we most care about.

And so in Lent we take the time to ensure this is not happening to us. We do the hard work of breaking our own hearts. Of examining where and to what we give our attention. We break up with our crushes even when our crushes look like everything we’ve been searching for. Even when it hurts.

More than just ripping our clothes (an ancient act of sorrow) or going to a worship gathering or saying “I’m sorry” or jumping through the next hoop, we rend and rip our hearts. We get in there where it stings and we let it make us uncomfortable.

We let it sting believing that the sting teaches us. It reminds that these things (whether good or bad) can distract us. It reminds us that they are not truly life giving. It reminds us that God alone is worthy of our whole hearts and allegiance. And it helps us remember just how much work we still need.

Perhaps it is people’s opinions that easily catch our attention. Or maybe its the pursuit of endless pleasure that draws our eye. For many of us it is the allure of power and control. For many it is our allegiance to partisanship that is standing in the way of faithful love.

It can be something as simple as Facebook and as complex as our core identity. Some of these things are new and some of them have been making their way into our hearts for years and years.

The invitation from God for us this day is to, “Return to me with all your hearts.”

The way to ensure we are doing this is to put an end to these other relationships. To break up with (even temporarily) whatever may be in the way of what God wants to do with and through and for us. One typical way to do this is through prayer and fasting. 

Perhaps you and I should abstain from social media for a while. Or political news. Perhaps we could channel the energy we put into politics towards our faith or our family. Maybe we take a break from food or drink, especially when we reach for these things in times of trouble. Maybe its a person. Or a bad habit. Maybe its a break from television that numbs us to death. Or perhaps there is something new we should begin or return to (perhaps a commitment to a faith community) that can help us align our hearts with God.

Whatever it is, however good or bad it may be, we have to put in the work. We need Lent because it is too easy to sit idly assuming that everything we do and and are attracted to is good and godly when there is ample evidence in human history and our very lives that demonstrates this is probably not the case. We need work. Lent is an invitation to allow God to do that work in and alongside of us.

Even when it stings. Perhaps especially when it stings.

My friend will be fine when he realizes this girl wasn’t really the love of his life. Though he hurts today he will be better sooner rather than later. One day he may think how fortunate he is to have not wasted time and energy in this relationship.

May it be so in us as well.

May we have the courage to break our own hearts for the sake of our faith. May we be willing to sit in the sting of heartache long enough to know where true love is found. And may the pain and anguish of a break up turn us back to the God who “heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds.” May we find life in response to the death of our middle school crushes.

 

Have Mercy On Me, a Sinner

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What we think of ourselves says a lot about how we approach God and how we treat others. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus uses a story of two men at the Temple praying in order to teach us a thing or two along those lines.

One of the men is a Pharisee. He is devout and schooled in theology. He knows the Scriptures in and out. He has mastered the disciplines of his faith. He knows he is good.

His prayer is a picture of self-righteousness, “Thank God I’m not like everyone else.”

The other man is a tax collector. He is considered a traitor to his people and his faith. He gets rich working for the bad guys while lining his pockets with the neighborhood’s money. He is despised. He knows he is broken.

He prays from a place of humility and contriteness, “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Jesus explains it is this man, not the “good” one, who leaves the Temple right with God.

Now sometimes us church folk fall into the category of Pharisee. We start thinking we are better or more holy than others because we do the right things or avoid the wrong ones or at least don’t do them as much as other people. The problem with the Pharisee’s prayer is not that it isn’t true, but that it is built on what he has done and dripping with pride.

This mindset is graceless. Here being right with God is about behavior modification. Here we forget we need God just as much today as we did at our lowest point. And here we become hypocritical judges in our assessment of everyone else. We reassure ourselves of just how good we are and miss out on God’s work in our lives and transformational relationships with people around us.

This is a dangerous place to live.

There is another mindset that isn’t mentioned in the parable but is prevalent in our culture. Sometimes we model a similar prayer, “Thank God I am just like everyone else.”

Here we aren’t bothered by our brokenness, we are just glad we aren’t the only ones experiencing it. We excuse our behavior/thoughts/attitudes because everyone else seems to be on the same page and, hey, we’re just human after all. Here the idea isn’t to elevate ourselves over tax collectors, but to lower the bar for what is required of us.

We like being broken, so we don’t change. We rest in the comfort of knowing there are other broken people, so we don’t want to see them change.  We enjoy our sin. Or perhaps its too hard to resist so we’ll just stay right where we are.

This too is a dangerous place to be. Here we find cheap grace. Cheap grace is as useless as no grace.

The only proper approach is that of that tax collector. It is here we realize how much work needs to be done in us. That scandalous sinner or pious preacher, I need God. It is here we see regardless of how good or bad our behavior is we must have mercy.

Change without mercy is fine, but cannot save anyone. Mercy without change is easy, but meaningless. Mercy, when experienced with a humble heart, has the power to bring about change in us.

This is the mindset the Church is to have: acknowledging our need of mercy and allowing mercy to transform us.

That means more than mouthing these words in prayer, but allowing this understanding to shape us through and through. We are to embody this concept in attitude and action. It should guide the way we take inventory of our hearts. It should affect the way we approach our neighbors and our God.

O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

May these words be on our lips and in our heart. May we pray them and live them. May we be humble and contrite. And may we find the mercy we so desperately need.

The Politics of Palm Sunday

The masses were in a near frenzy on what would become known as Palm Sunday.

After centuries of oppression, abuse, displacement, corruption, and disgrace, they were finally hopeful. After being forced to pay taxes to pagan Caesar and shuffling past Roman guards on the way to the Temple, they were angry. After watching friends and neighbors turn their backs on the nation and their faith in pursuit of a buck or some political position, they were fed up.

On that Sunday the stories of a coming savior swept through the crowd. Could this finally be the promised one? Could he overthrow the bad guys? Could he restore our nation?

The people lined the streets as Jesus came in. They waved palm leaves, a symbol of military victory. They laid their cloaks on the ground and cheered. Longing for liberation, they threw him a conqueror’s parade in anticipation of what was to come. The people stood and shouted “Hosanna!” which means “Save us now!”

The crowds were ready, but they were ready for all the wrong things. They were ready for war and political gain. Ready for revenge. Ready to expel their enemies. They were ready for power. Wealth. Vindication.

But they weren’t ready for Jesus. Six short days later they would move from “Hosanna! Save us now!” to “Crucify him!” Jesus wasn’t the savior they were looking for after all.

Sometimes I wonder if we have failed to learn the lesson here. We seem to want the same things the crowd wanted. We still want a savior that looks more like Caesar than Jesus. We want strength and might. We want power and prosperity. We want the bad guys to pay. We have a thirst for political and cultural significance.

And, like them, I’m not sure we are ready for Jesus. We aren’t ready for his command to love our enemies. We aren’t ready to welcome the stranger. We aren’t ready to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, or give to those who accuse us.

Too often we prefer stallions to donkeys, vengeance to mercy, power to servanthood. We applaud brashness and ego, while ignoring meekness and humility. We think it soft not to return evil for evil. And loving our neighbor as ourselves isn’t really the American dream so we focus on what is in it for us.

We, like those crowded on the street that day, are looking for the wrong kind of king and the wrong kind of kingdom.

Jesus isn’t interested in making Judea great again. His platform is not based popular opinion or national security. He is interested in a world that looks a whole lot different than one we see before us now.

A world where lions and lambs lay down together. Where swords are beaten into plow blades. He desires a world that isn’t divided by geography or nationality or culture. A world full of justice and peace. A world without selfishness.

It is a different kind of Kingdom led by a different kind of King. A King who lays down his life for his enemies. A King who carries our shame and guilt, our destruction and our death. A King who doesn’t do it for votes or donations or favors, but out of love and grace and selflessness.

This is a King who doodles in the sand rather than draw lines in it. He rejects “us and them” thinking. This is a King who is attracted to the lowlifes, the tarnished, the untouchable. He didn’t have the best of anything because he gave up his privilege and comfort. This is a King who lays down his rights, not demands them.

I’m not sure we are ready for a King like that. Because this King asks us, repeatedly, to follow his example. To have a King like that means letting go of all the things we naturally find ourselves fighting for. It means swearing allegiance to something broader than national boundaries and political parties. It means saying “no” to ourselves and being willing to forsake our own privilege and comfort and rights.

And it’s a hard sell. It doesn’t drive the masses into a tizzy. No one is outside hawking t-shirts and ball caps. There isn’t 24/7 news coverage. This kind of campaign seldom gets a parade or endorsements from movers and shakers. And yet it is exactly the kind of campaign we need.

May we remember that the crowds missed it that day. May we remember that their desire to have things set right looked a whole lot different than what God had in mind. May we not get caught up in the wrong things: anger, bitterness, division, violence, and a quest for power.

And may we not miss the man on the donkey who came to save the world from the very things we are chasing after.

Hosanna. Save us now, indeed.