A Matter of Heart

Martha C. Langford Third Presbyterian Church
February 22, 2012 Ash Wednesday


A good friend once asked me how I observed Lent. Given the depth of our friendship, I cheerfully replied that I usually observed Lent when I took laundry out of the dryer.

It seems there is observing and there is observing…

At risk of taking on the “word-girl” persona—the use of the verb observe interested me enough to look it up in the dictionary: Its origins rest in Latin and the Middle English of the 14th Century. To observe is:

  • To see, watch, perceive, or notice;
  • To regard with attention so as to see or learn something;
  • To watch, view, or note for scientific, official, or other purpose;
  • To state by way of comment or remark;
  • To keep or maintain in one’s action or conduct.

So in its fullest sense, observing has to do with sight and speech and action. So we might ask—as my friend once did—what shall we see and say and do during this Lenten Season?

What shall we see?

Lent is a penitential season—a time to repent as we anticipate God’s reign on earth. The prophet Joel sums up just such a season in God’s own words: “Return to me with all you heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God.”

Joel was speaking to a people who had forgotten the essence of the God they professed to worship and serve. They had forgone God’s justice, forgotten God’s holiness, and forsworn God’s allegiance by giving their hearts away to lesser gods.

Joel is calling the people to see, to remember, and to know the Almighty God of the Universe—and in seeing, remembering, and knowing to understand just how far their lives had strayed from the ways of their God.

So what shall we see?

In his book, To Know and Be Known, Parker Palmer talks about sight; about the understanding that we gain with our senses as we interact with our environment. He then talks about a second kind of sight—about the understanding we gain with our hearts when they are tuned to the reality of God. It is as if our senses, with which we observe the world, are one eye and the heart, with which we come to know God, is the second. Together this pair of eyes inform us not only of the physical reality of the world, but of its spiritual reality. It is—he posits—the only way to fully know the depth of the life that God sets before us.

What shall we see in this Lenten Season?

Let us see more of who God is and thereby discern more of God’s purpose for our lives. Let us understand the depth of God’s claim on us and thereby note the depth of our reliance on God. Let us be mindful of God’s holiness and steadfast love and therein see the ways that we have chased after lesser gods.

Let us see, so that we may rend our hearts and repent. Let us see, so that our hearts may be re-tuned to know more of God and of the spiritual reality of God’s presence in this world.

In this Lenten season, what shall we say?

In his book, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer asserts, that in being “silent before the Word,” (capital W) we learn to align our own speech to God’s will and the gift of his reconciliation.

Or as Myles Werntz puts it, “unless we learn how to be silent and how to attend to our own words and language, bringing ourselves in line with the witness of Scripture, the collective language of the church will become a vacuous blathering. On the other hand, when we are confronted by the reconciling and patient Word of God (capital W), we are invited to repent of the moments in which we have spoken loudly and wisely from our own self-centered perspectives… and to walk humbly with our God.”

What shall we say?

If we are guided by Bonhoeffer and Werntz, we will begin by saying nothing at all. We will speak no word (little w) until we have immersed ourselves in the depth of Scripture, until we have begun to perceive something of God’s Word, of our own need for repentance and God’s gift of reconciliation.

As part of our observance and in our silence, we might turn to Psalm 51—which we will sing during the imposition of ashes this evening. It is one of seven penitential psalms that have become deeply connected with the Lenten Season.

The psalmist speaks so eloquently of the pain of human sin and of our hunger for reconciliation with the God who can redeem our lives and our world from deepest darkness.

If we are vague about sin and penitence, this psalm is not. It is set against the backdrop of David and Bathsheba: a king whose desire led him to steal his neighbor’s wife. A king who—when faced with Bathsheba’s untimely pregnancy—began a hasty cover-up by summoning her husband Uriah home from war to hide the child’s paternity. Finally, he is a king who used his authority as commander of the armies to place Uriah in mortal danger once the cover-up failed.

That king was unrepentant—in fact had little understanding of his need to repent until the prophet Nathan exposed David’s actions to David’s own perception. As the psalmist begins, we hear the words of a king who finds himself enmeshed in his denial of God’s sovereign ways and aching to find reconciliation.

In this psalm, the language of repentance begins with the acknowledgment that no one is God but God alone. It speaks aloud the curse of human sinfulness, when we think and act as though our ultimate allegiance belonged to anyone or anything but our God.

The language of repentance continues with truth-telling, “Against you and you alone, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight…” and then it professes that only God has the power to overcome the tragedy that our sinfulness unleashes.

As we inhabit the psalm, perhaps we can gain the words to speak. Let us listen carefully, and only THEN…

Let us speak the language of penitence that begins, not with our sin, but with expressions of God’s mercy and steadfast love. Let us speak the language of penitence that does not command but willingly submits to God’s sustaining Spirit in hope of becoming fit witnesses to God’s deliverance. Let us speak the language of penitence that does not plead the case for self-control, but calls upon God to re-create our hearts.

Finally, in this Lenten season, what shall we do?

In a recent blog post, Landon Whitsitt, our General Assembly vice-moderator, explored his social media connections for answers to this question. He found Facebook posts, tweets, and blogs filled with typical responses—from “I’m gonna give up (fill in the blank)” to “Giving things up is ridiculous… This whole practice is just stupid.”

He writes that the responses “have very little to do with what God might be doing, but about something that I’m doing. Each of these responses betray a belief that I am the one in control, that I am the one, ultimately, who matters…”

He then quotes Richard Rohr,

“Resurrection takes care of itself. It’s getting people into tombs that’s hard. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, most contemporary people, both liberals and conservatives, abhor boundaries.”

He then wrote, “This realization was a hard truth for me, and so I have returned to the classic Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.” Landon encourages us to do the same.

So what shall we do?

The text from Matthew’s gospel both encourages and discourages certain types of observances. It encourages almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—really, it does! But it clarifies the heart of our observances—has us not only question what shall we do, but why we should do it.

If our motivation to practice almsgiving and prayer and fasting is the good impression that we will make on other people—the impression that we make becomes the goal AND the reward for our behavior.

Christ spoke of the ways that we can draw nearer to God. He calls us to lay aside the human need for recognition and really seek out the ways that our conduct can tune us in to the transcendent grace of our God.

Rodney Hunter explains, “Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the great trinity of spiritual disciplines, have in common the practice of detachment and saying no…” They are, he asserts, “a way of discovering anew that God is not simply an extension of ourselves or a means to our own ends.”

Through them, he continues, “we seek to experience and listen to God as God, and to be transformed from our self-centered, instrumental, manipulative, idolatrous religious existence to the true life of faith and genuine experience of God…”

What shall we do in this Lenten Season?

Let us pray—not with wordy, florid prayers—but with the simplicity of the Lord’s own prayer: Our father in heaven, your name is holy… Let us fast so that we might recognize with gratitude, God’s providential care for us as we take in our daily bread. Let us give alms for those in need—having found ourselves claimed by God’s love and called to share.

In the words of Jesus, let us “laying up treasures… in heaven” knowing that our hearts can be found where-ever our treasure resides.

So, what shall we see and say and do during this Lenten Season?

According to Joel, we rend our HEARTS and return to the Lord with new understanding—and we learn the spiritual reality of God presence in the world.

According to the psalmist, we plead for God to create in us clean HEARTS—and we speak truthfully of the power of God’s reconciliation.

According to the Christ, we invest ourselves in unobserved observances of prayer and fasting and caring—and connect our HEARTS to the very heart of God.

So if my friend should ask today, “How do you observe Lent?” I would gladly answer, “That, my friend, is a matter of heart.”

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