Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday: Outward Sign, Inward Grace

Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance for many Christians throughout the world, including Anglicans, some Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians. It marks the beginning of Lent, a forty-day period of prayer and fasting in preparation for Good Friday and Easter.

Whether or not we receive the outward sign of repentance on this day – the ashes – we are all called to inner repentance of the heart. Whether or not we fast from certain foods, or spend certain days without food at all, we are called to examine our hearts and confess our sins with faith in Christ. Whatever we practice outwardly to show our faith, God wants us to draw near to him with our hearts.

Making a public sign of our faith carries with it a certain obligation. I’ve seen many cars on the highway over the years with bumper stickers that proclaim the owner’s faith. If my car sported a bumper sticker like that, I’d want to make very sure my driving was a good example to others. Likewise, receiving ashes is a very public display of faith and repentance. It carries with it the obligation to match that outward display with inner repentance.

The Lord said through the prophet Joel, “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate.” (Joel 2:13) In the ancient world, tearing the garments was another sign of repentance or grief. The Lord is more interested in the condition of our heart. It is from our heart that our thoughts, words, and behaviors flow. When the heart is right with God, everything else falls into place.

Fasting can also be an outward sign of sorrow for sin and a desire to repent. Jesus taught us that when we fast we should do so quietly, in a manner that doesn’t draw attention. Those who eat together as a family or in a common dining hall, however, can hardly hide the fact that they are skipping a meal, or perhaps not eating meat that day. So fasting, while very personal, also becomes an outward sign, and carries with it the obligation of an inward reality.

In the time of Isaiah the Lord spoke to the Israelites and chided them for fasting and yet forsaking his commands. They gave every appearance of seeking God, while at the same time exploiting their workers, quarreling and fighting, accusing each other, and speaking unkindly of others. In God’s eyes, this made their fasting meaningless. He said,

" Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? (Isaiah 58:5 NIV)

When our hearts are right with God, our actions toward others will be right, as well. When we truly know God’s Son, Jesus, by faith, we begin to live out his life in the world. God wants true repentance of the heart that leads to real changes in the way we live. When our hearts are transformed by God's Spirit, we bear the fruit of love, and that flows forth in compassion. That means treating others the way we would like to be treated, living generous, compassionate lives. It means sharing our wealth with others instead of exploiting them. It means seeking peace rather than doing violence. It means using the gift of speech not to accuse, criticize, and judge, but to encourage and build up one another. These are the fruits of a changed heart, and that is what God desires.

The Lord promised his people through Isaiah that if they did these things,

“Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” (Isaiah 58:9-11 NIV)

However you express your faith in Christ today, I pray that he will grant each of us the grace of true repentance of the heart. For,

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9 NIV)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Alone with Jesus

“After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone.”

“I can’t be in two places at one time!” This is the lament of many a leader. We want to be there for the people in our lives, and at the same time we have physical limitations. We want to impact people by being personally involved in so many ministries, and still we have only so much time and energy. We look for ways to maximize and multiply our influence given that we can only be in one place at one time. Our high-tech world provides some wonderful opportunities (like blogging) to broaden our reach. These new technologies have not and cannot replace, however the most important and effective way that we multiply our influence. It is the way Jesus chose.

Jesus, in his incarnation, could minister to only so many people at one time, as well. He took on our physical limitations. While he traveled throughout the land and ministered to many large crowds, he also chose twelve who would be his closest disciples. He allowed them to share in his ministry, training them to do the works he did. Through them he would multiply his presence in the world. He knew that if he could impact a few people in a great way, they in turn would impact a few more, who would impact still more. We see how quickly this plan worked on and after the day of Pentecost.

In Mark 9:2, we find Jesus with only Peter, James, and John. He took these followers who were closest to him, a small, intimate group, away from the rest of the twelve. He took them away from the many other followers who gathered to hear him daily, and away from the press of the crowds who brought their sick to be healed. He brought them, for a brief time, away from the world.

This has important application for leaders and for every follower of Christ. As leaders, we can give ourselves permission to focus our discipleship efforts on a few who are most eager to learn and feel called to service. This doesn’t necessarily mean a new class or program for disciples; we can simply include them intentionally in the things we’re already doing, helping them become involved in whatever ways they can. The most important thing is that we take the time to involve them in our lives and our ministries, so that they can experience what God is doing in and through us. Rather than a formal classroom setting, the extra discipleship time we take will probably be informal, one-on-one or in small conversation groups, working through tough questions with these eager learners. As they grow, they will do many of the things we are doing, and through them we can effectively multiply our impact for Christ on the world.

Jesus’ choice to come apart with a few also has application for every disciple. Regular time alone with the Lord is vital to our spiritual growth. While a daily, brief quiet time can help maintain our relationship with Christ, we can also benefit from larger blocks of time to come apart and be alone with him. If you want to know Jesus more fully, to learn of him more deeply, come apart with him alone for a longer time. "Alone" could be a personal retreat day, or it could be a weekend away with Christian friends focused on prayer and the word. Even an hour sitting beside a quiet stream in the Word and prayer, thinking about Jesus and your relationship with him, can be a small retreat in itself. These are refreshing, spiritually revitalizing, and inspiring times that equip us for our daily lives in the world. They help prepare us, as well, to have a positive spiritual impact on others.

This week, when will you set aside time to be alone with God? Is there another Christian, eager to learn, with whom you can share your walk?