“…rend your heart and not your clothing…”
At the beginning of Lent, the prophet calls us to repentance. But it is of a particular kind. Joel makes it clear to us three different times in today’s scripture lesson that the evidence of change the Lord seeks is different than the normal practices of penance.
Typically, when confronted with having lived a life that ran counter to God’s intentions, the people would go to the Temple, fast, and pray in torn clothing, It was a public display, but in that day (as in this one) it was easy to allow the display to be nothing more. The movements to this play were something that could be performed without much investment. The prayers are there to be said, so say them. The food is there to be abstained from, so abstain from it. The clothes are there to be torn, so tear them. Don’t make a big deal out of it; it is not a big deal.
But God wants it to be a big deal. Joel quotes the Lord as desiring that the people return with their “whole hearts.” In the ancient Hebrew imagination, the heart was considered the seat of the intellect. To “rend your hearts” is to change your mind. It is the same instruction that Peter gives to the crowd after his sermon in Acts. “Change you minds,” he says. “Metanoia. Rend your hearts.”
As pastors, we are guilty of “rending our clothing” all the time. When asked how we plan to take care of ourselves in the stress of the job, we rattle off pithy little truisms like “take a walk,” or “read.” We present these as Just The Right Thing, and people leave us alone. But as we continue to live a life in which we are stretched and stressed, overworked and under-cared for, taking a walk is not good enough. It is just one of several coping mechanisms, not a solution to the real issue: we have a wrong understanding of the work we have been called to do.
Edwin Friedman is right when he says that the best thing a person can bring to any situation is her own changed self. Now is no longer the time for you to rend your clothing. Now is the time for you to do the hard work of confronting the game you have been playing and begin changing your mind about the work of ministry. You can no longer do it all and expect a quick little walk in the woods to sustain you. The game has to change. You have to change.
How do you give into the game?