|A reflection written by Matt DeBall, coordinator of Mission Advancement communications|
“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. . . . Then the Lord was jealous for his land and took pity on his people.” ~Joel 2:12-13, 18
Life can be a wonderful thing, filled with many blessings, but no matter who we are, how much we have, or where we come from, each of us will experience circumstances and seasons that will knock us down. Whether it be personal tragedies, health concerns, natural disasters, or events of trauma caused by other people, all of us will endure hardship in this life.
The prophet Joel was speaking to a remnant of Judah, who had seen the destruction of the northern kingdom and had endured much disaster and hardship of their own. Joel tells us they had experienced swarms of locust and famine or, at least, food scarcity (natural disaster) but also leaves the impression that they had endured repeated attacks from Assyria and other nations as well (human-inflicted turmoil). To say the least, their lives were completely altered and they were brought to a very lowly and destitute place.
Some of us have endured natural disasters, but we also think of our sisters and brothers in Puerto Rico who have faced hurricanes over the last few years and earthquakes more recently. Many of us have also experienced hardship or trauma because of the actions of others.
While hardship can befall us as the natural consequence of poor actions—the focus of some prophets in the Old Testament—Joel is not concerned with why the people were stricken with turmoil and oppression. (And, indeed, we know that “good” people don’t just receive “good” things and “bad” people, “bad” things.) Instead, Joel is asking, “What are you/we going to do now that hardship has happened?”
The response of God’s people is meant to be both personal and communal. There is great value in checking ourselves and recognizing, whether we are close to God or far away, that new forms of surrender are necessary to find healing after hardship. Following the Old Testament practice, Joel recommends not only rending clothes but rending hearts, first and foremost. It is as if he warns us, “Be careful that your outward expressions are in line with your inward experience. Change and surrender your hearts first.”
Once inward repentance and return have started, it is also important to embody surrender in a communal response. The healing and comfort of God is found in community.
In Lent, we choose personally to give up things that distract us from God. But the fast that Joel declares is for the community—from the youngest babe to the most aged elder. We can fast from gossip, contributing to harmful conflict, and trying to promote our own agendas at the expense of others. We can fast from jumping to conclusions about things we don’t know and instead ask questions of one another. When we give up these things, we surrender to God together and find healing.
In a very simple way, whenever we observe the Lord’s supper, we mourn the sinfulness in our lives and the brokenness in our world. We grieve what has been lost and declare hope in the all-encompassing redemptive work that Christ will accomplish when he returns.
On Ash Wednesday, we remember the impending tragedy that we will face death. Our observance of this day serves as a helpful reminder for all of us. When hardship befalls us, it is not an opportunity to be concerned with why something as happened, but rather to understand how our next steps will be of surrender to God. Whatever hardship we face, it is an opportunity to check ourselves and to declare a fast from all that distracts us from God and the mission God has for us.
When we pause to repent or return, we are greeted by a God who is gracious and compassionate, who is slow to anger and abounding in love. Whether we are in a season of blessing or hardship, may we find the comfort and the mercy that we need when we surrender to God.
What are you fasting from for Lent? How is your church taking extra measures to surrender to God in this season? We would love to hear how. Share with us at MA@brethren.org.
(Read this issue of eBrethren.)