The U.S. Post Office announced last Wednesday that it will seek to stop Saturday delivery of letters, hoping to cut $2 billion from $15.9 billion in 2012 losses. Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe said, “Our financial condition is urgent. This is too big of a cost savings for us to ignore.” It’s a huge change that will take some getting used to.
On the same day, the Boy Scouts of America announced that it needed more time before deciding whether to move away from its long-standing exclusion of gays as scouts or leaders. The BSA was poised to recommend that sponsors of local troops decide for themselves on gay membership but backed down because of pressure from both conservatives and gay rights supporters. A decision was deferred until the BSA’s annual meeting in May.
Approximately 70% of all Boy Scout units are sponsored by churches. The United Methodist Church hosts more scout troops than any other religious group except The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After 103 years of scouting it would be an enormous change.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced in January that the Pentagon was lifting its ban on women in combat as long as they can pass the requirements. A poll released last Thursday by Quinnipiac University showed that 75% of voters support women being able to serve in ground units engaging in close combat. Nevertheless, it will be a significant change in the military culture of combat units.
Why all these changes? Because in our fast-paced world, if we don’t change we die. If we don’t keep moving forward, we fall behind. The good old days aren’t good enough anymore. If we don’t continually evaluate our values, practices, and systems and make appropriate changes, our minds become entrenched, and our procedures become obsolete or irrelevant. Most of all, our hearts can become hard.
Have you ever changed your heart? The phrase “change of heart” was first found in the 1828 edition of Webster’s Dictionary where it was defined as conversion, in either a theological or a moral sense, to a different frame of mind. If you look up “change of heart” in Webster’s online dictionary today, the current definition is “a reversal in position or attitude.”
In the 19th century, however, change of heart clearly referred to a religious conversion. Popular fiction even shortened the phrase simply to having “a change.” Gail Godwin, in her book, Heart; A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life, writes, “In revival language, religious converts were described as having ‘experienced a change.’” Usually, this kind of change was sudden.
The much beloved story of Scrooge’s conversion in Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel, A Christmas Carol, remains a classic example of an overnight change of heart. Saul’s conversion took place on the Damascus Road, when, in an instant, he went from one of the most feared persecutors of Christians to one of Christianity’s most effective evangelists.
Even John Wesley had a dramatic change of heart on May 24, 1738 when he went to a meeting on Aldersgate Street in London and wrote in his diary, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation. And an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Most changes of heart, however, are gradual, even imperceptible. We wake up one day and suddenly realize that we are not the same person we were last year, last month, or even last week. But we’re not sure how and when it happened.
Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, wrote an autobiography called Confessions, beginning it in 394 A.D. when he was 43 years old. It’s one of the finest documents in history about a change of heart. In the thirteen chapters of Confessions Augustine traces his progress from babyhood to a proud, ambitious young professor who enjoys the pleasures of the flesh. One of his more famous pre-conversion prayers was, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.” After a period of violent floundering and intense searching, Augustine’s heart changes, and he experiences a joyful conversion at age 33.
In the first paragraph of the first book Augustine writes, “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Augustine uses the Latin inquietus (unquiet, restless) to describe the unstable condition of the human heart, a restless yearning for wholeness that eventually moves us toward God. Augustine’s premise is that we may be doing all the right things, or we may be doing none of the right things, and we can still be restless. Outwardly we may be fine, upstanding people, or we may be wreaking all kinds of havoc, but our hearts can still be far, far away from God. All hearts are restless; all hearts are unquiet until they rest in God.
Ash Wednesday is two days away. Through the symbolism of ashes the first day of Lent asks us to confront our own mortality at the same time as we are called to confess our sin before God and change our heart. The beginning of repentance is always changing our heart, which is precisely what the Greek word for repentance means, metanoia.
Have you noticed that each lectionary scripture for Ash Wednesday refers to the heart?
- “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.” Joel 2:12-13
- “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10
- “We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you… In return – I speak as to children – open wide your hearts also.” 2 Corinthians 6:11, 13
- “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:21
The ashes of Ash Wednesday invite us to move from the outward sign of repentance on our forehead to the inward cleansing of our heart through grace. It’s a strange and disquieting warming that convicts and encourages as we venture into deeper waters than the sentimental romanticism of Valentine’s Day.
Ultimately, it’s the heart that matters. We may seem to others to be doing and saying all the right things, but until our heart is right with God, we cannot be the whole people God has called us to be. The key is the changed heart. In Gail Godwin’s book she asks some friends around the dinner table what change of heart means to them. A country doctor sums it up best, “It’s a phrase we use when we don’t feel the same anymore.”
The change of heart is God’s work as much as our own. It’s called grace. God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel (36:26), “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” God is just waiting to give us a new heart through Jesus Christ. All we have to do is say yes.
Can we trust the changed heart? I believe we can. Most of the time the changed heart lasts, but sometimes it doesn’t. As John Wesley would remind us, we are all capable of backsliding. At the same time I am a firm believer in the changed heart. I’ve seen it happen. I am convinced of God’s desire and our human capacity to change our hearts, so I’m willing to give people second chances, third chances, and even fourth chances. I don’t give up easily.
I admit that at times I have been taken advantage of. I’ve been conned, and I’ve been fooled. Some people say I’m too soft. But my heart tells me that the church is a place where we must offer grace and the hope of transformation. The secular world doesn’t often give a chance to people who have a criminal record, are ex-convicts, have wrestled with substance abuse problems, or have a mental illness. But the church opens its heart as well as its doors. The church is in the business of changing lives and hearts, and I’d much rather that our churches be known for showing too much grace than showing too little grace.
Change will keep pounding the shores of our world, wave after wave of opportunity to embrace the restlessness of the heart. When our heart beats with God’s heart and the heart of our world, all of the other external changes will take care of themselves, even no mail on Saturdays, a possible new day for the Boy Scouts, or women fighting alongside men in combat. We’ll be more open to surprise, more willing to dialogue with those who disagree, more intent on seeking God’s will, and more passionate about doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.
When is the last time you had a heart check-up? Is your church a saving station where it’s safe to respond to the disquietude in our heart by “experiencing a change”? Is your faith community a lighthouse where God creates a clean heart in us so that we can pass on light to others? Is your congregation a beehive of both restlessness and discernment where having a good heart is more important than following correct rules? Most of all, is your heart a cauldron of change where it’s okay not to feel the same anymore?
Ashes. Ashes. We all change our hearts.