Return to Me with All Your Heart

By Bishop Brian Maas

“return to me with all your heart…”

This phrase will be familiar to many as a portion of the Ash Wednesday worship text from the book of the prophet Joel. The prophet warns of disaster already befalling God’s people, but of the possibility that “even now,” in the very face of utter destruction, God is waiting for the people to turn around from all the wrong-headed, selfish, unjust pursuits they’ve been engaged in, so that God can save them, comfort them, bless them anew.

Of course this is an appropriate text for Ash Wednesday, when many of us begin to prepare for the drama of Holy Week and the power of Easter by changing our behaviors—giving up unhealthy habits, or adding in healthy ones, or both. But it’s a phrase I’m beginning to think we should post over the doorways of our sanctuaries and at the top of every church council agenda and newsletter calendar in our church. We all need to return, to turn around, literally to repent.

And we need to do that turning around with all of our hearts, and minds and souls; with all of our calendars and agendas and worship services. It’s pretty clear the church—not just our synod or our denomination but the entire church in North America—has been veering into challenging times and declining fortunes for some time now. For two generations, we in the church have seen trouble coming and have been trying to alter course.

Yet clearly, as one of my favorite movie characters says, “it ain’t a-workin’.” I am increasingly convinced it’s precisely because we’ve been trying just to alter course—to adjust a little here, make a slow turn there, tweak just a bit and modify a little bit more. Joel’s contemporaries had been doing that for some time, but that just meant they were heading into disaster from a little different angle; they were still headed for disaster. Only a complete turnaround—of the whole heart, mind, and soul—would let God’s people avert disaster. Only turning completely away from the course they set and returning to God’s longing, waiting embrace would offer any hope of being spared a bitter end.

I’m no Joel, I’m not a prophet. I’m just a guy in the church, who loves the church, who is also fully human. A guy who can rationalize himself into a corner in an instant, justifying a poor choice here, short-cutting a decision there, making an exception without batting an eye…. And I think this is how we got here as a church. We know we need to change, but we don’t want it to be difficult. We don’t want to upset anyone. We don’t want to disturb the peace or disrupt the familiar. But as is clearer every day, that way lies destruction.

It’s time. It’s time to return to God with all our heart, mind, and soul. It’s time to remember that Jesus doesn’t call us to the couch, but to the cross; not to mere membership but to deep discipleship. It will be disruptive to challenge ourselves to articulate our congregation’s (and synod’s and denomination’s) mission clearly—and far more so to pursue it without reservation, without compromise, without accommodation. But anything less will be half-hearted. Anything less will only change the angle of our path to disaster.

But a whole-hearted turn, a re-turn to God, is another matter--especially when we share with others, when we remember ourselves, that such a turn to God is not at all about escaping disaster, but about finding our way back to a God whose love knows no end, whose grace is sufficient to welcome all, whose intention for each of us is so much more than mere existence, but life. Abundant life.

This is the Gospel of Grace that is our heritage, our hope, our God-given gift for the world. A gift too few are hearing. Or believing.

We are loved with all of God’s heart. It’s time to turn to that love. With all our hearts.


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