“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested and tried me, though for forty years they saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.’ So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ” Hebrews 3:7-11; Psalm 95:7-11
As it turns out, hard hearts come in a pretty large variety of shapes and forms…even among church leaders. It is rarely as overt as Israel’s rebellion at Meribah. More often, it is a mild arrogance or self-reliance or pride at the heart of our hard-heartedness. So, as I study the above passage, I am reflecting on some of the less obvious (but more common) ways I have seen leaders “harden their hearts”…including me and my own heart.
Hardening our hearts to the power of God’s Word. Every time we catch ourselves thinking, “what this text needs is a little more of me…a little of my flash and polish will go a long way in helping it hit home in this sermon…” our faith in the power of God’s Word diminishes just a little more. Every time we receive a compliment for a lesson well-taught and we fail to acknowledge that it was God’s Word and not our communication skills that caused the real transformation, we steal God’s glory, and our heart hardens just a little more to the miracle of His living word.
Hardening our hearts to the power of prayer. When the priority we give gathered prayer meetings falls somewhere between repairing the hems of the …
…and I bowed down and worshiped the Lord. I praised the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me on the right road to get the granddaughter of my master’s brother for his son. Genesis 24:48
Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest. Hebrews 3:1
For pilots, learning to fly by instruments is an important skill. It is what a pilot must do when all the other more conventional ways of “getting your bearings” fall by the wayside. When darkness and weather and confusion and chaos make it difficult to figure out which way is up and which way is down, all a pilot has left is the cockpit instruments.
I was reminded of that when I found myself preparing a lesson from the story of Isaac and Rebekah. It is a story chock full of ancient culture about betrothal and marriage and what seems to our modern world to be a horribly flawed and archaic and unromantic matrimonial system. At first glance, it is not an easy task pulling relevant truths out of this story…truths which we can apply to our lives today. It would be easy to read this unusual story about marriage and lose your bearings trying to find a lesson.
For example, Abraham sent his servant off to a faraway land to find a wife for his (Abraham’s) son. O.K., not gonna learn from that…for so many reasons. The servant chose a blood cousin of the groom to be the bride…this would become a pattern for this family. Not gonna use that lesson either. The bride’s family blessed her, saying, “May your offspring possess the cities of their enemies!” Um…no. Then there is …
“Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.” Hebrews 3:1
I have been blessed with only a limited amount of genuine grieving in my life. Frankly, I’ve done a whole lot more consoling of others than I have needed consoling myself. But you don’t have to be an expert on grief to know that it has a profound effect on our ability to see truth. In fact, a part of the healing process is learning to look through the pain to some larger truth which, difficult as it may be to grasp in spite of the pain, still has a way of guiding us.
But did you know that the grief process is not reserved only for individuals? Churches grieve also. They grieve the loss of a much-loved leader, the loss of a ministry or program, the loss of a “way of doing things”, the loss of unity…all of these can cause a type of grieving process for a church. And like the grieving process for an individual, a church’s grief can be unpredictable and unrelenting. It can last a few days or a few years, perhaps even an entire generation. It can cause the church to do and say things it doesn’t mean to do and say. But most of all, just like the grief process for anyone else, it is painful…unbearably so.
Moreover, grief has a way of disorienting us, both as individuals and as congregations. It turns up into down and right into left. It leaves us not even knowing which way to look for direction. It is chaotic and complex and confounding.
So, it is in the pain of real grief where we are often left with little orientation …