The Undivided Heart

Original art by Sam Weidlich (www.samweidlich.com)

By Carolyn Moore –

Most anyone who has ever held a part-time position in a church will be the first to tell you there is really no such thing as “part-time” in church work. “Part-time” is a carrot they dangle so they can get you on the payroll and soak up every minute of you, but maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. This work, however, is not meant to be carried out with our leftover time or leftover money. Jesus never gave us that option. He calls those who follow earnestly to take up crosses, die to self, leave it all on the table. We are even told that those who preach and teach are held to a higher standard. “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers,” James warns, “because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).

If the only option open to us is wholeheartedness – being wholly devoted to God and his work – then how do we know we have it? What is the litmus test for wholeheartedness? What spiritual work must we tackle before we can give ourselves completely to this vocation of serving Jesus? We know from both Scripture and experience that it isn’t our skill set that gets us there, nor is it our awesome connections or superior ability to do everything just right. This business of wholeheartedness is a spiritual operation. It is what it says it is: heart-level wholeness.

What does it mean to become whole, by biblical standards? Surely it begins with Paul’s advice to work out your own salvation daily with fear and trembling. Stay in it, Paul advises, and wrestle with what it looks like in your life. Let the daily wrestling expose the cracks and wounds. Deal with the unholy fears that paralyze you, leaving you stranded out there in the desert, unable to make the journey into the promises of God. Acknowledge your doubts, and dare to believe God can handle them. To become wholehearted, we must deal with our wounds and hesitations, fears and doubts, even as we develop eyes to see what God sees.

When I was a little girl, I often had nightmares. I’d wake up petrified and run for my parents’ room. I wanted my mother’s comfort. But it was dark, and things in the dark look ominous. If there was anything on the floor of their bedroom – clothes, bedroom shoes, anything that could be misinterpreted in the dark – I’d end up standing paralyzed in the doorway, just feet from their bed, unable to reach my mom for fear of what that thing on the floor might be. I always assumed the worst.

Carry the remnants of those early fears into adulthood and they begin to look remarkably familiar to many of us. We allow all kinds of things to generate fear within, to stand between us and the comfort we so desperately need. We become afraid of getting too close to others, afraid of losing control, afraid of going too far with God, maybe even afraid of succeeding (too much pressure!). We can become paralyzed by irrational fears. The writer of Leviticus has our number. He describes a conversation between God and his people. If the Israelites continue to disobey, their land will be devastated and the people will be scattered. “And for those of you who survive, I will demoralize you in the land of your enemies. You will live in such fear that the sound of a leaf driven by the wind will send you fleeing. You will run as though fleeing from a sword, and you will fall even when no one pursues you. Though no one is chasing you, you will stumble over each other as though fleeing from a sword. You will have no power to stand up against your enemies” (Leviticus 26:36-37 NLT).

Paralyzing fear takes away our power to fight the enemy. We become reactionary and prone toward survival-level decisions. Fear makes for terrible career choices. What spiritual work do you need to do in order to admit to and deal with the irrational and self-limiting fears in your life? Are you resolved to do that healing work? Resolved does not mean “only if it gets out of control” or “until something better comes along.” Resolved means surrendered, submitted, committed, sacrificially obedient. Being resolved to devote myself wholly to God means going after wholeness in my life, no matter the cost.

Too much of our conversation in The United Methodist Church is driven by fear. For decades, fear has kept us from talking lovingly and honestly about our differences. Fear is keeping congregations from frank discussions about our current crisis. Fear has kept us in a defensive crouch. Fear has kept us from acknowledging the depth of our divide. We have wanted to characterize it as a simple paper cut when it is in fact a gaping wound breeding infection. By minimizing the differences, we may stifle a crisis that is actually our opportunity – if we’re bold enough to accept change as a good thing – to give clearly unique theological positions a chance to live with more integrity and to prove themselves by their fruit.

I hear echoes of angels in this moment before us, encouraging, “Be not afraid.” Meanwhile, we shrink back, for fear of what we might lose if we act boldly.

Fear is the great enemy of wholeheartedness.

Two years after the Israelites were delivered from their five hundred years of oppressive slavery in Egypt, they found themselves standing on the brink of the land God promised them. To get to this place, they had seen waters part and enemies drown. Yahweh was intimately involved with their lives. They knew him. They followed him. And just two short years after packing up and moving out of bondage, there they stood on the brink of God’s best. Yes, there were vicious armies and untamed wilds on the other side of that border, but they had the smoke and fire of God blazing their trail.

Then it happened. Human nature kicked in.

They became more cautious than optimistic. There at the edge of God’s plan, they sent a dozen spies into that question mark of a promise to check things out. Ten returning spies slinked back with a warning: “Don’t do it! It is great real estate, but the people are giants. We will all die if we go over there.” The majority report was full of fear and trepidation.

The other two spies – young men named Joshua and Caleb – looked on that land and saw a future with hope. For them, the land was more possibility than problems. “I think we should do this,” they challenged. “This is God’s land and God’s fight. Let God defend us!”

The people did what people mostly do. They allowed the voice of fear to drown out the voice of potential and it cost them dearly.

That day, God turned them back from the border of promise. He sent them out into the wilderness again where he promptly vowed that not one of their generation would see the land flowing with milk and honey. Fear would not be woven into the DNA of his chosen people, not if God had anything to do with it.

So the people got in the wilderness what they were most afraid of getting in the promised land. They were destroyed by their own choice. For thirty-eight years they wandered like dead men walking before another generation found itself toe-to-toe with God’s purposes.

I wonder if most of that first generation even knew how close they were to greatness? I wonder if, way down the road, some of them sat around campfires and wondered aloud, “What do you suppose would have become of us if we had listened to Joshua and Caleb? How do you suppose it would have turned out?” Did they even stop to think about it as they poked their fires or packed up their tents yet again or held their cups beneath water flowing from rocks?

Did they think that deeply? Did they assume, like most people, that what they had twenty or thirty years out from that decision was all there was? Did they ever stop to imagine more than mediocrity punctuated by death? Or did they simply go about their lives, making grocery lists, making beds, making a living, making do?

I wonder, but I can’t judge. After all, I am an Israelite myself. I peek over into spiritual promises and my little internal band of spies reports back, “That’ll never work for you,” and far too often I listen to those voices of fear or laziness or institutional caution and I miss out.

Who knows how long I’ve wandered, unaware of the promises I’ve turned down, while God in his mercy determines to kill off all in me that reeks of fear?

Who knows how long our denomination as a whole will wander, while God in his mercy determines to kill off all in us that reeks of fear? What if, even now, we are wandering in a desert of our own making, unable to imagine more than mediocrity punctuated by death? Friends, fear is a killer. It kills spirits and can even thwart great moves of God. I hope we are not hanging on to an institution simply because we are afraid of stepping into God’s vision for us.

Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly? Not half-heartedly. Not with your spare change and spare time. Not only as far as your comforts will take you. Not fearfully, but wholly to God and God’s work? In your study and worship and fellowship and serving and in the truth you share, be passionately committed to the pursuit of wholeness so you can be in passionate pursuit of the presence of Christ. Without that kind of vulnerable, wholehearted faith it is impossible to please God.

Carolyn Moore is a United Methodist clergywoman, writer, and pastor of Mosaic UM Church in Evans, Georgia. She is the author of several books. This essay is excerpted from The 19: Questions to Kindle a Wesleyan Spirit (Abingdon Press, 2018). Used by permission. 

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