We have not loved you with our whole heart…
-from the Confession
Purity of heart is to will one thing.
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved I do not consider that I have made it my own but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Create in me a clean heart
I’ve been blessed over the years, in service in churches, to follow clergy who provided great foundation for work I felt called to do. Even after they left, they continued to be my teachers. There was always the challenge of big shoes to fill, but always a gift to follow folks who knew what they were doing. At the church where I served in the diocese of Chicago, I followed two folks who went on to be bishops (bless their hearts). Two fine people. Two faithful priests. Two gifted leaders.
George Councell went on to be Bishop of New Jersey. He left a great legacy, including this wonderful line applied when he was raising money for a new neighboring Hispanic community. He told the congregation; “The good news is we have the money. The bad news is, it’s still in your pockets.” He knew the tensions we all live with, God and mammon tugging at us. I’ve used that line shamelessly. Feel free to borrow it if you need it.
Alan Gates followed George, and went on to become Bishop of Massachusetts. He left this bit of teaching, passed on by many in the congregation. He repeatedly told groups: “I never met a motive that wasn’t mixed.” I’ve used that shamelessly as well, not only in official capacity but in reflection on my own spiritual journey.
I thought of mixed motive when I recently read Psalm 51, which we’ll hear in a couple weeks as part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. The verse that struck me and prompted me to remember Alan Gates’ line comes from that psalm: Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.
That psalm is by tradition attributed to King David, simultaneously faithful king and sketchy creep. He’s not alone in scripture in that complex portrait. Abraham and Sarah, parents of faith, had shining moments of faithfulness but also engaged in duplicitous motives less than pure. St. Paul wrote letters speaking of his own embrace of grace. But if you read between the lines, it’s hard not to get the impression that he thought he was something kind of special. Jesus spoke to Pharisees and said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” For me, one of the most stirring biblical examples of this dynamic is the nameless man described in the gospels (see Mark 9) whose son is in need of Jesus’ healing power. Jesus asks if the man believes. The man responds: “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.” Ever feel like that?
In the history of the church, Augustine (famous for his ambivalent prayer: Give me chastity but not yet.) spoke of the church as corpus per mixtum. Wheat and weeds living side by side. That may be true of the church. That may be true of our hearts. Maybe that’s what Martin Luther had in mind when he said that we are saints and sinners at the same time. You get the picture. So what do we do about it?
Contending with mixed motives, we begin by admitting they are there, as if we could pretend otherwise.
Then we decide that purity of heart is a worthwhile objective. It’s entirely possible we are happy to live with the ambivalence. My own heart is a smorgasbord of motives, love and resentment and retribution and people-pleasing and assorted visions of success.
Recognizing all that, a movement toward purity of heart (a work in progress) is captured in the call to love God with all of our being and to love neighbor as self. While there’s not a day in my life that I do that fully, my prayer is that I can move in the direction, with aspiration for love as my sole guide.
So we ask for a clean heart. We can’t do this on our own. A movement toward purity of heart is something God does in us. If it ever happens, it will indeed be a miracle, a grace. If it ever happens, maybe that will be heaven. Maybe this week, you can take a step in that direction.
Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.