Change Our Hearts
Maybe you have noticed how over the last few weeks, we have been reading from the geographical center of Matthew’s gospel, a discourse on how to live in community (“how many times do I have to forgive?”), what it means that Jesus is risen (“where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am”) and then some parables that sort of tease out some new insights about what the reign of God is like. And maybe, too, you have been astounded that we hear those readings right when we need to hear them the most, as all the rhetoric heats up in the country about who’s a patriot and who isn’t, who should be honored and who shouldn’t. And it all happens right during a spate of terrible natural disasters, when we all really need to remember that we need each other, that God uses us to answer each other’s prayers.
Why is it so hard to get from where we are, always fighting, always creating “us versus them” groups, defining our- selves against others, to where Jesus wants to take us in his preaching about the reign of God? Honestly, it can’t just be another Platonic ideal, a goal to strive for that we can’t ever get to. Jesus says “The reign of God is at hand! Repent (i.e., turn around, go in the other direction) and believe (i.e., give your heart to) the good news (of this other empire)!” It’s not an ideal: it’s thereally real, and it is “at hand,” that is, closer than close. Right here.
I’ve had that conversation with myself for decades. Why am I not better than I was last year? Sometimes, I think I’m not listening or at least I’m not getting something that I ought to be getting, that I’m missing some core part of the message. It was in the early 80s that I first wrote the idea into a song. I realized then that I had already lived through thirty Lents – many in Catholic schools, eight in seminary and was I really any better this year than when I started? Could I expect this Lent to make me a less damaged person than the last thirty had done? I wrote the song Change Our Heartsas a way of throwing myself on the mercy of the heavenly court. It was a kind of confession: obviously, Lord, I’m not doing much of a job at changing my heart year by year. I’m a mess. Do it for me, and do it for all of us. Change our hearts. This time. No more waiting. Be God.
There’s biblical precedent for that kind of thinking, by the way. The author of the 51st psalm, called the Miserere, asks God to “create a clean heart in me.” In Hebrew, that verb for “create” is never used unless the subject is God. The psalmist wants something radical: an intervention by God to fix his explicitly “broken heart,” that is, the disordered inner person. It is damaged goods, the psalmist insists. If I’m going to get better, you need to create a new one. Literally, create a new one, something only God can do.
In my upbringing, I always got the feeling that spiritual growth was all on me. I had to make myself worthy of God’s love, do spiritual exercises, sort of like an athlete, so that I could win the great heavenly decathlon. Then I started hearing more and more that everything depends on grace, that God is God, and God’s love enables our change and stays with us in love whether we change or not. I like that: it resounds with my experience that love really does change us. Lately, I’ve come to believe, I think, that it’s more like what Desmond Tutu says, that it’s all about changing the world, about turning to the empire of God and that we cannot do it without God, but that God will not do it without us. We are mutually responsible in love, like people in a family, which is what we are, because Jesus taught us to call God “our Father.”
On the recording of Change Our Hearts (you can listen on YouTube, Apple Music, Spotify etc.), there’s a “coda” at the end of the song wherein the choir keeps singing, over and over, “This time! This time!” while the soloist sings “Change our hearts, change our minds.” It really helps to get to the heart of that prayer, and I think of “this time” as kind of the mantra that makes the words “change our hearts” more honest: I know I’m tired of asking, and probably tired of trying. But God, apparently, isn’t tired of hearing it. I want to accept that God loves me no matter what, and the more I believe that, the more I desire that this time, no matter what time of year I’m singing it, maybe I will be for someone a little more like the face of the compassion of God who has loved me and forgiven me seventy-seven kajillion times, and looks like (s)he might be OK taking that number up through seventy-seven kajillion and one. And if it were the same for all of us, maybe we could look up together from the grim news on Twitter and Facebook and realize that we don’t need to be surprised by the irony or coincidence of how these readings are hitting us at this time in our year, when these things are going on. We just need to be the compassion of God, let God change our hearts and start living in a different world, right here, right now. This time.