January 31, 2021
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. ~Psalm 51:10
But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. ~Luke 15:20
During my senior year in high school, I had one particularly rough day. During football practice, the coaches were upset with me about how I was blocking a play. There was a lot of yelling and screaming, and we ran the same play over and over until I got it “right.”
After practice I remember sitting on a bench outside our locker room just thinking, “Do I really want to do this? Is it worth it?” I buried my head in my hands, and then I felt Coach Ard’s arm around my shoulders. “It was pretty rough out there today, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, it was.”
“We (coaches) get a little too excited sometimes. Hang in there and let me know if you need anything. This will pass and we will all have better days.” Coach Ard squeezed my shoulder, smiled, and nodded his head at me, and then left. His kind gesture made a difference to me when I was down.
As we walk through life with all its joys and sadnesses, all its celebrations and defeats, we need people with mellow hearts to lift us up. We need a heart that is calm, smooth, and free of harshness. We tend to give and to receive more than enough abject criticism, so we remember when someone touches us with a tender heart. How often do we extend a gracious heart to someone else?
Father Ron Rolheiser writes, “A mellow and gracious heart is not a negotiable virtue of faith.” When the younger son returns home after making many poor choices, he is ready to beg his father for mercy. Instead, his father sees him from far off, has compassion, and runs and hugs his younger son, and kisses him. The father has a mellow heart and that makes all the difference in the world.
The thief on the cross asks Jesus to remember him. Jesus replies, “You will be with me in paradise,” (see Luke 23:42-43). Imagine the impact of Jesus’ words on the thief.
It is not easy to have a mellow forgiving heart, a heart that is calm and free of harshness. The older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son bemoans the celebration being given for his younger brother. The older son believes his life is blameless. He has kept all the commandments, has worked his father’s field’s, and he has never left his father’s house.
Yet, Rolheiser writes, the great irony is that the older son is “standing outside his father’s house and is being gently invited in by his father.” The older son is standing outside the kingdom of God. The older son is not walking in love, joy, or peace. He refuses to go into his father’s house. What is keeping him outside if he is doing everything right?
“Bitterness and anger,” says Rolheiser. “We can be faithful and still find ourselves standing outside of God’s house and outside the circle of community and celebration because of a bitter heart. Following Jesus is as much about having a mellow and forgiving heart as it is about believing and doing the right things.” (Please read the last sentence again.)
When we are convinced, like the older brother, that we are right, we justify our anger and bitterness. A young child carelessly spills her milk and her father strongly rebukes her to the point of tears and shame. A pet owner unmercifully berates his pet for having an accident in the house. Loved ones angrily shout at each other over slights. Political parties demonize one another.
When we are convinced of how right we are, we rationalize and justify our violent actions. Rolheiser says, “For the sake of God and truth, our own religious and political discourse is laced with bitterness, anger, jealousy and a lack of graciousness.” A mellow and forgiving heart is an essential, nonnegotiable virtue of faith.
The prodigal son finally comes to terms with his arrogance and imperfections and returns home with a mellow heart. The elder son, not so much. He is home but he is not living in his father’s house of grace.
I cannot count the number of times I have done the right thing with the wrong energy. Times I have acted with bitterness and anger out of a strong sense of being right. Thank God for the example of the Prodigal Father, Jesus the Christ, and the Coach Ards of the world. They show us a way forward.
“Create in us a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within us,” (Psalm 51:10).
May we accept the grace to cultivate forgiving and mellow hearts.
May we live inside the House of our benevolent Creator.
May our hearts be filled with compassion, and may we welcome one another home.
Blessings and peace,