January 15, 2023
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. ~ Psalm 51:10,17
I have always lived in small towns—Grandview, Washington; Wylie, Texas; Meeker and Mancos, Colorado. People ask me, “What do you do in a small town?” I respond, “What do you do in a big city?”
In Meeker we (a good portion of the town) ate All-you-can-Eat Fajitas on Friday nights at the Last Chance Café. We walked and fished in the Flat Top Wilderness and ate steak and scones at Sleepy Cat on the way home. We had a big parade during Homecoming Week, and nervous students would give “motivational” speeches on the courthouse lawn. We celebrated life together, and when someone passed away, we mourned together. We lived in community.
Which meant, we disagreed from time to time.
Once, in Meeker, we had a heated community debate about whether we should stay on a four-day school week or move back to a five-day school week. What’s best for student learning and the community? The school administration conducted teacher, parent, and student surveys. We met at packed school board meetings to ask questions. The unfolding drama was just as good as any Broadway play, I thought; except all of us had a personal stake in the outcome.
One board meeting in particular sticks in my memory. With the community equally divided and tensions high, the superintendent and the principals skillfully responded to everyone’s questions without showing their cards. This went on for over two hours.
I got tired of the evasive answers and asked, “You all have not answered anything clearly all night long. You’re sitting on the fence. I would like to know what each principal and the superintendent thinks. Do you think it is best for students to go to school four days a week orfive days a week? That’s why we’re here.”
Oh, the superintendent and the principals hemmed and hawed, squirmed in their seats. I thought, “Just answer the question. Why can’t they just be honest and upfront?”
Something though was seriously wrong with my question. I wanted to put them in their place. I wanted to call them out because I thought they had mistreated some of my fellow teachers and me.
T.S. Eliot wrote, “The last temptation that’s the greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” Ronald Rolheiser adds, “In Jesus’ view of things, we do not just need the right truth, we also need the right energy.”
The Psalmist writes, “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” “Our problem is that, despite considerable sincerity, our hearts are rarely humble and contrite. The norm is judgement of others, anger at them, and a certain moral smugness and self-righteousness,” writes Rolheiser.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been at the P&D Grocery store or Fahrenheit Coffee Roasters, and someone let’s fly a string of expletives. They’ll turn to me and say, “Sorry Pastor.” And I say, “I’m a minister, not a judge.” I think my response is funny, but how often do I (we) judge others? Rolheiser says, “Our own judgmental attitude and self-righteousness is, most of the time, hidden from us. In our own eyes we are never the hypocrite, the one sitting in judgment on somebody’s else’s life. No. We are the honest ones, the compassionate ones, the humble ones.”
It is hard to see and to admit that we have parts of ourselves that remain “classified,” hidden from view. Yet renewal and conversion begin when we trust that God loves us not matter what, so we can honestly look at our heart and our motivations. “An unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates.
In Meeker, we did move back to a five-day school week. The superintendent called me in to her office and said, “I did not appreciate you putting me on the spot like that.” We went round and round for years until she let me go as a teacher. This broke my heart, it was embarrassing, but it also started me on the long slow road of examining my heart, my actions.
The journey leads us through long, dry valleys and up pristine peaks. And along the way we learn to see with new eyes, and peace finds us.
By the Grace of God, with humble and contrite hearts, may we move from judgment, anger, and moral smugness towards others, to hearts of empathy and greater understanding. “Create in us a clean heart, O God” (Psalm 51:10), and may our hearts be strangely warmed.
Blessings and peace,