Create in me a clean heart
Maybe this happens to you. I go through phases when a phrase from the Bible or Prayer Book or hymnal lodges in my brain. I find myself thinking about it in the middle of the night, when I'm stopped at a traffic signal, walking on the beach. Of late, here's the phrase on my mind:
Create in me a clean heart
and renew a right spirit within me.
It comes from Psalm 51, which appears in a lot of our liturgies. It's a psalm about the need for change. In my own life, I'm aware of a need for a change of heart, a new heart on a range of topics. One of those pertains to current discussions about race. Those conversations surround us, in news conferences and political debates, in newspapers and among pundits. They go on in our churches, around dinner tables, and for me, in my heart. The question is often framed this way: Is this person a racist or not?. It's framed as an either/or. One or the other. We often hear folks rise in self-defense: "There's not a racist bone in my body."
I don't know about you, but for me, I don't think the key question is: Am I a racist? as if some people are entirely racist and others aren't racist at all. The question I ask myself: How am I racist? How do I behave in racist ways? What are my racist bones? While I'm too embarrassed or ashamed to detail in this email my own racism, trust me, it's there. I have done racist things, thought racist thoughts. I have prejudices. I often brim with judgment of others based on how they speak, what they look like, how they dress, where they're from, where they go to church (or don't), where they went to school (or didn't), which bumper sticker is on their car. That kind of judgment, including racial judgment, is in my bones, with roots in early age. I grew up in suburb of New York. In that proudly progressive but mostly segregated community, relatives and neighbors and preachers taught and modeled (wittingly or unwittingly) discrimination based on race and gender and other factors. I have to admit it's kind of in my DNA. And I'm not alone.
Last week, our church hosted a pilgrimage of teenagers from many parts of the country. The focus was the history of race relations in our part of the world, as a way to envision a better future. We realized we are both part of the problem and part of the solution. In the course of our conversations, a wise person cited Alexander Solzhenitsyn: "The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
St. Paul was on to the same thing when in the Letter to the Romans he said; "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." For me, I'm mindful, as the verse from Psalm 51 circles for a landing, that racism and prejudice and judgment make up part of who I am. Again, I'm not alone. It's part of our collective DNA, as Jim Wallis notes in his book: Racism. America's Original Sin. The dynamic is at work in our country, in our national leadership, in our schools, housing and employment, in our churches, in systems and structures and in our hearts.
And so I ask, with St. Paul, (see Romans 7) who will deliver us? You may not want to get into politics on a Monday morning. This may not be an issue for you. If that's the case, pray for those of us who struggle. Pray, because this is a spiritual issue. It has to do with daily spiritual practice. It has to do with following Jesus, who threw racial and gender and social distinctions out the window. It has to do with the human family.
Here's some good news: We are led by a Presiding Bishop who sees racial reconciliation as a huge part of the loving, liberating, life-giving Jesus Movement. In baptism, we are called to persevere in resisting evil. Whenever (not if ever) we sin (Including the sin of racism) we are to turn. We are to seek and serve Christ in all persons, even when Christ comes well disguised. We are to respect the dignity of every human being, those who are demonized or dehumanized, those described as animals or infestation, those excluded or detained.
In all of those challenges, we are to commit ourselves to a new way of life. But as the Baptismal Covenant reminds us, we will only get there with God's help, who promises to create in each one of us a new heart and to renew a right spirit within us.
Which leads me to pray: Dear God. Could you hurry up? --