About 20 years ago, the music director of my parish announced that he would be resigning at the end of0 the current choir season, 8 months later. Not only was he the best music director I’d ever worked with, whose opinions I invariably respected even when we disagreed, he was a good friend. This happened amidst a great deal of other change in my life, and it was very difficult for me. I was on the search committee for his successor, and that didn’t go smoothly for me either: I didn’t like the process, and I especially didn’t like that the search parameters were defined to find and hire a candidate who lacked some of the expertise that I considered most important. My clearest memory of the time involves a phone call with a choirmate and fellow committee member, a woman 30 years my senior: I was in tears, she was distressed by my distress, and earnestly advising me not to take it all so seriously that it made me cry, that it wasn’t good for me.
During the same period, the choir was rehearsing a setting of Psalm 51, to prepare for Lent. It was lovely, with a musical setting that intensified the text, and a few challenging passages for us to work on. So we were singing it a lot, every Wednesday for weeks, and some Sunday mornings if there was time. The opening was simple, with men and women singing first separately, then together:
Create in me a clean heart, O God
And renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence,
And take not thy holy spirit from me.
The next bit ended with a series of rising notes with tricky chord progressions, beginning with “uphold”:
Restore unto me the joys of thy salvation
And uphold me, uphold me,
With thy holy spirit, thy holy spirit
before gradually transitioning back down, in pitch and in tempo, to simple and penitential:
Then shall I teach transgressors thy ways
And sinners shall be converted unto thee
Create in me a clean heart, O God.
At some point, on one of those Wednesday nights, my struggles on the committee merged with my struggles with that tricky chord progression, and I heard/experienced/sang that next line with triumph: Then shall I teach transgressors thy ways: not just then, but thereby. Only when my heart is clean, wholly fixed on God and on what God wants for God’s people, am I capable of teaching and converting anyone to the gospel. It can’t be done if my heart is divided, more concerned with what I want than with what God wants.
I know what you’re thinking. I was young, okay? and in a good deal of personal distress. Even at the time, I knew it was hyperbole to identify the people on the committee who disagreed with me with “transgressors” and “sinners”, and arrogance to think that persuading them to agree with me would be teaching them God’s ways. But it did help me try to take things less personally, and consider things from a perspective that was broader than just my own.
The core insight was sound, though, however inapt the circumstances that prompted it. It has stayed with me ever since, along with the setting that inspired it: I typed those words up there from memory. And it’s more relevant than ever, to the challenges that we face in our current political, ecclesial, and social climate.
I find it not only powerful, but powerfully explanatory: if we are sent out into the world to bring forth the reign of God, then we can’t do that job without a clean heart, a right spirit, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, whose alluring gesture (in the language of mimetic theology) directs our desires towards God, so that we desire what God desires. When we live according to God’s desires, then we enact God’s ways, and we can become mimetic models for the people around us. If we’re imitating Jesus, and they’re imitating us, then we have made disciples (followers, imitators!) of Christ.
But to do all that, we need clean hearts, fixed on God. And we can’t clean them ourselves.
Create in me a clean heart, O God.