Reverend Mel Baars O’Malley
August 30, 2015
University Presbyterian Church
In-a my Heart
All week I have been singing to myself the hymn “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.” I guess there could be worse songs to have stuck in my head, particularly while battling traffic on I 35 during rush hour. It’s hard to sing about wanting to be a Christian, while simultaneously growling or even cursing under one’s breath.
The hymn is both catchy and easy to remember, while also being profoundly applicable to living a life of faith. It is actually an African American spiritual that may have been sung as early as the 1750s. As the story goes, a slave went for counsel to a Presbyterian minister named William Davies and proclaimed, “'I come to you, sir, that you may tell me some good things concerning Jesus Christ and my duty to God, for I am resolved not to live any more as I have done. . . Sir, I want to be a Christian.'"
The hymn has four verses, which some have suggested map out the journey of Christian faith. The first verse proclaims, “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.” Then the second verse takes the next step saying, “Lord I want to be more loving in my heart.” The third verse says, Lord, I want to be more holy. And, the final verse completes the transformation, “Lord, I want to be like Jesus in my heart.”
As I have contemplated these words throughout the week, it has made sense to me to consider the journey of faith in this way. First, we acknowledge our desire, “I want to be a Christian.” It’s an initial profession of faith, a move toward God. Once we are pointed in the right direction, we recognize that growth in faith requires fuel, requires love. It’s the next step on the journey, letting love become our anchor. Once we have love as our guide, we are in a position to be more holy than before, to reflect God’s light and God’s spirit. And, finally, as we grow in holiness, we naturally become more like Jesus. Each step leads to the next, until we find ourselves living more like Christ than ourselves.
The hymn hinges on its common refrain, sung throughout the entire song which says, “In-a my heart. In-a my heart. Lord I want to be a Christian…. Or I want to be more loving... or I want to be more holy...or I want to be like Jesus… in my heart. It’s all about the heart. This is where the real transformation takes place. It is a slow process. But it has to start from here, in the heart.
When I think about what James is preaching to his congregation in the scripture we just read, I see a lot of parallels between our hymn and his words. He is touching on some of the fundamental markers of the faithful-- those whose heart transformations are already underway. He reminds them that the folks who truly want to be Christian, more loving, more holy, and ultimately like Jesus, they have some similar traits. They are listeners. They don’t get angry quickly. They are mindful of what they say. They talk less about their religion and instead, seem to take action because their faith moves them to do so. “Be doers of the word,” he says, “and not hearers only who deceive themselves.” In other words, as our song suggests, if we want to be a Christian, then we work each day on being more loving and more holy. The end result is that we end up more like Jesus, too.
This is the point for James. Those who listen and subsequently act because of the good news they have heard, they are forever changed. I had been working on this sermon Friday afternoon at the hospital, between calls and patient visits, so I wondered if I could do a little experiment on my way home from work. It’s easier, when trying to work on transformation of any kind whether its weight loss or behavior changes, to have a small, realistic goal in mind. Now, it’s only about 3.5 miles from the hospital to my home so that seemed like a reasonable distance to practice being more like Jesus while under duress. I don’t know why but Friday is the worst day to try to deal with the section of 35 between SAMMC and 410. I leave at the same time every day, but on Friday, it’s twice as backed up.
As I battled the stop and go traffic for the next half hour, I looked at the people in their cars. I wondered what struggles they had in their lives. Which ones were dealing with financial strain or difficulties in relationships or, since we had just left the hospital area, which ones were in physical pain or fighting some kind of illness. I know that none of us are ever happy to be waiting in traffic and all of us are dealing with something. Struggle… That’s our common denominator. I had settled into such a peaceful state of mind that I even let a large 18 wheeler truck get out in front of me. Thank goodness my experiment only lasted 3.5 miles. I am not sure that I could keep it up, though I know I should.
Looking closely at my traffic experiment, I can see that most of what happened on my drive happened inside me. Ok, I let that truck out and didn’t shake my fists at any drivers who cut me off or went too slowly. So, there were a few behavioral changes. But the real work I did on the drive was heart work. Thinking about those drivers and their potential struggles made me feel closer to them, which consequently helped me feel more love, rather than anger.
Working as a hospital chaplain has made me examine how and why I am able to feel close to some patients and families and not so close with others. What allows us to move toward another person rather than keep them and their problem at arms length? Some have suggested that movement toward another is a huge part of being empathetic. Empathy is feeling with another person. Nursing scholar, Theresa Wiseman suggests that there are four qualities of empathy. The ability to understand another’s perspective as their truth, recognize feelings in others, communicating emotion to them, and finally, staying out of judgment.
Each of the four is important, but I want to focus on that last one, staying out of judgment. In some ways, it might be the hardest one. It’s certainly the one that the Pharisees struggle with again and again. It’s what we encounter in our reading from Mark. The Pharisees are so focused on judging Jesus and his disciples and friends that they are unable to move toward them at all. Their judgment is a barrier preventing them from loving. The Pharisee’s problem, as well as ours, is that we enjoy judging others because it makes us feel a little better about ourselves, even if that feeling lasts only a few moments. Our faults and struggles don’t seem as daunting when we cast them in the light of another person who is way worse. But if part of the work of faith requires us to move toward each other in love, then judgment only gets in our way.
If we want to be a true followers of Christ, we embark on a journey of heart transformation, which takes us deeper into love, wider into the holy so that we will end up more like Jesus than we ever imagined. Of course, there are a lot of different interpretations of who Jesus is. So many of us think we have the best answer. But, for today, let’s just imagine the Jesus depicted in our gospel’s scene. Jesus and his disciples and friends are eating together. Some of them are dirty. Some have not washed their hands. But, nonetheless, they have found a way to move toward one another. We know that is no easy feat.
So may we follow in their footsteps, finding ways to move toward one another! May we be more loving, more holy, more like Jesus in our hearts! Amen