What enters the heart

Near the Cumberland River, between Hermitage Avenue and the interstate, in the middle of an industrial area, sits a small building where the Green Street Church of Christ meets for worship. Early Friday morning last week, a curious parade arrived there. It was a short convoy of pickup trucks, pulling four candy-colored tiny houses built on 6’x10’ trailers. A group of workers took down a section of fence so trucks and trailers could pass through the small churchyard’s too-narrow gate. What was going on? More than three years ago, the pastor explained, the first campers started appearing in the churchyard, homeless men and women looking for a safe place to pitch their tents, and the church couldn’t see how kicking them out could possibly be what God intended for them to do. Instead, they made it their mission to care for the rotating cast of residents, offering meals and water, portable toilets, and shelter inside the church when needed. The pastor was excited to upgrade a few of the residents’ makeshift lodgings, but he didn’t want too much media attention; he was and continues to be worried that might draw gawkers to the micro-village. But he dreams. He dreams of eventually replacing all the tents with micro-homes and building a permanent structure with showers, toilets, and a simple kitchen. “I think people will be excited to help,” he told the reporter from the Nashville Scene. At noon, they had a dedication ceremony, and Roger McGue, one of the residents whom many like to call “the mayor,” talked about how they doubted this day would actually come. “When you’re homeless, people promise you things all the time,” he said. Standing before the small crowd of donors, residents, and guests, he pointed to the people who initiated the project and said, “They got in it. They did this for us. Not for themselves. That’s what love is all about.”[1]

“Religion,” we read in the letter of James, “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Orphans, widows and strangers are lifted up again and again in the law and the prophets as groups representing the most vulnerable members of the community, those easily pushed to the margins and forgotten “in their distress.” The move from a tent to a tiny plywood house may not seem like much of an upgrade, but it’s a little more protection from the cold and the rain, and it offers a little more privacy and a little more settled sense of place. My friend Samuel Lester calls this “bridge housing,” meaning it’s not permanent but it’s a step closer to having a place to call home. It’s no solution to Nashville’s affordable housing crisis or lack of mental health services, but it’s a step closer to living in community with neighbors for individuals and families pushed to the margins by the relentless demands of life in our society.

I read the story in the Nashville Scene because friends had posted links on facebook, and pictures of tiny houses are irresistible to me. I read and enjoyed the story and the pictures, but then I broke one of the great unwritten rules of the internet: stay away from the comment section, unless they pay a small army of enforcers who monitor what gets posted and delete the most hateful stuff. I started reading the comments, and I got mad and sad and sick all at once and I was this close to putting on the gloves and stepping into the boxing ring of digital punch lines to deliver a few blows myself, when I heard James whispering in the back of my mind, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” Bridling your tongue, I heard him say, is not just about watching what you say for the sake of others or lifting up the level of discourse from the gutter at least to the street; it’s about learning to speak from the heart that has become a home for the word of God. Bridling your tongue is about learning not just to react to the ugliness and meanness dressed up as outrage with equal ugliness and meanness, but to respond to it with words that reintroduce the capacity to bless.

James urges us to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive ourselves. He’s echoing the teaching of Jesus in the sermon on the mount, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”[2] The proper way to hear the word is to obey. The proper way to hear is to respond with action. The word is, “You shall not commit adultery,” and to obey is to not commit adultery. The word is, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and to obey is to love those in need of a neighbor. The word is, “You shall not murder,” and to obey is to not murder. To do the word means not to do what it prohibits or do what it commands. That seems simple enough, but is it?

Jesus teaches in the sermon on the mount, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”[3]

The proper way to hear and do the word is to obey the full depth of its meaning. The proper way to hear the word is to welcome with meekness the implanted word that is Jesus himself.  He’s not only the teacher who knows the full depth of the word’s meaning and instructs his disciples by declaring, “You have heard that it was said…, but I say to you.” His very life, his compassion and forgiveness, his story, his death and resurrection is the full depth of the word’s meaning. He is what God says.

Bridling your tongue, then, is to let Jesus speak; to give voice with your own words to his power to forgive and redeem and make whole. Bridling your tongue is learning to let the living Christ speak the truth from your heart.

I was drawn to the heart language in the readings for today, particularly in the Psalm and the Gospel reading from Mark, after Wednesday night when I first heard about reporter Allison Parker and photographer Adam Ward who had been murdered during a live newscast. I was heartbroken. I thought about their families, their fiancees, their co-workers and friends. The pain they must feel, the numbness, the anger; and I prayed for them. I also thought about the man who shot them dead and captured the shooting on camera and posted the clip on social media before he killed himself. I thought about his heart and how it gave birth to such violence; and I prayed for him. And I thought about the people who watched the clip he had posted and who then shared it with their networks – why, I do not know; and I prayed for them. Everything happened so fast, and we’ve barely begun to process what happened, when the next thing happens, demanding attention and understanding and soul strength and response. What is happening to your heart in all this? What is happening to your heart when the world floods in on you?

Mark tells the story of Jesus in a debate with other Jewish leaders about ritual purity, a debate that didn’t go particularly well because it ended when it had barely begun.

The Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem argued that avoiding contact with things considered ritually unclean or washing properly after they had been in contact with such things allowed them to maintain their calling as God’s holy people.

Jesus told his disciples, “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”[4]

No argument there; that’s solid Torah teaching. We read in Genesis, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.”[5] Evil and defilement stem from places rather deeply embedded within our very selves. They stem from the heart, which in Scripture is the seat of our imagining, reasoning, and willing.

No argument there, especially since we all tend to find it much easier to identify evil in others than to search our own hearts. But to me, that doesn’t end the debate. The first part of Jesus’ teaching is what continues to bother me. The claim that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer. What about the things we watch with our eyes and hear with our ears? What about the hateful words in the comments section? They’re not material like food or drink, but they certainly go into a person from outside and they do enter the heart.

The work we do or don’t get to do, the house we sleep in, the school we go to, the scriptures we read – everything shapes the heart, in evil ways that keep us from being who we are created to be in the image of God, or in holy ways that make us alive in communion with God and God’s entire creation.

Our hearts are defiled, wounded and broken in more ways than we can know, but Jesus is not afraid to brush against and touch those places to heal them.

What do we do then in this mad, beautiful world? We pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”[6] We pray and we welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save us. We welcome the word and we care for orphans and widows in their distress.


[1] http://www.nashvillescene.com/pitw/archives/2015/08/24/following-a-caravan-of-micro-houses-for-the-homeless-through-downtown-nashville

[2] Matthew 7:21

[3] Matthew 5:21-22

[4] Mark 7:1-23

[5] Genesis 6:5; see also Genesis 8:21

[6] Psalm 51:10