Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Quit Playing Games with Your Heart” (Psalm 51:11)
Ash Wednesday: February 14, 2018
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This year Valentine’s Day falls on Ash Wednesday, which will not happen again until 2029, so enjoy the awkwardness. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday are both concerned with our hearts, albeit for very different reasons. Back in 1996 there was a hit song by the Backstreet Boys called “Quite Playing Games (With My Heart),” a horrendously cheesy yet catchy song that many can relate to because they know how it feels when someone plays games with their heart.
When it comes to our relationship with God, Lent is a season to quit playing games with our heart, a season of repentance, a season to echo the psalmist’s prayer, “Search me out, O God, and know my heart” (Psalm 139:22, BCP 795). We all need this, no exceptions. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is devious above all else—who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Jesus unpacked this further: “Out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19). It gets worse. In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us the one who bears hatred toward someone else in their heart is guilty of murder, and the one who looks at another lustfully in their heart is guilty of adultery. Are you uncomfortable yet?
Unfortunately we do not want to focus on our heart during Lent. We had rather focus on something else—drinking less beer, or eating fewer chocolate chip cookies, or watching less television—which in comparison is really rather silly. In his 1949 play The Cocktail Party T. S. Eliot observes, “Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important…they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves” (The Complete Poems and Plays 348).
And T. S. Eliot is right—we are all absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of ourselves, which means we would rather focus on anything during Lent (or any other time) except what really matters, except what is really in our hearts. Some of us may need to quit playing games with our heart, or “to give up Lent for Lent.”
I am going to juxtapose quotes from two great writers, James Joyce and David Foster Wallace, neither of whom played games with the realities of the human heart. In his modernist novel Ulysses James Joyce wrote:
There are sins or (let us call them as the world calls them) evil memories which are hidden away by man in the darkest places of the heart but they abide there and wait. He may suffer their memory to grow dim, let them be as though they had not been and all but persuade himself that they were not or at least were otherwise. Yet a chance word will call them forth suddenly and they will rise up to confront him in the most various circumstances, a vision or a dream, or while timbrel and harp soothe his senses or amid the cool silver tranquility of the evening or at the feast at midnight when he is not filled with wine. Not to insult over him will the vision come as over one that lies under her wrath, not for vengeance to cut off from the living but shrouded in the piteous vesture of the past, silent, remote, reproachful (421).
These sins or “evil memories” may be about things we have done, things we know are wrong but as Joyce put it, have persuaded ourselves they are not wrong or that they simply do not exist. Yet, although these things may be deeply hidden in your hearts, James Joyce is right, something out of the blue can call those things forth suddenly and remind us they are still there in our hearts, still alive and well.
In his short story collection entitled Oblivion the late David Foster Wallace addresses the human heart in the first person, and cuts to the chase:
My whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people. Mostly to be liked or admired. It’s a little more complicated than that, maybe. But when you come right down to it it’s to be liked, loved. Admired, approved of, applauded, whatever. You get the idea. I did well in school, but deep down the whole thing’s motive wasn’t to learn or improve myself but just to do well, to get good grades and make sports teams and perform well. To have a good transcript or varsity letters to show people. I didn’t enjoy it much because I was always scared I wouldn’t do well enough. The fear made me work really hard, so I’d always do well and end up getting what I wanted (141).
T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and David Foster Wallace all reveal what our hearts are really like—that we are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of ourselves, that we have lots of hidden sins, as well as the gnawing fear of being a fraud. During Lent, rather than playing games with our heart, we need to look at what is really there, and ask God for help.
Every year on Ash Wednesday we kneel and read the greatest of the penitential psalms, Psalm 51, a psalm that pulls back the blinders from our eyes to reveal the true condition of our heart. It was written by King David whom scripture describes as “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). Although David was a great king and the prototypical warrior poet, he was still human, very human.
Yes, scripture recounts David slaying the giant Goliath, leading the Israelites over battles against the Philistines, composing psalms of praise and hope that continue to resonate with millions of people around the world, and even being in the genealogical line of our Savior…but scripture also recounts David falling in love with Bathsheba who was already married, married in fact to one of those listed among David’s thirty-seven “mighty warriors,” Uriah the Hittite, who was out fighting battles on King David’s behalf. When Bathsheba sends David word that she is pregnant, David tries to cover his tracks, but it doesn’t work, so David, the man after God’s own heart, conspires to have Uriah the Hittite abandoned in the midst of a battle so that he would be killed…and Uriah was indeed killed. He died a violent death courtesy of Ammonite archers who pierced him with their arrows.
And even then David continued to think well of himself, continued to keep these sins hidden in the darkest places of his heart, continued to be a fraud. But God sent the prophet Nathan to David, and Nathan called these sins forth suddenly, and as a result, David finally quit playing games with his heart.
And in Psalm 51 King David immediately appealed to the one thing all of us need when we, like David, see our hearts as they actually are, the mercy of God:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight (Psalm 51:1-4, BCP 656).
David had finally quit playing games with his heart, and in the middle of this psalm he asks God to do something only God can do: “Create in me a clean heart” (Psalm 51:11, BCP 657). David, the man after God’s own heart, asks God to create in him a clean heart.
Scripture is clear that this is something only God can do. Through the prophet Jeremiah God said, “I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with all their heart” (Jeremiah 24:7)—and through the prophet Ezekiel God said, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).
We need God to create in us a clean heart, because ultimately we will follow what our heart wants, because as the brilliant but controversial film director Woody Allen once said, “The heart wants what it wants.” That is why when we read through The Decalogue (The Ten Commandments) on Sunday mornings during Lent we respond to each commandment with the same prayer, “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law” (BCP 317ff). Because our hearts want what they want, we need God to incline, or bend, our hard hearts to want what God wants; we need God to create in us a clean heart.
Here is the gospel in all this. On Good Friday Jesus, like Uriah the Hittite, was abandoned and left to die. Jesus was not pierced with arrows from Ammonite archers but pierced instead by nails from Roman soldiers. Jesus was not absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of himself, in fact he wasn’t thinking about himself at all, he was thinking about you. And Jesus died to atone for all the hidden sins in your heart, all the self-absorption and self-justification, all the covering of your tracks and pretending everything is good when it is not good at all, all the ways you fear being found out as a fraud. Jesus’ blood covers all of it, all of it.
So perhaps this Lent it is time to quit playing games with your heart, and instead ask God to create a clean heart in you.