Heart Gunk

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me. 
Do not cast me away from your presence,

and do not take your holy spirit from me. 
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,

and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Psalm 51:10-12

A couple weeks out of the summer, when I worked out at Camp Carol Joy Holling, a few of us counselors would get assigned to ‘work crew’ to do some of the more maintenance type jobs around the camp.  If you drew the short straw, this meant scrubbing down the fleet of camp vehicles – not only the buses and vans, but also the regular maintenance guys’ filthy pickup trucks.  You could easily spend a solid twenty minutes or more with a power washer on those trucks just trying to chisel off all the caked on mud.  It was a dirty, grody job – though I’ve got to admit that it was pretty satisfying whenever you managed to send a big ol’ clod of mud flying.  

It probably sounds kind of odd, but this is an image I think of fairly often in my prayer life.  Over the past couple of months, I have been cultivating a habit of praying at sunset every day, in different ways – sometimes meditating, sometimes journaling or drawing, sometimes singing hymns or reading scripture – the practices vary, but the time is always that half hour between sunset and nightfall.  Although I’ve managed to actually be pretty consistent about it, I have to confess that it’s often something I have to make myself do.  All too often I get to the hour of sunset full of stress and frazzled by a to-do list that seems bottomless, and I think to myself that I’m too busy to pause, that I must use that time to be “productive” instead.

But then I think of the old Zen proverb – “You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you are too busy; then you should sit for an hour” – and I think about power washing those grimy pickups.  I can imagine that many people, when they read the psalmist’s plea in Psalm 51 – “Create in me a clean heart, O God” – might think of being gently bathed as by a mother, or perhaps of the water washing over their forehead at baptism.  But I know my crusty old heart – and how much gunk can get built up in it, even over the course of a single day – and so I find it more true to my prayer life to imagine God power washing the gunk out of my heart instead, like mud clods off a truck.

And I need that power wash, because it’s precisely that gunk that convinces me that it’s more important to spend my time working than to spend my time in conversation with God.  And the less I want to take a break from work to pray, it’s usually the case that that’s when I need it the most.  I need that time of prayer not to be just a cup of lukewarm water over the forehead that barely penetrates the dirt, but the rough, refreshing, powerful cleansing of the Holy Spirit breaking through my heart gunk and my lame excuses to bring me back into deeper connection with God, to help me feel again the “joy of salvation.”  

This is what the season of Lent is all about.  It’s not just a time to feel solemn or to deprive ourselves for deprivation’s sake; Lent can actually be a season of great joy!  It’s a season in which we turn our hearts back to God and allow God to wash out all the gunk in them – the gunk of stress and fear and selfishness and sin and all the other crud that gets in the way of our relationship with God – so that the joy of the Spirit may shine out in us again.  

It does seem a little ironic to talk about being made clean during Lent when we literally begin the season by smearing our faces with ashes.  But the ash is an external sign that we recognize what is happening on the inside, in our hearts; it’s a sign that the things we put our faith in and give our time to are fleeting and finite.  It’s a reminder that we are dust apart from God – but that we find our true life by turning back to God, and allowing our hearts to be cleansed of all the gunk, even when the washing’s a little rougher than we’d like.

Last year during Lent, our lives changed dramatically in ways that we never could have seen coming, in ways that continue to affect our life together as church, especially our worship life.  Ash Wednesday and Lent will still look different this year.   I know the disappointment and the weariness that this carries – I feel it deep in my soul.  But I urge you: don’t let it distract you.  The invitation to Lent remains the same: to turn back to the Lord your God with all your worn out, gunky heart, for God is gracious and merciful.  God remains the same – even in troubled times – receiving us with love when we turn back, creating in us clean hearts, restoring us to joy, and power washing us into new life.

First published in St. John’s February 2021 newsletter.

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