Friday, September 28, 2012


"... the wisdom from above is first pure..."   -- James 3:17

The idea of purity has been much in my mind lately.  In the Bible Study I attend on Wednesday evenings, we have been reading The Letter of James.  James writes about many things in his letter, but one theme that comes up repeatedly is this idea of purity, of doing what is right, plain and simple.  At the same time, I have been reading a book by Soren Kierkegaard, "Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing."  I did not know until I started reading it that this book is actually somewhat of a commentary on James.  For Kierkegaard defines purity of heart as that which does good, purely for the sake of The Good, without any other motive or double-mindedness, echoing James.  To understand purity of heart, it seems we have to understand what motivates us.

The title of Kierkegaard's book says it all.  If we do good because we are looking for a reward, either from men or from God, then we are not willing one thing, but two things:  the good and the reward.  And if we do good because we fear punishment for not doing good, either from men or from God, then once again, we are willing two things:  the good and the avoidance of punishment.  This double-mindedness is very far from true goodness.  Kierkegaard carries this idea a little further, but essentially, purity of heart is to will the Good with our whole heart, nothing less.
This is pretty easy to understand:  we do what is right and good, that which helps someone else, because it is right and good, and for no other reason. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan.  The Good Samaritan helped the man who had been attacked because he needed help, plain and simple.  He went out of his way to see to the needs of this injured man, and to see him through to his complete recovery.  Other men, religious men, passed him by without helping because they were motivated by what they mistakenly thought made them  "pure".  We all know who is the truly good person in this story.

However, while this concept is easy to understand, it is not always easy to do.  How often am I motivated to do what is good purely because it is the right thing to do, and how often am I motivated by what other people think?  Like the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan, I sometimes get waylaid by a false idea of what it means to be "pure", or in my case, "a good Christian."  I know I am not alone in this.

For the past month, this idea keeps coming up.  You see, for the past month, I have been helping to teach our church's high school youth group.  It's a new area of ministry for me.  I feel a little bit out of my comfort zone.  I am a high school math teacher, not a trained youth minister.  (This may be good thing or it may be bad  thing -- the jury's still out.)  For the most part, I have simply been trying to stay open to what is going on with these kids, and listening to what God wants me to tell them.

It's been challenging.  Primarily it's been challenging because of the  messages they have already received about what it means to be a Christian.  Some of them think that being a Christian means not cussing, or wearing a purity ring, or being outwardly "good" so that other people are attracted to Christianity by their fine example.  And so, in response to this, we talked about the meaning of the Gospel.  We talked about how God is continually with us, even when we make mistakes, trying to show us a better way of life simply because he loves us.  On another occasion, they thought that the reason we should help other people, especially if the work is hard, is because we will gain a greater reward in Heaven.  And so we started talking about the unique perspective each one of us has to offer and how much we learn from others when we live in community, even those whom we help, even those who think differently from us.   James and Kierkegaard might say that some of these teenagers have a very "double-minded" way of thinking about goodness.

This week, I have had to face my own double-minded tendencies when we decided to show a movie.  Right away, I recommended "The Art of Getting By."  It has a great message:  it's a coming of age story of a loner teenage boy who learns that life has meaning when he cares enough to put his heart on the line and live authentically.  I watched this movie twice when it came out on DVD several months ago -- the second time with my thirteen year old son because I wanted him to get this message.  However, since it had been awhile and we needed to make sure this PG-13 movie was appropriate, I watched it again, this time with the eyes of a church youth group leader.   And I became hyper-aware of all the negative, "un-Christian", behavior, that is portrayed in this movie:  teenage smoking and drinking, cutting class, cussing, and pre-marital sex.  O my!  Even though none of this negative behavior is exactly lauded, it is simply the norm for our American culture, I got worried about what the kids and their parents would think.  Would they think we were promoting these negative behaviors?  Would we get complaints from parents for showing this movie?  I was doubtful whether the positive message would even shine through it all.  So, I looked for a more "Christian" movie.

All I could find were movies for younger children or movies these kids had already seen.  All of the movies that I would want to recommend were a little too "non-religious" for Christian movie night at the church.  One movie I could recommend, "Rory O'Shea Was Here," is a profound  movie about two young men with cerebral palsy who just want to live as normal a life as possible, but it's rated R for language.  Another movie, "Henry Poole is Here," although rated PG, is a movie that shows life from both an atheist's point of view and a devout Catholic's point of view, with each side respected equally.  A third movie, a documentary called "Happy," shows how different people around the world have learned to be happy.  Sounds pretty innocuous, right?  Well, living in community and helping each other are high on the list, but having a relationship with God is not -- in fact, the judgmentalism that comes with many religions is seen as preventing happiness more often than not.  This was getting a little ridiculous, I thought.  All of these movies are great.  They have an important message.  They are just not very "Christian."

So, what did I do?  Well, as I mulled over James and Kierkegaard, I realized how much I was being influenced by the appearance of being Christian instead of what it actually means to be Christian.  And I slowly became aware that "The Art of Getting By" is about finding and valuing your authentic self, a message we have been trying to teach these teenagers for a month.  If I really believed what I had taught them, that it doesn't matter what mistakes we make, that what matters is what we learned from them, then I needed to show this movie above all others.  I needed to "have a little faith" that the kids would get it too, as my teaching partner told me.

I'm realizing once again that God truly desires a heart that is pure, not merely one that appears to be pure in the eyes of other people.  Sometimes that means that we have to be willing to risk appearing "un-Christian" in order to live openly and honestly the way God has taught us to do.  The way of Jesus is the way of truth, after all.

Dear God, thank you for patiently leading me to understand my hidden faults.  There is only one reason to do what is right, and that is because it is right.  As the psalmist wrote, "the law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple, the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart."  Love always, Pam

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