Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Clean Heart for the Church

This week Henri Nouwen returned again to the subject of "A Clean Heart." Usually when we hear this term our mind quickly runs to the need of the individual Christian to recognize their sin and confess the sins to God, thereby obtaining a clean heart.

Until recently, I had not thought about God requiring churches and nations to also have a clean heart. In researching this subject, I found the Bible was full of stories where God asks the nation Israel, cities, and churches (e.g. seven churches of Revelation) to repent of their corporate sin.

Like me, you might ask "For what sins might a church need to ask forgiveness?" We as a church would have to anwer questions such as these "As a church do we love our neighbor; as a church do we help the poor; as a church are we living the Great Commission; and as a church are we a house of prayer?"

God realized that groups of His people would commit corporate sins and would need to corporately ask His forgiveness. In Leviticus chapter 4, God gave instructions for how the nation of Israel should ask for forgiveness if they committed a corporate sin.

The process for a church or nation to to ask for forgiveness and obtain a clean heart is the same as the process for an individual. God's directions for a church or nation to have a clean heart is given in II Chronicles 7:14: "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land."

As we prepared for communion several Sundays ago, I read the prayer for corporate confession of sin from our United Methodist Hymnal with new meaning. Listen to the words:

“Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

As we prepare to take the Lord's Supper together before Easter, I encourage you to join me as we read this prayer and earnestly seek together a church with a clean heart.


  1. I like this idea. It seems churches (or any groups of people for that matter), fall into the same traps we, as individuals, do - chasing and enforcing our own will, instead of listening for and responding to the will of God. No matter how inconvenient it may be to our lives.

  2. Thank you for this reminder that we do this together--not just the worship and building up one another, but also in our turning from God.

    For myself, I have been aware recently how habits within groups can affect one another and the choices a group makes. I am with one group of friends that is frequently cynical--and the cynicism is hilarious and fun. We have made a habit of being cynical together. But this habit makes us less likely to take risks and be vulnerable--it exposes the individual to the risk of being the object of the group's humor. (Well, I assume that others in the group are also reluctant and it's not just me.)

    I've been with churches and with groups in the past who as a body (corpse/corporate) always look to the past. Any "new" suggestion is greeted by "we already tried that". Or worse, rather than asking how God is at work around us and how we could participate in this ongoing activity, there has been a looking back at the good old days with fondness, trying to get back into the past. (I do this as an individual too, trying to recover times when my prayer life seemed particularly fulfilling--note that I am saying I want the sense of fulfillment, which is not the motivation I should have for prayer.)

    I'm taking a long time to say that like individuals our churches and groups have attitudes and habits; these too can be a form of institutional sin.

    Whenever I see the expression "clean hands" I immediately think of the verses from Psalm 24:

    Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
    Who shall stand in his holy place?
    Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
    who do not lift up their souls to another,
    or swear by what is false.

    As individuals and as a church, we ask "to what do we lift our souls"--what are our priorities, what gets our attention? What are our idols? Our failures to reach out to the neighbor, hear the cry of the needy, aren't because we chose these but because we have focused our attention elsewhere.

  3. Hilarious, Keith you must have been posting while I was writing (and writing and writing). No surprise that you write in 4 lines what it takes me a page to get out. :-)