How does a change of heart happen?
A Reflection for Thursday of the Fifth Week of Easter
“Sing a New Song to the Lord.” (Psalm 96)
The history of the world is filled with people who at some point started to “sing a new song,” as the psalm calls us today. Robert Oppenheimer became a pacifist after witnessing the destructive power of the atomic bomb he had helped develop. Alabama Governor George Wallace was a vicious racist who renounced his views entirely in later life. Megan Phelps-Roper, the granddaughter of the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, went from evangelist for the group’s hate-filled rhetoric against Jews, Muslims and members of the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community, to one of its most ardent critics.
How does a change of heart like that happen? What does it take?
A lot of the time, it seems like it involves getting “knocked off your horse,” as happened to St. Paul, having your point of view challenged in such a radical way that you can’t avoid the implications. While running for president, George Wallace was shot five times by a mentally ill man. The shooting would leave him permanently paralyzed from the waist down. And while he was in the hospital, he was visited by Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to be elected to Congress, who was also running for president. Chisholm in fact suspended her campaign to go see Wallace, a move that deeply angered many of her own supporters. As The Washington Post reported a few years ago, Wallace asked Chisholm, “What are your people going to say about your coming here?” Chisholm told him: “I know what they’re going to say but I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.” And that was apparently the first step in Wallace’s conversion.
The history of the world is filled with people who at some point started to “sing a new song,” as the psalm calls us today.
That’s another thing: Singing a new song doesn’t usually seem to happen all at once. You think of the male disciples of Jesus, people who had made the decision to leave everything to follow him—that leap of faith made them seem pretty impressive right from the start. But then in the Gospels they’re constantly getting it all wrong—arguing about who gets to sit next to him, trying to run off people who ask Jesus for help, and finally denying they even knew him (whether by word or by their absence at his crucifixion). Singing a new song is like writing a new song: a journey, a process. And the only sure sign that you’re on the right track seems to be that things have gotten messy and uncomfortable.
Can we jump start that process of conversion, I wonder? And honestly, I’m not sure. Does anyone really go in search of a searing experience of loss, a painful confrontation with their own sinfulness, or even just the kind of profoundly revelatory moment experienced by Mary? It seems like these are more things that happen to you, like the dwarves showing up at Bilbo’s house unannounced at the start of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and you just have to roll with them.
Maybe the most that we can do is, in the words of the poet Mary Oliver, “Make the House Ready for the Lord.”
“Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but still nothing is as shining as it should be for you,” Oliver writes. “When I speak to the fox, the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know that really I am speaking to you, whenever I say, as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.”
Today and every day, can we say to the Lord, “Come in, come in”?