Joe R. Jones is a Disciples of Christ theologian who studied at Yale and spent much of his career in administration as well as teaching. After his retirement, Joe published the two-volume systematic theology, A Grammar of the Christian Faith. His work is robustly confessional and, as the title of his systematics indicates, especially concerned with the discourse of theology. He’s staying busy and productive in retirement, and now has forthcoming from Cascade A Lover’s Quarrel: A Theologian and His Beloved Church. It’s a lively collection of essays, blog posts, and sermons. Here’s an excerpt from a mediation on aging and the gospel Joe delivered at a retirement home.
“Consider especially: the blessings of having a pure heart. If the word ‘heart’ is referring to something other than that organ that pumps blood through our vessels and veins, then what are we talking about? When we say such words as ‘George has no heart,’ aren’t we saying something like ‘in relation to the desperate situations of other human beings, George has no disposition to sympathetic affections and no will to action to be at their side or to seek their well-being’? It would seem as though George’s spring for affections and actions is thwarted or so divided that he has become incapacitated to respond to others or to God with any passion undiluted by self-interest—by that inclination well-known to us all when we calculate ‘what’s in this for me?’
“Many are those of us gathered here today who have physical hearts that are weakened and function poorly, but we know that having such weakened hearts is not one of the conditions that Jesus says are blessed. Now, what did I just say? That having a poorly functioning heart is not one of the conditions that Jesus is saying are blessed—to be commended.
“The sort of heart that Jesus is blessing is that how of living in which the individual is free of guile and bile, free of hatred and deadly anger, free of that sort of self-interest that calculates outcomes and advantages. A pure heart, then, must be that sort of how of living in which a person can, without reservation, will the good of another human being as a hearty spirit whom God loves.
“Are there any folk here today who are pure in heart? That very question seems too harsh for us, especially those of us for whom the beauty of the beatitudes is what is most admirable about them.
“So, what do we folk who are aging do when a pure heart seems just too much, too remote, too far-fetched, too much to expect when so much pain and stress wracks our bodies?
“Might a pure heart emerge when we, in our aging bodies, move beyond excuse-making and the self-deception that we will be a robust forty again and perhaps move beyond the enervating supposition that in our extremities of aging we have no capacity to will the good of another?
“Might we become those who have at least glimpsed that sort of purity of heart that can honestly and freely confess the struggle and pains of the past, that can be released from the guilt of what was unfaithfully done or what was selfishly left undone?
“Might it be possible that any of us could possess a pure heart whenever we can confess and live as though we live before God’s forgiving and unrelenting grace? But we will only grasp this grace for ourselves when we also grasp that it is not a grace that has been earned by years of our living with a pure heart. And therefore, as unearned, it is weirdly and almost incomprehensibly an unearned grace even for our enemies.
“It is a pure heart that can give up keeping and settling old scores, give up even that self-condemnation that can creep into our awareness when we grasp just how much our hearts have been in disarray and broken thereby.
“Consider then this: the beatitudes are not to be seen as the ways in which we are to earn God’s grace; rather they are the gifts of living that are bestowed so abundantly upon us when we actually live that sort of how that accepts and trusts the grace and love of God for us all.
“Let those of us who are acutely aware of our physical and mental declines learn the how of receiving God’s grace with unfeigned gratitude and a heart that trusts, come what may, in the ultimacy of God’s grace.”