My son and I are working on a project together. He is trying to keep his room clean, and so am I. To be honest, keeping things clean is a never-ending effort in our home. All four of us—my wife, my daughter, my son, and me—struggle with keeping things tidy and organized.But, lately, my 8-year-old and I have tried to make a game of it. He reminds me about my piles of unread magazines, and I remind him to put away his shoes. Slowly, over time, we’re both getting a little better.
When you are a parent, it can be frustrating to revisit the same moment again and again with your kids. You find yourself continuously reminding them at dinner to keep their elbows off the table or to close their mouths when they chew. You might even catch yourself thinking: I just told them this. Why aren’t they listening?
You want it to be like a switch: You flip it, and they get it. But it never works like that.
That’s why working on this in tandem with my son is so helpful. You see, at the dinner table, I might think he’s the only one who needs to work on things. But giving him permission, even encouragement, to call me out on my magazine piles and unread mail helps to keep me humble.
It’s not a one-way street. We’re in it together.
Lately I’ve been reading the Gospel of Matthew, and I got stuck on the beatitudes, right there in chapter 5. In particular, I got stuck on the eighth verse: “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.”
Hearing that verse with modern ears can be a tough pill to swallow. I mean, I live with myself. I know how messed up the inner recesses of my heart can be.
And worse, there are other versions of the Bible that render the verse, “Blessed are the pure of heart.” That is frankly terrifying. Keeping my heart clean is hard enough, but pure seems impossible and simply unattainable. It feels as though the verse is asking me to flip a switch, and I am fumbling along the wall in the dark, trying to find it.
As I’ve been meditating on this verse, I dug back into the Greek I learned when I was at seminary. The word that we are translating as “clean” or “pure” is the primitive Greek word katharoi. When it shows up in the Bible, the word is often associated with actions like pruning vines or burning off dross with fire.
But more importantly for me, that word is closely associated with the root from which we get the modern word catharsis. In psychology, catharsis is the act of confronting deep emotions associated with events from the past that have never been adequately expressed. And that helps.
You see, in the ancient world, nothing ever showed up in its pure form. If you wanted salt, for example, it meant you had to work to dry out saltwater. And there were no washing machines, which meant you couldn’t just press a button and clean your clothes. If you wanted them clean, it took effort.
With katharoi, it’s a process, not a switch.
So what I’ve learned in this process with my son, when I get impatient with reminding him to clean his room for the umpteenth time, is that he’s working on it. And then he points at my piles of mail and magazines and reminds me that I’m working on it too.
There is no switch. It’s hard work. It’s heart work. But we’re getting there—together.