After an extended period of dismay and bewilderment, Psalm 39 opened a vein to write again.
A Psalmic Meditation of a Hermit Crab
I said, “I will be careful how I act
and will not sin by what I say.
I have been careful. A hermit crab at low tide, I sidle into a borrowed shell, not too big and not too small, to hide from birds of prey. I stuff myself inside. When the tide comes in, I may leave this shell. But not now. The sand is hot. The gulls are feeding.
I will be careful what I say
around wicked people.”
It’s not just the birds of prey that keep me here. Whatever I say outside will make it hotter for crabs like me. I’m crabby and cranky. “Keep your words to yourself! The world doesn’t need more heat. We all need to cool down.”
So I kept very quiet.
I didn’t even say anything good,
but I became even more upset.
Despair is a horrible thing. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it. Stay in your room until you have something nice to say. You have to be positive.” I have nothing good to say. Nothing calm. Nothing of value. Nothing to cool the beach at noon. Nothing to lower the blistering heat rising in me.
I became very angry inside,
and as I thought about it, my anger burned.
Glass shattering, Stop the Steal, Hang Mike Pence, Execute Nancy, Make America Great Again, sounds of threats and violence, cries for help, and the silence from the White House still hurt my ears.
Then I remember how Jeremiah wept. Truth, he said, was dark and deep, and bought a worthless plot of land where hope could live.
The prophet Jeremiah, Michelangelo fresco, Sistine Chapel
So I spoke:
“Lord, tell me when the end will come
and how long I will live.
Let me know how long I have.
You have given me only a short life;
my lifetime is as nothing in your sight;
Even those who stand erect are but a puff of wind.
It’s hard alone outside the shell. The wind is stiff. The sky is dark. Light is White and right; Black is dark and wronged again. Truth sways by a noose from the lynching tree.
When will this end? When will it stop? How will it stop? I’m an old man; my time is short, this short puff of air, soon to disappear.
People are like shadows moving about.
All their work is for nothing;
they collect things but don’t know who will get them.
My kind and I are like ghosts sidling along the wall of shadows we faintly see in Plato’s cave. We find no respite from the heat and clamor into which we once could crawl — or thought we could. We leave behind a scorched gift to generations yet to come.
“So, Lord, what hope do I have?
You are my hope.”
Sea levels have rise, the tides are higher, the forests burning, the rivers drying, fields once lush and green now parched and brown, the planet spinning out of control, like a top our hands have spun. These mortal selves, this factory of gods our hearts conceive, cannot hide from Thee, O Lord, the “I AM” without end, the Breath of Life that breathes a breath through me.
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), host of Views from the Edge: To see More Clearly, Brooklyn Park, MN, January 23, 2023.
A psalmic reflection on Derek Chauvin in light of Psalm 32 and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”
Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, and whose sin is put away! Blessed/happy is the one to whom the LORD imputes no guilt,and in whose spirit there is no deceit!
He is guilty. It was his knee that pressed George Floyd’s neck against the pavement. I saw it with my own eyes. I watch his eyes during the trial. I see no hint of remorse. No sense of guilt. He sheds no tears. His mouth stays shut. He does not speak.
When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.
Is he silent now in solitary confinement? Does he have conversations with himself? Does he scream at the jury for failing to vindicate him? Does he talk with God? Is he restless all day and all night? Does he feel a heavy hand pressing down on him the way his knee had pressed down on George Floyd’s neck? Is he wasting away, groaning all day long?
You are my hiding place; You preserve me from trouble; You surround me with shouts of deliverance.
He is not preserved from trouble in maximum security. The shouts of other inmates on the solitary confinement cell block are taunts, not shouts of deliverance: “I can’t breathe; I can’t breathe, Mr. Officer! Get your White knee off my Black neck!” There is no hiding in this place where only perps, not cops, do time. There is no solitude. There are no shouts of deliverance.
“I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go; I will guide you with My eye.
Does he sense a presence waiting to instruct and guide him into a way beyond the White/Black—Innocent/Guilty—Cop/Perp—Top/Bottom—Up/Down-World his eyes are trained to see? Does he sense the presence of a different Eye, a greater I than he?
“Do not be like a horse or mule, without understanding; Whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you."
Will he bow his head to be fit with the long-suffering patience that reins in deluded mules and bucking broncos? Will the solitary cop in orange shift from wailing in the minor key of down-and-out-over-and-done to the glad shouts of deliverance by an I greater than he? Does he hear the the chant — “a love supreme…a love supreme…a love supreme” — of a bridled Coltrane resounding off the walls in this not-so-God-forsaken place?
In this place where cops are perps and perps are cops with heads bowed by the law, will the killer cop bow the knee that killed George Floyd? Will he bow his head to be fit with the bit and bridle of a Love Supreme that delivers the soul from every illusion of supremacy?
A Love Supreme
Click HERE and scroll forward to 6:00 minute to hear Coltrane’s unexpected chant, a love supreme, a love supreme.
— Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), a reflection on Psalm 32 (GCS Unauthorized Version), and the solitary confinement of Derek Chauvin, August 9, 2021.
A morning reflection on Psalm 97
Let the earth rejoice; Let the multitude of the isles be glad. - Psalm 97, Book of Common Prayer
There is no multitude of isles here. I see instead a multitude of cattails, and lily pads waiting to splash bursts of yellow on this off the map wetland pond, this place like no other among the multitude of wetlands, marshes, and fens. It calls no attention to itself. Perhaps that’s why I like it so.
Eared Grebe caution and curiosity
This morning an Eared Grebe teenager is playing hide-n-seek, surveilling the stranger on the dirt road. I see only one. It darts behind the cattails and shows itself again, paddling among the lily pads with eyes trained on the stranger, its head turning left, to right, and straight ahead again before diving out of sight and rising here and there, looking and hiding until, suddenly, three siblings who’d slept in late turn the caution and curiosity of one into the daily familiarity of four — life without strangers.
Eared Grebes and the fine arts
I wonder whether Eared Grebes hear and see what only children, painters, musicians, and poets of my kind know, stopping to see and listen and rejoice with the isles themselves: “The LORD is King; let the earth rejoice; let the multitude of the isles be glad!” (Psalm 97:1).
Troubles and the gladness of another day
Do Eared Grebes know of kings and queens, of gods and goddesses? Do they shudder and call for momma, huddling in their nest when thunder rolls and lightening flashes to light the starless sky? Do they smell the far-off smoke or hear the crackling fires from the Outback? Do they rue the death of ‘Roos? Do they despair of fires, earthquakes, winds, rising seas, floods, and dried up ponds? Do they imagine the mountains melting like wax? Do they have phonies who plunge them into despair or the ‘truehearted’ who raise their spirits to the gladness of awakening to another sunrise over the wetland?
The wonder of cattails and lily pads
Are Eared Grebes more attuned than the stranger to the wonder of this isle of cattails and lily pads, this isle with no distractions, where LIFE Itself— beginning, middle, and ending — is “Lord and King”?
The LORD is King; let the earth rejoice; let the multitude of isles be glad!
Gordon C. Stewart, by the wetland isle, August 12, 2020.
The gift of Psalm 31 and Walter Brueggemann
During this strange time, I’d been engaged with Psalm 31. Before posting the reflection on Psalm 31, I checked to see what Walter Brueggemann might have written about it. This sermon from the pulpit of Duke University Chapel fits our experience in 2020 as much as it did in 2009. Here are the opening words:
The young woman who sits across from me at Church is there every Sunday. She sits in a wheelchair close to the pulpit. She cannot control the movement of her legs, and mostly not her arms either. She groans and occasionally shrieks. My priest tells me she is fed only with a feeding tube. One of her parents must sleep on the floor of her room every night. She takes a fragment of the Eucharist every Sunday. Her mother said, reported my priest, “Do you think I am bad person if sometimes I wish this were all over?” The priest answered, “You would be a pitiful person if you did not think that sometimes.” I do not know what the young woman is thinking when she communes. But I have thought, perhaps, that she is reciting Psalm 31 . . . ,a complaint to God about the experience of unbearable suffering and a sense of social isolation . . . . Walter Brueggemann, Sermon "Continuing through the Disruptive Conjunctive" - Duke University Chapel, Palm/Passion Sunday, 2009.
About Walter Brueggemann & most recently published Books
The Rev. Dr. Walter Brueggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary. Click HERE for more information on the official website of Walter Brueggemann, or click the following titles titles for his latest publications.
Grace and Peace to all,
Leonard Bernstein’s “Simple Song” is a rendering of Psalm 121. It also calls to mind “Blessed are the pure of heart” — the Beatitude from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. It’s music that calms my whirling soul among the clanging cymbals.
A Simple Song — The Bernstein Mass
Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 29, 2020.
WHY AM I AWAKE?
The comforter feels heavy. My body is sore. So is my spirit. I shift from one side to the other and turn on my back, but it doesn’t help.
I look over to the night table at the old digital clock that once told my parents the time of day or night — the inheritance with the BIG red numbers that glow in the dark to help old folks read them.
The red numbers read 3:13.
I throw off the covers, stumble down the 18 steps to the first floor, make a pot of coffee, pour myself a cup, turn on the small table lamp by the fireplace, and sit down for an early morning conversation with the psalmist in the copy of The Book of Common Prayer Sue Kahn put in my hand years ago.
MEDITATION ON PSALM 5 (SELECTED VERSES)
In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
early in the morning I make my appeal and watch for you.[v.3]
I will put my trust in You. I will not surrender to powers that know no higher power.
You, Lord, are the Breath that breathes in all and makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and unjust — “Lord of lords and King of kings,” the Eternal One from Whom the little kings and usurpers cannot flee.
I make my appeal to You for Whom the darkness is as light. Things are dark here in America. We are divided. The future looks dark. Although my faith tells me You are present everywhere, I do not feel hopeful. It seems as though You have left us to our own devises.
For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness,
and evil cannot dwell with You. [v.4]
Though it feels as though You are hiding, I have to believe You do not take pleasure in wickedness, and that the partisan evil, as bold and obvious as the big red numbers on my parents’ digital clock at 3:13 A.M, will not prevail. Evil cannot dwell with You.
Braggarts cannot stand in your sight; you hate all those who work wickedness. [v.5]
Does it matter to You?
If braggarts cannot stand in Your sight, come into sight. Show Yourself. Take Your seat on the judgment throne to hold the braggarts accountable for their treason against You and all that breathes. Summon the braggarts to stand before You before it is too late.
Do You hate wickedness? Does Love also hate? Do You shrug and let it go?
But as for me, through the greatness of your mercy I will go into your house;
I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you. (v.7)
I will bow down in awe of You. The good green Earth is Your temple. I will look to the greatness of Your mercy. When it feels as though You are hiding, I will seek You. I will remember the wisdom of the Hasidic grandfather teach his grandson about You, when young Yechiel came home in tears because his friend had stopped looking for him in a game of hide-and-seek.
I will look for You.
Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 6, 2019.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God…” is a well-known prayer from the Psalms. It’s context — its back-story — is not so familiar.
Psalm 51 is a prayer attributed to David. It is not a quiet prayer. It is a wrenching, sobbing prayer, the words tumbling from David’s mouth in halting phrases and stammers with tears flooding his eyes, streaming down his cheeks.
The Inward Being
“Behold, You seek truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” (Psalm 51:6)
Is the secret heart the deepest place in us, the place where God is: the equivalent or synonym for “the inward being” – a poetic parallelism of Hebrew poetry? Or is it, perhaps, the secret place where we hide from God: the hiding place where we go off to a different heart than the Divine heart? Or could it be both at the same time?
David’s secret heart is dirty and he knows it. He cannot wash the stain of blood from his hands. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,” he cries out, “and cleanse from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” It is a scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
“Out, damn spot! OUT, I say…. all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!”
The Hebrew Psalms are like that. They are not sanitized. They plunge the reader into the conflict between the reader’s inmost being, the true secret heart, you might say – the heart that pumps life into us – and the secret heart of our flight from truth and goodness, the heart of deception and self-deception.
Why is David crying out? What has he done? What is the sin that is ever before him, the blood he can’t wash from his own hands?
A Response to Accusation
Psalm 51 comes in response to an accusation that has exposed the bloody behavior his secretive heart has produced. It is Nathan, David’s commander on the battlefront, who confronts David with the truth.
Nathan has just returned from the front to tell David that Uriah, the King’s next door neighbor, a man of impeccable loyalty valor, Bathsheba’s husband, whom David’s scheming heart has sent off to war, is dead! His blood is on David! Nathan has spoken the truth to power.
There is no wisdom in David’s secret heart. There is treachery there.
“Purge me!” cries David. Imagine Richard Burton at his most dramatic. “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow!” (Ps. 51:7)
Hyssop, the foliage of an aromatic plant named in the Passover story (Exodus 12:21-27), was used in the cleansing of a leper (Leviticus 4:51).
Two Small Birds
The rite of cleansing centers on two small birds. One bird is killed. The other bird is washed in the blood of the other under the flow of water and the sweetness of hyssop. The one bird dies. The second bird lives.
“Thus he (the priest) shall cleanse the house with the blood of the bird, and with the running water, and with the living bird, and with the cedarwood and hyssop and the scarlet stuff; and he shall let the living bird go out of the city into the open field; so he shall make atonement for the house, and it shall be clean.” (Lev. 14:52-53)
“Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation” cries Uriah’s killer curled up in a ball, hoping against all hope, “and my tongue will sing aloud of Your deliverance.” (Ps. 51:14)
Release Into the Open Field
David is both birds. He is the one who deserves to die. He is also the one who is living. He lives not because of the secretive heart that had conspired against Uriah, betraying his own inward being – “Against You only have I sinned…” (Ps. 51:4). He lives on because there is more mercy in God (the inward being) than there is sin in him.
“The sacrifice acceptable to God,” he concludes with tears, is “a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”
His body quivers as he imagines himself as the bird released into the open field by mercy alone, “according to Your steadfast love; according to Your abundant mercy.” (Ps. 51:1)
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Nov. 27, 2017