Two Birds of the Secret Heart

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“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 that flood his eyes and stream down his face.

“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 own inmost being, the true secret heart, you might say – the heart that pumps life into us – and the secret heart of our own 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?

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).

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)

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

 

 

 

 

 

Christ the King

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Poet Malcolm Guite’s poetry holds the essential paradox of the Christian faith and life. Open the re-blogged piece to read and listen to his poem for the last Sunday of the Christian liturgical year, Christ the King Sunday.

Malcolm Guite

20111119-111210We come now to a feast of Ends and Beginnings! This Sunday is the last Sunday in the cycle of the Christian year, which ends with the feast of Christ the King, and next Sunday we begin our journey through time to eternity once more, with the first Sunday of Advent. We might expect the Feast of Christ the King to end the year with climactic images of Christ enthroned in Glory, seated high above all rule and authority, one before whom every knee shall bow, and of course those are powerful and important images, images of our humanity brought by him to the throne of the Heavens. But alongside such images we must also set the passage in Matthew (25:31-46) in which Christ reveals that even as He is enthroned in Glory, the King who comes to judge at the end of the ages, he is also the hidden King…

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2017 in the Cleft of the Rock

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This 500th Anniversary of the 16th Century Reformation is also the onset of climate departure. Not just climate change, but climate departure, the tipping point beyond which there is no way back.

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Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Preparing to preach on Reformation Sunday at Central Presbyterian Church in St. Paul leads to reflection on a strange text and several great hymns.

The text (Exodus 33:12-23) pictures Moses in the cleft of the rock with God’s hand covering him while God passes by with the reminder that no mortal can see the face of God and live. The hymns that come to mind are “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.”

Perhaps, like Moses in the wilderness, we are in the cleft of the rock — between a rock and a hard place — and more than a little humbled as the Creator of all that is, Being-Itself, passes by while we are in the dark.

This moment of climate departure demands a new reformation, beginning with the recognition that we, homo sapiens, are mammals with the horses, cows, dogs, lions, cheetahs, and elephants — and that our future is imperiled by the gods of greed and prosperity our hearts have manufactured.

“Human nature is, so to speak, a perpetual factory of idols,” wrote the 16th Century Reformer John Calvin.

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2017 is a far cry from 1517, but it is, in this respect, the same.

A difference this year is that Martin Luther’s Ein feste Burg — “A Mighty Fortress” — will be sung in Catholic masses as well as protestant celebrations, bearing witness to the reconciling love of God over centuries of time.

Meanwhile the prosperity gospel — based on the idol of property — will go unchallenged in many churches, a departure from the truth that can only be found between a rock and a hard place: this cleft of the rock in 2017 while God passes by.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 27, 2017.

 

A Brother’s Letter to the President

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September 25, 2017

Dear Mr. President:

I write to introduce myself as the brother you didn’t know you had.

baby_baptism_1368526cAs my grandson Elijah’s letter to you following your speech to the United Nations mentioned, you and I were baptized as infants in churches of the Presbyterian Church (USA) — you in New York City and I in Pennsylvania. Your parents and mine both answered ”We do” to the question “Do you promise, in dependence on the grace of God, to bring up your child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?”

As Elijah said, we don’t use the word ‘nurture’ much these days and ‘admonition’ has disappeared from our vocabulary — not the kind of positive-thinking that fits well with the prosperity gospel that has displaced what you and I were taught in Confirmation Class. But maybe the old church had it right that both nurture and admonition are essential to Christian faith and practice.

One of your home church’s pastors, Ray Schwartzbach, served as senior minister of the College Church and Pastor to The College of Wooster before going to First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica where you were baptized and confirmed. When Ray returned to Wooster for a visit, I had become his successor.

I remember his description of your church as the most diverse congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) with 32 different languages spoken among its membership. That was the church where your parents promised to nurture and admonish you in the faith. It is also the church whose members committed to partner with your parents as the extended family that would raise you in the way of Christ.

Among his peers in the Presbyterian Church, Ray was to his ministerial colleagues what John Gresham’s “Street Lawyer” was among his peers. He was a rough and ready street minister more at home among the poor — on the streets among the homeless and in the tenements and public housing — than in the places of white privilege in Wooster or downtown Manhattan. He admonished the rich and nurtured the powerless in the name of Christ. Ray Schwartzbach was bigger on the cross and resurrection than he was on Norman Vincent Peale and the power of positive thinking that came to influence you as an adult at Marble Collegiate Church.

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McGaw Chapel

It was into this “nurture and admonition of the Lord” as Ray understood them that you and I were baptized as brothers in Christ before either of us could raise a finger to protest it. As the great Christian ethicist Paul Lehmann, may he rest in peace, told the students from the pulpit of McGaw Chapel at The College of Wooster during my tenure there, “Your parents played a dirty trick on you. They baptized you as a child of God and a disciple of Christ before you could object to it. Whatever you would do from that day forward, the declaration made at your baptism will always identify you.”

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Inauguration of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States of America – Getty Image.

Since our infant baptisms, you have gone on to become the President of the United States of America, a position without peer. But, as a brother, we are still peers in the same family. I write you in that spirit, remembering an exchange years ago between a new president of St. Olaf College here in Minnesota and a lowly faculty member just before the new president’s inauguration.

The new president from Norway with a heavy accent and a young faculty member, each in his impressive academic garb, found themselves standing next to each other in the men’s room moments before the ceremony. “In yust a moment,” said the soon-to-be installed Norwegian President of St. Olaf, “I will be the president and you will still be yust a yunior faculty member, but here we are both yust peers.”

849537016As your brother in Christ, your speech at the United Nations took a toll on me. I watched and listened, hoping to see and hear something that might reflect the spirit of the faith tradition we share. Instead I saw finger pointing and frowns, and heard harsh words of admonition of North Korea that embarrassed me, my church, and my country.

I am just a junior faculty member five years your senior, retired, and without question the less accomplished of the two of us. Although we have never stood next to each other, we do know each other from a distance through the shared history of our baptisms in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Whether or not either of us likes it, I am your brother in Christ, a peer.

In that spirit, I owe it to you to speak a gentle word of admonition. As the brother you didn’t know you have, I wished you had remembered your baptism. I wish you had remembered that we’re all just peers before you missed the urinal and hit the whole world we were nurtured and admonished to love.

Your Brother in Christ,

Gordon C. Stewart

 

 

 

 

 

The owl in the wilderness

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An owl greeted Kay this morning from a tree outside the door of the wilderness cabin next to the wetland with the swans’ nest before we turned to the wisdom of the Psalm assigned for today by The Book of Common Prayer.

But as for me, my feet had nearly slipped;
I had almost tripped and fallen;

Because I envied the proud
and saw the prosperity of the wicked:

For they suffer no pain,
and their bodies are sleek and sound;

In the misfortunes of others they have no share;
they are not afflicted as others are;

Therefore, they wear their pride like a necklace
and wrapt their violence about them like a cloak.

Their iniquity comes from gross minds,
and their thoughts overflow with wicked thoughts.

They scoff and speak maliciously;
out of their haughtiness they plan oppression.

They set their mouths against the heavens,
and their evil speech runs through the world.

And so the people turn to them
and find in them no fault.

They say, “How should God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?”

So then, these are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase their wealth.
….

Like a dream when one awakens, O Lord,
when you arise you will make their image vanish.

[Psalm 73:2-12, 20]

Having almost tripped and fallen into despair, I hear in the psalmist’s voice the hoot of the owl in the wilderness and pray that the evil speech that ran through the world from the podium of the United Nations and the mage of the violent and the haughty will vanish.

A Hymn for Houston

Watching rescue workers, the Red Cross, FEMA workers, and volunteers serving in Houston brings to mind a rare hymn that focuses on the city in a time of despair.

Click HERE for the lyrics.

Erik Routley’s rendering of Charleston, an American folk tune, honors all who love and serve the city, all who bear its daily stress.

Across America — from tiny churches in Appalachia, the bayous of Louisiana, and Sitka, Alaska to Memorial Church at Harvard — prayers are lifted and hymns are being sung in thanks for all who love and serve the city.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 30, 2017.

 

 

A Moment of National Decision

Pastors sometimes view the world differently. Pondering the President’s visit to Houston today, the lines from three hymns come to mind.

“In an age of twisted values we have lost the truth we need. In sophisticated language we have justified our greed.”

“We have built discrimination on our prejudices and fear. Hatred swiftly turns to cruelty if we hold resentments dear.”

And these lines from James Russell Lowell‘s old chestnut, “Once to Every Man and Nation”:

“Once to every man and nation/ Comes the moment to decide/ In the strife of truth with falsehood/ For the good or evil side;/ Some great cause, some great decision/ Offering each the bloom or blight,/ And the choice goes by forever/ ‘Twixt that darkness and that light.”

If John Newton, the former slave ship captain, could be turned into an abolitionist by the amazing grace “that saved a wretch like me,” who’s to say amazing things can’t happen on August 29, 2017?

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 29, 2017.

Singing through the storm?

Watching the floods in Texas, I don’t feel like singing. But, while weeping for the people of south Texas, I hear the song of Pete Seeger wading through the storms and lamentations.

When Robert Lowry (1826-1899) wrote “How Can I Keep from Singing,” Pete Seeger (1919-2014) hadn’t been born, but Lowry’s music found a voice in Pete and others who listen amid life’s storms and lamentations.

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Rev’d Robert Lowry, preacher and hymn writer

A reporter once asked him what was his method of composition— “Do you write the words to fit the music, or the music to fit the words?” His reply was:

“I have no method. Sometimes the music comes and the words follow, fitted insensibly to the melody. I watch my moods, and when anything good strikes me, whether words or music, and no matter where I am, at home or on the street, I jot it down. Often the margin of a newspaper or the back of an envelope serves as a notebook. My brain is a sort of spinning machine, I think, for there is music running through it all the time. I do not pick out my music on the keys of an instrument. The tunes of nearly all the hymns I have written have been completed on paper before I tried them on the organ. Frequently the words of the hymn and the music have been written at the same time.”

Robert Lowry regarded “Weeping Will Not Save Me” as the best hymn he ever wrote.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 29, 2017.

 

All us bastards

“Rev. Will D. Campbell, Maverick Minister in Civil Rights Era, Dies at 88” read the New York Times obituary. Will Campbell (1924-2013) was more than unusual. He was idiosyncratic.

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When the nine black school children walked through the hostile crowds attempting to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School, Will Campbell was one of four adults at their side. A civil rights leader, his life was threatened repeatedly over the years.

But there was something unusual about him. Will Campbell was “a good ol’ boy” from the white backwaters of Mississippi who became one of Martin Luther King’s closest confidants, the ONLY white person present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that led the charge for Civil Rights in America.

In 1964 Will founded the Committee of Southern Churchmen, the successor to the all but defunct Fellowship of Southern Churchmen that had been created in the 1930’s to combat injustices in labor, politics, and race relations.

The Committee of Southern Churchmen created a new journal Katallagate — Greek New Testament for “Be reconciled!”) — which reached a national audience in the conviction that the underlying issues were beyond regional.

With the passage of the Civil Right Act, Will did something few but his friend Martin Luther King, Jr. could have imagined. He re-directed his ministry to the newly defeated hooded enemies of all things good, the Ku Klux Klan.

fc68a5171519678c41618146c96931a9--rustic-porches-country-porchesNo one but Will Campbell seemed to consider such a thing, let alone do it. But he did. Will headed for the rocking chairs on the front porches of the Klan to sip some moonshine and sit a spell. He became the civil rights chaplain to the KKK, returning to his roots as poor white trash raised in the backwaters of Mississippi.

51ZqWjXVehL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Looking back on his life and ministry, he wrote in Brother to a Dragonfly, after the tragedy of his brother’s death:

“I had become a doctrinaire social activist without consciously choosing to be. And I would continue to be some kind of social activist. But there was a decided difference. Because from that point on I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.”

He confused his critics equally – first the Right and then the Left – insisting that his soul did not belong to anyone’s team – racial, political, religious, cultural, national. There was only one team:  humankind standin’ in the need of prayer. There is only one rightful place for a soul: the Kingdom of God.

“We’re all bastards,” he was often heard to say, “but God loves us anyway.”

He meant both things.

The belief “but God loves us anyway” reorganized his hierarchy of values around a non-elitist, non-righteous compassion. It was that compassion that had led him to campaign for racial equality in the Civil Rights Movement, and it was compassion that later led him to sip whiskey with the cross-burners in the rocking chairs on their front porches. His was a ministry of reconciliation, a living, idiosyncratic example of the good news that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own Self: katallagete!

contentWhile Will continued to drink whiskey on the porches of America’s new legal bastards, Katallagete reached a wider national audience with a “who’s who” of religious, academic, political, and cultural luminaries: Thomas Merton, William Stringfellow, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Vernard Eller, Jacques Ellul, W.H. Ferry, Duncan Gray, John Howard Griffin, Fannie Lou Hamer, Joe Hendricks, Jim Herndon, Christopher Lasch, Julius Lester, John Lewis, J. Louis Martyn, Reinhold Neibuhr, Walker Percy, and Robert Penn Warren.

Although I never met Will Campbell, Katallagete was must reading until it ceased publication, and I’ve been thinking more lately about what Will would say today.  His memory reminds me all these years later how hard it is to be a disciple of Jesus, how hard it is not to hate in 2017. How hard it is to love my neighbor as myself. How hard it is to love the enemies, especially when the neighbor and the enemy is the illegitimate bastard self on the rocking chair of my front porch.

Would that all us bastards were as idiosyncratic as Will.

 

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 27, 2017.

If you love him, why not serve him?

Fourth in a series on “Jacob’s Ladder at Almost 75”

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The time with Tony on Green Street changed my life in ways I could not have expected when the junior high youth group had left Broomall that morning to do a good deed for “the less fortunate” — an act of Christian service, as we would have called it — in north Philadelphia.

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Chronos and his Child by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, National Museum in Warsaw, a 17th century depiction of Titan Cronus as “Father Time,” wielding a harvesting scythe

Time is a funny thing. Chronos (clock time) and Kairos (existential time) both happen on the clock but they are not the same.

Chronological time ticks forward, leaving every previous moment behind; Kairos stops time and re-orients the future.

The hours on Green Street are as fresh at the three-quarter century mark as the day they happened.

“If you love him, why not serve him, soldier of the cross?” asks Jacob’s Ladder of all who aspire to follow Jesus. If Jesus could stoop down to wash his disciples’ feet, surely we could go down to Green Street for a day.

The kids from Marple Church in Broomall left that morning to do just that. We went to serve as a different kind of army, the philanthropic foot-washing soldiers of goodness giving up a Saturday to carry heavy furniture at a ghetto settlement house with other young soldiers of the cross from the inner city African-American Berean Presbyterian Church.

“If you love him, why not serve him?”

We put on our work clothes, travelled to Green Street, and rolled up our sleeves in the strange new world of the Green Street Settlement House.

Although we knew spirituals like “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” we had little if any idea of their socio-economic-policitical origins or implications. Although we were conscious of their origins in chattel slavery, we were northerners. We knew nothing of W.E. DuBois, and Michael Harrington’s The Other America, William Stringfellow’s My People Is the Enemy, James Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues and Black Theology and Black Power were years away from being published. Reading them would come years later.

During an afternoon break, the woman who organized the day asked Tony to go home to get something they needed. Perhaps it was a screwdriver. Or maybe a rubber band. It doesn’t matter. I went “home” with Tony. “When we get home,” said Tony as best I can recall it, “my brother might be there. If he’s there, he’ll be sitting in the corner. Just ignore him and you’ll be okay. He won’t like you being there.”

What_s_in_a_name_-_The_Problem_with_the__Nation_of_Islam__(part_1_of_2)_001Tony’s older brother Danny didn’t like white people. He had left the church to become a convert to The Nation.

The furthest thing from the mind of the loving servants of Jesus from Broomall was that someone might not like white people.  Or that Tony’s brother would see Christian “service” as servile — a demeaning attack on black dignity and pride — or see the “soldiers of the cross” as the problem, not the solution. Danny didn’t look up during our brief visit to the Lewis’s home.

The day with Tony shook my sense of innocence to its foundations. It was a Kairos moment — a deconstruction and reconstruction of faith and consciousness that continues at age 75.

But each person’s autobiography is distinct. I didn’t realize until this morning how much my memory of the day is a guy‘s memory of it. I was lifting heavy furniture with a kid named Tony, getting to know each other carrying sofas and chairs from one location to the next. Although neither Tony nor I was big or strong, my diminutive friend Carolyn was smaller . . .  and she was a member of the “weaker sex,” as it was called by some back then.

Only yesterday did I learn that my dear Broomall friend Carolyn was having anything but a Kairos moment scrubbing a toilet on Chronos time all by herself. Carolyn’s email reads as follows:

I had a very strange time. It seemed to them, and I’m sure they were correct, that I couldn’t do some of the heavy lifting, so they set me to sandpapering a few layers of awful paint off the toilet seat. I worked hard at it all day, and only got about half done when they remembered I was there and I was embarrassed that in all that time I had not finished my only project. They were very nice about it. But I didn’t get a chance to meet any of the Berean folks except the lady who gave me the job.

Reading Carolyn’s memory takes me in different directions that change the intent of this reflection: the difference gender, as well as racial privilege, seems to have made scraping multiple layers of paint and who knows what else from a crusty toilet seat, a task that may have been all too familiar to the woman who assigned the job to Carolyn.

maidSome Chronos moments are Kairos moments, as the day with Tony was for me. Others are time bent over a toilet seat. The difference is as clear as black and white, poor and rich. How many of the women from Berean rose every morning to put on their maid uniforms to catch the subway and the Red Arrow bus to become invisible, forgotten “soldiers of the cross” in the wealthy homes on the Main Line an hour’s ride west of Philadelphia?

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 9, 2017.