Two Birds of the Secret Heart

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59476eb9d98ab50256137e216d23f129--scripture-art-psalms

“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

 

 

 

 

 

Cuba – Finally a Breakthrough

Goliath’s bullying is almost over. After 53 years, by the good offices of Pope Francis and Canada, and  by order of U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro, the U.S.A. and Cuba are taking steps to normalize relations. At long last, Cuba and we will be neighbors again.

FLASHBACK:

It’s later afternoon in 1979. A 37-year-old minister/college pastor from Wooster, Ohio is mixing with other guests from all over the world at a social hour on the veranda of the residence of the Rev. Dr. Jose Arce Martinez, Dean of the ecumenical Protestant seminary in Matanzas, Cuba.

Thirteen years earlier, the young minister, then a seminarian, had been sent by the City of Chicago Chapter of the Experiment in International Living to live for three months in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. There he had participated in the Christian-Marxist Dialogue founded by Czech theologian and former Princeton Theological Seminary Professor of Theology Josef Hromadka. In Bratislava he had lived with the Schulz family.Mr. and Mrs. Schulz were employed by the Department of Economics and the Department of Justice. Pan (Mr.) Schulz, after welcoming him to their home with a shot of Slivovitz (plum brandy), had said with a a smile, “I’m a whole lot Marxist…but still a little bit Lutheran.”

The 75 international guests at the Matanzas seminary are Christian theologians, bishops, and pastors from Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Argentina, Venezuela, Chile, Mexico, Uruguay, Peru, the U.S.S.R, East and West Germany, France, and the U.S.A. They’ve been convened at the invitation of the seminary with the consent of the government of Cuba following the Pope’s conference on human development at Puebla, Mexico.

Earlier that day the guests had stood on the lonely beach of Playa Girón, site of the Bay of Pigs invasion, where the air was still heavy from the deaths of the CIA-led invasion of Cuba that had failed. Being at Playa Playa Girón had been chilling. A Cuban Pentecostal minister who lost a leg in the battle at Playa Girón explained the scene of the American invasion to his North America visitor.

That afternoon, they return to the seminary for the social hour where they are joined by a small number of members of the Cuba government. The young minister engages in a conversation with someone named Raúl who asks him what it means to him to be a Christian. He answers that to be a Christian is to be a disciple of Jesus, and that to be a disciple of Jesus means to give oneself to the Kingdom of God. He tells Raul that Marx’s classless society is borrowed from Jesus’s teaching and that he shares that vision.

Raúl smiles and says that they will have to see whether it is of God or of Man that it comes. Only time will tell. They shake hands as brothers in a common cause to end human misery and agree that only time will tell.

Today Raúl Castro and Barack Obama agreed to pursue normal relations between little David and the giant Goliath.

Thanks you, Barack. Thank you, Raúl. Thank you, Canada. Thank you, Pope Francis. Thank you, God!

 

The Secret Heart and the Inner Being

Nathan accusing David

Nathan accusing David

“Behold, You seek truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” (Psalm 51:6)

What is the secret heart?

Is it 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 synonym and antonym at the same time?
_______

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 and streaming down his face like rivers.

David’s secret heart is dirty and he knows it. He cannot wash the stain of blood from his hands. Nathan has exposed his sin. Nathan’s story-telling has seduced David into the trap where his secret is exposed to his inner being. Nathan has baited David with a story that has aroused David’s anger. “As the LORD lives,” said David to Nathan, ” the man who has done this deserves to die!” And Nathan then said to David, “YOU are the man.”

“Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,” cries out David in Psalm 51, “and cleanse from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is every before me.”

It is a scene straight from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

“Out, damn spot! OUT, I say…. all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!”

_____

Hebrew Psalms are like that. The 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 secret heart heart has produced. It is Nathan, David’s commander on the battlefront, who confronts him with the truth.

Nathan, relying on a fresh report from the front line of battle, tells David that Uriah, the King’s next door neighbor, a man of valor and impeccable loyalty to King David, whom David had sent off to war to secure Uriah’s wife Bathsheba for himself, is dead! His blood is on David! Nathan has spoken the truth to power. And the way that Nathan has spoken it to the King has taken him into the deepest parts that are at war within himself.

There is no wisdom in David’s secret heart. There is only treachery.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from Your presence,
and take not Your Holy Spirit from me.”

“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!”

_____

What’s hyssop?

Hyssop is the foliage of an aromatic plant named in the Passover story (Exodus 12:21-27) and used in the cleansing of a healing and cleansing of a leper (Leviticus 4:51).

The rite of cleansing involves 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 bloodguiltiness, 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.”

_____

David in Psalm 51 is both birds.

He is the one who deserves to die. Yet he is also the one who lives. He lives not because of the heart that had conspired against Uriah and betrayed his own inward being – “Against You (God) only have I sinned…” (Ps. 51:4). He lives because there is more mercy in God (the inward being) than there is sin in him.

“The sacrifice acceptable to God,” he concludes, the tears still streaming down his face, but calmer now, “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) The inner being – his Deeper Being – has taught his released him for wisdom.

Death in the Wood of Ephraim (Dennis Aubrey)

Dennis Aubrey of Via Lucis posted Death in the Wood of Ephraim (Dennis Aubrey), a one-of-a-kind reflection on the biblical David and the death of his slain rebellious son Absalom.

Dennis and PJ continually bring to the internet something very special: their thoughtful interplay between their photographs of Romanesque and Gothic architecture and commentaries on what they experience while photographing them and researching their histories.

Via Lucis is an example of the spiritual and artistic integration of external (visible) and internal (invisible) reality. This morning I left this comment for Dennis:

Dennis, this is such a profound reflection, in my view. Once again you weave the thread through the highs of joy and the depths of sin and sorrow in ways that move us beyond the separation of light and shadow/darkness that too often keeps us in spiritual and moral diapers, separating the sheep from the goats. Your note gives me hope that the time preparing for the pulpit is not in vain, especially when it is appreciated by someone who does not define himself as a practicing Christian. Friedrich Schleiermacher spent his life in conversation with “the cultured despisers” (i.e., good, rational people whose sophistication had led them to conclude that religion was a relic  that impedes the sure ascent of historical progress).  In your photography and writings I find a conversation partner who lives at the razor’s edge between belief and disbelief, joy and despair, the heights and the abyss of nothingness, and the honest search for hope and truth beyond the illusion of inevitable progress. If Romanesque architecture “induces internal experience and reflection…” – the internal experience of the external expression of Gothic – your photography and commentaries continually weave the two together to achieve a rare depth, and a balance between the seen and unseen, the external and internal. I am deeply grateful. – Gordon

If you go to Dennis’s site, please take a moment to comment. Or you may leave a comment here.

Heinrich Schutz’ lament for Absalom

Thanks to Dennis Aubrey of Via Lucis for sharing Heinrich Schutz’s rendering of David’s lament, “My son, Absalom!” in response to “Holy Tears: David, Absalom…and Us” posted here on Views from the Edge this morning.

“Holy Tears: David, Absalom…and Us”

A sermon inspired by the personal story of a king who was losing it and his son, Absalom, leading to the larger question of how we define abundance in our time. If you can get by the first minute and have the time – it’s dreadfully long 🙂 it might be of interest. Please let me know your responses to the last part of the sermon re-defining the idea of abundance.