Clean My Heart!

It is Spring Time. We have light! That means I have the “opportunity” to work in the yard. There are trees to prune, weeds to pull, and pick up fallen fruit from the ground.

I prefer to pull weeds with ungloved hands, digging in with my fingers, so as to feel the roots. And, when pruning, I put the ladder right up into the tree, working on branches that are overhead. No branch has yet hit my head–at least I don’t think so. But I am often showered with leaves and dust as the branch falls to the ground. After some time in the tree, I’ll put the branches into the trash can. They never fit without my performing the trash smash from inside the can. When I’m done, you can bet a good share of yard debris clings to me. I look like a character out of a Tolkien novel…the walking tree!

Yard work is followed by one of the best moments of life: standing in a hot shower and washing all the mud away. Having felt so dirty, it feels so good to be washed clean.

In the superscription of Psalm 51, we are told David wrote this Psalm when he felt quite unclean. The prophet, Nathan, just delivered God’s message which was “David, God knows what you’ve done.”

What David had done was to make Bathsheba pregnant. When David brought Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, back from battle, and Uriah did not sleep with Bathsheba (because those were the rules for soldiers), the king sent Uriah out to be killed in battle, so as not to be found out.

It was all good if it were only humans he wanted to deceive. David tries to go on as if nothing has happened. He takes Bathsheba into his court. This makes him look generous. And he didn’t even need any lawyers to keep his high reputation. Only one small problem…God.

When Nathan speaks the truth, David has no defense. With God as the audience, there is no way to make himself look good. The Psalm is written, according to tradition, when David’s encounter with Nathan shows him the mud on his face and the mud on his hands, and the mud where the sun don’t shine.

Standing there, knowing God knows, David must have wanted to crawl into a hole. Twice God had called David a man after God’s own heart. That moniker seems very far away. For, in this moment, David is the one who has broken God’s heart.

Now, David could have made many human responses.

David could have said God will forgive me in time and stepped away, calling on God the next time he was in need, like the young adult who does not follow her Father’s advice but calls Daddy when she runs out of money. I call this the Daddy Doormat response.

Or David could have slammed the door saying “God’s not the boss of me.” This is the dangerous dragon response because if someone tries to open the door, the dragon spits out fire!

Or David could have said…“If God is going to make such a big deal of this, then God is being petty.” I call this response the devious deflection. When someone calls us out on our misbehavior, we tell them it is really their problem. “Why are you worried about my behavior?” the misbehaving person asks. And follows with “If you are so bored as to be worried about me, well, you’ve really got a problem.”

I remember such a devious deflection from the tv show “My Name is Earl.” When Earl asks his ex-wife why the car, he had bought for their daughter, is not outside her home, she replies, all in one breath: “I have a gambling problem and just lost our car on a bet, don’t judge me!”

I was curious where the phrase first turned up and found that Chris Brown wrote an R&B song called “Don’t Judge Me.” It is set up that he is talking with his girlfriend who wants to know what he’d done. Chris Brown sings…
I don’t want to go there…we should never go there…why you want to go there…guess we got to go there.”

He has no desire to share his indiscretions. The chorus…

So please don’t judge me and I won’t judge you ‘cause it could get ugly before it gets beautiful.

Now that’s a powerful insight. The ugly precedes the beautiful!

David loved God. He couldn’t make use of any of the three ds. He didn’t turn God into a doormat daddy, he didn’t become a dragon, or engage in devious deception. Instead, he had to “went there.” He cried them ugly tears, the kind that you don’t want anyone to see you cry, because your face is red, snot is coming out of your nose, and the sounds you make sound like a snorting pig. When David stopped sobbing, he called out from the ugliness he was feeling in his heart:

“My sin is ever before me.”
“Indeed I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”

And, because he is feeling so low, he believes there is a possibility that God would never want to see him again. So he bellows:

“Do not cast me away from your presence.”

He cries out, not to a disinterested universe, but to God, the one he loves.
Oh, some Christians like to skip the ugly tears and go directly to forgiveness…kind of the Chris Brown approach…don’t dwell on the past. I don’t want to go there. He’s got his lady; we’ve got Jesus. We are not perfect but we are forgiven.

The trouble with that is we never see the mud that is caked onto our souls. A prophet shows up at our door with a mirror and we descend into the 3 ds…turning God into a daddy doormat—do what I want! or deteriorating into dangerous dragons—“aaaaaa”, or employing devious deflection—“don’t judge me.” Sometimes, like a juggler, we toss all three into the air.

Avoid the ugly and you will miss the beautiful. I want you to get to the beautiful. What a shame it would be to miss it! You can see it shining through as David sings. Every time he speaks of his sin, he calls on God to wash him clean.

Verse 2: Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

And, every now and then he breaks into praise. In fact, he starts with it…
“Have mercy on me, O God, is followed by “according to your steadfast love.” (verse 1)

After he talks about being born guilty, he writes

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” (verse 6)

Even verse 8 resounds with praise…

“Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice!” (verse 8)

David imagines his crushed bones rejoicing! Not only because it feels good to have all that dirt washed off but because not only is God his God when he is a warrior and king; God, he is discovering, chooses to be his God when he has done an unspeakable thing.

In verse 9 you can picture David turning away in shame: “Hide your face from my sins, blot out all my iniquities.”

And then, pause, as if God has gently taken his chin and lifted it so God might gaze upon David’s face, David beseeches:

“Create in me a clean heart O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”

One moment he doesn’t want God to get close enough to see him. The next moment, David, feeling the light shining upon his face, asks God to make well his heart.

In verse 11 David expresses his panic “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.”

God responds. Something happens to enable David to stand taller and answer back in verse 12: “restore to me the joy of your salvation and sustain in me a willing spirit.”

The light no longer shines upon David’s sin but shines through him pointing again to joy. David, like a clean prism reflects the colors of the rainbow, leading to the pot of gold.

When we feel deeply a wrong we’ve done, it is natural to want God to look away. So we look away from God until we can get ourselves all made up again, if we can get ourselves all made up again. Scripture calls us to a different response.

When you are so ashamed that you dare not look for God, expect Nathan to come knocking on your door. When you are told what you don’t want to hear, and we’ve all been there sisters and brothers, it is going to hurt. If you don’t duck it, you are going to scream awhile and cry some ugly tears. But I want to plant something into your brain today … those ugly tears lead to something beautiful. When you are confronted with your own sin, do not crawl into a hole. Use it. It is an opportunity to enter into a deeper relationship with your God.

God is not only your God when you are powerful like a king; God is your God even when you’ve done an unthinkable thing.

And, yes, having experienced God working in your heart, even your crushed bones will rejoice.

In the Stars, a sermon

There was a time when David and I would argue something fierce. So, we got married.

Even now, when we argue, I want to have the last word, because that means I am right.

Despite my ego, however, I’ve learned that, sometimes, he is right. And, when I’m at my best, instead of feeling like I’ve lost some kind of battle, I can celebrate. Because, to gain a new insight that gives life to me or our daughter or our world is worth celebrating!

Both the Psalmist and Abram, experience an inner and world changing conversation. They are given a new way of life because they allow God to have the last word. God’s word brings life!

It all began when God introduced God’s self to Abram , saying “Hello!” “I am God, the Almighty.” It feels real casual, like in the movie “O God!” where George Burns talks to John Denver in a grocery store wearing big glasses and a baseball hat with a stylized G. But, while John Denver has much to say, on this first meeting, Abram is silent. Hearing God, he falls on his face. What did you expect? The big G is a whole lot more awesome than an old guy in flannel with a cigar in his mouth.

And God says, “Walk before me and be blameless, and I will make you exceedingly numerous.”

At first glance this seems to be a bad deal. God is behind Abram, watching everything he does. It is worse than Santa checking his list twice! God expects Abram, a descendant of Adam to be blameless. Doesn’t God understand it is a human God is speaking to? Humans got thrown out of the garden and thought it a good idea to create the Chia pet. And he, at 99, is being asked to start a new family as if 99 is the new 30.

To find what is life giving about this word, we have to search deeper.

Let’s start with that phrase: Walk before me. Walk can be literal or figurative. Walk with me can mean let’s walk to the park. Or it means to “walk” with someone on their life’s journey. It means to be with them.

That ominous prepositional phrase “before me,” instead of suggesting God is lurking behind, the Hebrew word connotes being in God’s presence.
Walk before me can be understood as “Let us do life together.”

Next, “be perfect,” also has a different meaning than being a saint or having a figure that walks the high fashion runway or Shaun White’s double mixed twist.

It is means to be complete, be sound, and be whole.

As I hear it, the word is less a command on Abram and more a promise. Walk with me and be whole.

Then there’s that last part about being numerous.

At 99, God is not promising to give Abram a large family so they can settle down and tend to a farm or for him to be the next reality tv star of a show called Eight is not Near Enough.

God’s promise is for Abram to be an ancestor of a “multitude of nations,” a phrase found in both verses 4 and 5. In verse 6, a slight variation, with God saying “I will make nations of you.”

God’s covenant with Abram reaches beyond a single nation. God isn’t interested in maintaining borders. God is interested in reaching you.

As I was thinking on scripture, I heard a report that VP Pence called Billy Graham, who just passed into heaven at 99 years old, a great American. I can’t help but think Billy, who toured the nations, calling people into a relationship with their Father, God, is campaigning heaven for a phone so he might call Pence up and politely correct the error. To serve God is to serve that which reaches way beyond a nation.

In our scripture, ninety nine year old Abram is renamed Abraham. My friend, Jennie McNulty (google her for more funny), noted that “ha” is added to his name. I imagine there is some Hebrew reason for it. But, it is fun to think of it as God putting an exclamation point on this new work…”HA!” “Ha…Ha!” See what I’ve done!

Abraham is the ancestor of those who would walk before God and, in that journey, be made whole. Through Abraham, God plants a seed of faith that multiplies so that the number of his descendants is as many as are the stars in the night sky!

And as the song says…Father Abraham had many sons (and daughters!)..I am one of them and so are you… You are a child of God and you are a child of God and you are a child of God … so let’s all praise the Lord.

To praise the Lord, we turn to the Psalm.

John Goldingay, Bible professor at Fuller seminary, writes that Psalm 22 offers a truer comfort than that oft said phrase, “God is always with you.” He argues that, surely, that isn’t true when someone is crying out “Why have you forsaken me?!”

To understand his meaning, you should know the beginning of the Psalm goes like this:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.

In these first 6 verses you can hear the Psalmist struggling to remain in relationship despite feeling abandoned. At one moment, he calls “I cry out by day and you do not answer,” and in the next breath, he sings “in you our ancestors trusted. They trusted and you delivered them.” The Psalmist refuses to let go of God.

Goldingay says the Psalm “invites those of us who experience suffering to find ways to remind God and us of God’s faithfulness, to remind God and us of God’s involvement in the world, to plea with God to change, and [here is my favorite part] to believe strongly enough in our argument that God will, in fact, respond.”

Not only does the Psalm invite us but it shows us how God responds when we argue our case but then allow God to have the last word.

Now, over to Duke Divinity’s Old Testament Scholar Ellen Davis who gives great insight into these two verses:

To [God], indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
Davis translates these verses as “’Let all those who go down to the dust (kolyôredê ‘àpàr) bow before him, who cannot keep themselves alive.”
One who could not keep himself alive…isn’t that what the Psalmist felt when he began the Psalm, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” and when he laments “But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people?”

He was dead inside. He had nothing except a faith. His faith cries out to the God who, through Abraham, promised to be his God…first in lament and then turning into praise.

He could not keep himself alive. So he bowed down to the one who gave him life. He bowed down to the one who promised Abraham life. He bowed down to the one who gives you life.

And, when he did, when he left all his arguments on the table, when he didn’t try stopped trying to be right, God lifted him up.

His lament is interrupted with a “ha…an aha.” We don’t hear the content, but he was given a word. The Psalmist shifts. The dirt takes form and Psalmist rises up out of the ground, no longer a worm but man, a woman, a community, a people all calling back to the God whose word creates life with the exclamation, “I will live for him!”

I will live for God!

Walk with me.

I know that you’ve had those days when you went to bed early because life was that overwhelming. The day’s problems multiplied and remained unsolved. You weren’t feeling so good about yourself at that moment.

I’ve been there!

There are days when I want no one near me because I feel the part of the Psalm which says “I am a worm,” crawling in all different directions. I need some time to find my brain again—if not that, at least my faith…remembering

he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.

Remembering…I am walking before my God. I am being made whole. I am a child of Abraham, an inheritor of God’s promise to be my God.
Holding on tight until I receive the word that brings life, the word that reforms me, and the word that fills me with such joy that my whole being shouts out…

I will live for God!

Have faith. The word will come. The situation around you may not change but you will. And that, my friends, will bring you life.

Psalm 22:23-31
Genesis 17: 1 – 7