Create In Me: Beth’s Take

I might be alone on this blog in my reaction to the message this week, since Angie DID the message at PCC.  (You can see it here.) She may be weighing in here with more thoughts, though; so stay tuned!

“Create in me a pure heart and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” Psalm 51.10

Psalm 51 has long been one of my favorite passages from the Bible. The subtitle says “A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan had come to him after he committed adultery with Bathsheba.”  It rocks my world that a guy who did such a bad thing gets a prominent role in the story of humanity God gives us. There’s a lot that resonates with me in this psalm.

I’m a strong believer in context; any time I am reading scripture, I find it helpful to read before and after. The power of where we focus is upheld by the knowledge of what surrounds it. So, this morning I’m looking at all of Psalm 51. I encourage you to do the same, even before you continue reading; you can do so here.

So – with some context, here are my thoughts.

I wrote a song, some twenty years ago, that began with the simple request found at the beginning of this psalm: Have mercy on me, O God / according to your steadfast love. I sang those words honestly, asking for mercy and redemption. According to your great compassion / Blot out my many transgressions / Cleanse me from sin. Undoubtedly many songs have been written around these words; it is a beautiful piece of plaintive poetry, applicable to all who walk this world. We desire mercy. We crave redemption.

I sang those words to the best of my ability, according to the measure of forgiveness I understood that I needed. Twenty years ago, it applied to my life as a young mother and a new Christ-follower.. A decade later, with my marriage shattered in pieces and my family devastated, those words poured from my lips again, rooted in the desperate and unpleasant knowledge that my capacity for sin far outweighed my understanding of the need for mercy. The mercy I needed, the forgiveness I craved, was much more than I’d ever understood before.

I was so moved by Angie’s description of her daily request, in the minute details of her days, that God would create in her a pure heart. This, I think, is an excellent way to live; taking the specifics of life before the one we believe created all life in a plea for assistance. No, not for assistance, but something more specific: for cleansing.

The metaphor in this psalm goes on to speak of cleansing, washing so that we would be “whiter than snow”. That’s an interesting request for those of us living in this day and age, when what ricochets around us in our culture leaves streaks and stains that have become imperceptibly acceptable. We grin and bear it, shy away from labeling anything as “sin” lest we offend others or find ourselves staring down accusations of being judgmental.

I can explain away most of my actions. I live in my head enough to recognize that my worst behaviors are often reactions, habits, crutches, things born of weakness and insecurity. The word “sin” is such a harsh label; it speaks of something dark and so wrong, without explanation or excuse. It’s a bit easier to contemplate motivation and psychology, ask for forgiveness and move on towards better choices and a more redemptive way of life. I have heard enough hellfire and brimstone, full of legalistic challenges and condemnation. I’ve heard it from the pulpit in the past and I hear and see it today from religious folks who fill the airways and the internet with labels and proclamations. Identifying the sin of others allows us to separate ourselves, draw black and white lines of division and set up a clear choice for who wins and who loses.

I believe in the gray areas; I believe in the love and grace that Jesus offered, in the questions he asked and the direction he gave.

But there is this hitch, this issue of sin. Somewhere, somehow, we must identify what it means to fall short, to transgress, to have need for cleansing. If we don’t know why we need it, what’s the point in asking for a pure heart and a steadfast spirit?

Too often, we are willing to settle for cheap grace. We glow with the promise of love from a faithful God, we accept the invitation to salvation, to community, to restoration and redemption. But unless we are willing to acknowledge that we need this restoration –  there is little need for redemption to mean anything other than a warm, fuzzy feeling; a pat on the head, a gold star on our efforts.

There is this: I long for a clean heart and a steadfast spirit. I am inspired to live my days in the midst of this need, asking – as Angie does – for help in the specific moments. But I am convinced that there is an underlying truth to my understanding that I shouldn’t cuss at the guy who cuts me off in traffic, or roll my eyes at the lady in the check-out line who is taking FOREVER, or my tendency to be selfish with money. And so on.

We’re not basically good. We’re basically wired to survive, to accommodate our lusts, to please ourselves. As my friend John Ivins said in his message last year, we want what we want. We need to be refined.

We need redemption. That, I believe, is the point of the story, the reason Jesus came, the reason we acknowledge him to be at the core of our salvation from ourselves.

Asking for a pure heart comes with an understanding that we need help. Towards the end of this psalm, David says, “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.”

Here’s to our brokenness.

May it lead to pure hearts, steadfast spirits and a world changed by people willing to live out grace.

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