Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Clean and New

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. (Psalm 51.10)


The ancients examined character in a vividly literal fashion, regarding its functions as physiology, not psychology. They divided personality into three segments: mind, heart, and spirit, with the soul standing apart as a divine component—the actual presence of God within, the “being.” Not surprisingly, their breakdown mirrors Freud’s superego-ego-id triad. The mind was the arbitrator, the heart housed conscious thoughts and motives, and the spirit held instincts and emotions. The three functioned symbiotically; dysfunction in one contaminated the other two. Much like we monitor our weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, and similar indicators of physical health, they kept close tabs on what was going on in their minds, hearts, and spirits. Their diligence superseded balancing the three. Purity on all counts was essential. And just as we watch caloric intake and diet to remain healthy, the ancients stressed avoiding influences and behaviors that clouded their judgment, thinking, and impulses.

With the mind controlling everything from the wings, the heart and spirit took center stage. Their relationship was somewhat tricky for their owners, because they fed off each other. The heart was the easier of the two to manage. A person knew what thoughts it entertained and motives it concealed. If the heart was the least bit impure, it immediately weakened the spirit. That set off a down spiral, with the spirit submitting to increasingly rotten instincts, which polluted the heart’s pondering mechanism. Left unchecked, the entire system broke down. The heart would blacken and atrophy, while the spirit darkened and grew brittle. At this point, resistance was futile and natural resilience was no longer possible. The mind set out in search of a clean heart to replace the corrupted one. Without that, the spirit’s strength couldn’t be restored.

Many Hearts

David went through many hearts in his lifetime. One imagines a military and political leader of his stature would have tremendous willpower, but he clearly did not. This is because David was a man driven by passions. He indulged his spirit’s baser instincts with little caution about their impact on his heart. Consequently, he routinely suffered from what we might call mighty-are-fallen syndrome. (We see a lot of this condition today.) When David’s mind, heart, and spirit were aligned with godly principles, no one was greater than he. The downside to his triumphs, however, came in the form of recklessness. He stopped protecting his heart and let his spirit take over. Time and again, his passions overcame him, filling his heart with filthy thoughts and motives. In the worst cases, they infected him with deadly hubris, convincing him he was above the law.

Psalm 51 is composed after the most devastating episode of David's life. Sexual compulsiveness has inflamed him with desire for another man’s wife. Having her is all he thinks about, and refusal to bridle this obsession opens his heart to foul ideas. He contrives a way to have the woman’s husband killed so he can marry her. His motives are transparent to everyone, including him, but he carries out his plan anyway. Not long after the wedding comes happy news of his wife’s pregnancy. Then comes the bad news. The prophet Nathan charges David with coveting another man’s wife, a capital crime. Instead of putting him to death, however, Nathan tells David God has ordained a more extreme punishment. His son and heir will live long enough to grow attached to him, after which God will take the baby’s life in retribution for David’s sin. The severity of God’s sentence opens David’s eyes to his heart’s blackness and his spirit’s unruliness. As he’s done before, he pleads for mercy and healing. He prays, “Create in me a pure heart, O God and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (v10) David can’t undo the past. But he can correct his future if he starts over, clean and new.

Forced into Crucibles

It’s been my experience we’re forced into crucibles we could otherwise escape by attending to our hearts and spirits. This is certainly David’s case. Had he regularly examined his thoughts and motives—and disciplined his impulses and emotions—he’d have been spared the anguish of confronting his failure. His deviousness in removing his nemesis from the picture proves he knew what he was doing. It’s impossible to conceive his mind didn’t send up flares, telling him his plan would end in reckoning. It’s very unlikely his mind didn’t urge him to purge his unseemly ideas and motives from the moment they entered his heart. Yet his spirit’s emotions and drives got the best of him, pushing David to dismiss his action’s inevitable consequences from his mind. If only he’d found it in himself to create a crucible of his own—to self-test for impurities that defiled his heart and hijacked his emotions. Had he managed that, his heart and spirit could have remained intact.

Lent can be experienced as many things: a season of consecration and recommitment, exploration and reflection, self-denial and self-discovery, obedience and humility, temptation and triumph, sacrifice and resurrection. And it should be viewed as all these things. Yet wound into every one is its value as a self-imposed crucible. We place our character on God’s refining fire, first looking for impurities that trouble our minds, pollute our hearts, and weaken our spirits. Then we ask Him to burn off the dross before our motives and emotions become unsalvageable. There are two ways to keep our hearts clean and our spirits new: bring them to the crucible for preventative care or ignore them until we’re forced into it. Lent is Plan A, an overhaul by choice. Plan B isn’t viable.

The crucible: we can enter it by choice or wait until we’re forced into it.

(Tomorrow: Sunscreen)

Postscript: If You Care Anything at All...

Rev. Fred Anderson, one of Straight-Friendly's first friends and supporters, posted this video on his new blog, neoorthodoxology. It's a talk by Dr. Mark Achtemeier, a "self-affirming, practicing evangelical" who teaches systematic theology at Dubuque Theological Seminary. Aptly titled "And Grace Will Lead Me Home: Inclusion and Evangelical Conscience," it describes Dr. Achtemeier's personal journey toward favoring the full inclusion of GLBT Christians in church worship, sacraments, and leadership.

His story is rich and edifying, both for its witness and its scriptural incisiveness. The video is lengthy (48 minutes), but if you care anything at all about this matter, please make time to watch it--in chunks, if need be. And for anyone in search of deeper theological insight into why this issue is a God-given imperative, this will be a fount of understanding.

Dr. Achtemeier defines the rising tide of Christian inclusion "the great move of God's Spirit." As you listen to him, I have every confidence you will feel God's Spirit at work in his words.

PS: I heartily recommend swinging by Rev. Fred's new blog. It's a refreshing, thoughtful take on vitally important, contemporary faith issues.


Sherry Peyton said...

Gosh Tim, sometimes, all I can say is simply thank you. You outdid yourself with this one. I've been reading about David's reign, and this prospective is much appreciated. Thank you.

Tim said...

Sherry, not that I've ever had anyone killed to have his partner or anything, but David is the OT character I identify with most closely. And that's because he's the king of woulda-coulda-shoulda. So many of his problems could have been avoided if he'd followed his mind instead of yielding to his spirit's weakness. I understand that.

What's most interesting for me about him is how well he does as a youth in contrast to the horrendous mistakes he makes as a father. It recently occurred to me that David does so much better when he has a positive influence nearby that he trusts--e.g., Samuel and Jonathan. Left to his own devices, he can't brake his worst tendencies. There's something to be said about wisely choosing and relying on our friends, a lesson I've learned over the years myself.

Thanks so much for your kind words. They encourage and inspire me to keep plugging away!

Peace and light,