Ancient Answers


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Responses of the Heart

I can’t let go of this beautiful psalm that I wrote on yesterday. So instead of the Paul verse which my bible software has highlighted today – I do get a little tired of too much Paul – I prefer to focus on verse 8 of this beautiful psalm:

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.

I quote the NRSV rendering of this verse, because David’s heart seems to have initiated Davi’d desire to dwell in the house of the Lord, where he will behold the beauty of the Lord (yesterday’s verse). It is true of human nature in general that our desires are most genuine and most fruitful when they arise from within our deepest inner being – which in biblical language is the ‘heart’. But our hearts are divided, especially in our advertising-dominated world. When we talk about our ‘heart’s desire’ we often mean nothing more than something we saw on an afternoon talk show or online. That’s not what ‘heart’ means in the Bible. Heart in the Bible – as in Psalm 27 here – means the undivided self. Thus Jesus can say, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). We sing this verse every Sunday in the Liturgy, as part of the Beatitudes.

Hearing, singing, responding – this is the dynamic of David’s psalm. And it is the dynamic of Christian worship! David heard his heart, he sang his psalm – and he responded, he took action, he sought the face of the Lord. He went into the house of the Lord. And he found confidence not to be terrorised by his enemies. (Remember, David was a warrior and a king. Who said warriors and kings can’t also be poets?) Read the entire psalm again and see this dynamic at work in David’s stormy life.

I know for myself how easy it is to talk the right words, but do nothing more than talk. Life is full of honourable intentions. I can’t count the times that a parishioner feels it necessary to tell me, “You’ll see me in church soon.” But I still don’t see them. But the real matter is not whether I see them “in church” but whether God sees them. And whether they see the face and beauty of God! As we move into an increasingly non-participatory form of Christianity, people think nothing about separating themselves from the corporate worship that is the essential task of the church. Kids sports can only suffice as an excuse to a point. At some point the question needs to be asked: What does your heart tell you? Is there still any warmth in your heart for God? Is your Christian faith just words?

David’s heart commanded him to get up and seek the face of God. You want to dwell in the house of the Lord, David? Then don’t just write psalms about it, go and seek his face. This is heart talk – the inner dialogue of an undivided self, the “pure in heart.” So here now is the big question. Where do you seek the face of God? Jesus told us where we would find his face: in the faces of the poor and suffering! But we might never recognise the face of God in the suffering and the poor if we don’t allow Liturgy and worship to train us and to reveal the face of God through words, songs, icons, and the responses of the heart. Worship gives us the eyes and compassion to see God “in the land of the living”, and that is how David concludes his wonderful, heart-shaping psalm:

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!


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The Beauty of the Lord

Psalm 27 is one of the highest points of inspiration in the Bible. The verse highlighted today provided the text for a very catchy contemporary Christian song I first heard many years ago and I still often sing it to myself. I’m singing it right now as I write this, but silently as it’s 2:00 am. I prefer the translations that say “behold the beauty of the Lord” instead of “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord.” “Behold” conveys more of the sense of awe.

Although it’s not part of the Orthodox funeral service, I occasionally I insert Psalm 27 in a funeral service, in abbreviated version:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life;

of whom shall I be afraid?

One thing I have asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:

that I may dwell in the house of the Lord

all the days of my life,

to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,

be gracious to me and answer me!

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”

Your face, Lord, do I seek.

Do not hide your face from me,

for you have been my helper.

Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,

O God of my salvation!

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord

in the land of the living

Wait for the Lord; be strong,

and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

What a marvelous expression of confidence. What a wonderful vision of life lived in full awareness of God. Our verse today tells us that David’s only desire is to live in the house of the Lord so he can behold unceasingly the beauty of the Lord. The Lord is indeed beautiful. Have you ever used the word ‘beautiful’ to describe God? How different from the usual ways we refer to God. David not only wants to live in the house of the Lord, but he wants to converse with God, “to inquire in his temple.” It reminds me of Jesus when he was twelve years old and his parents found him in the temple at Jerusalem conversing with the priests and teachers.

Do we listen to our hearts, or do we force our hearts to obey our minds? David listened to his heart, and his heart told him, “Come, seek his face!” And David obeyed: “Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.” Do you seek the face of the Lord? Listen to your heart, it will guide you to seek the Lord “in the land of the living.” The heart and soul of life lived in Christ is in this Psalm. And it invites every one of us to the land of the living.

Although God does not dwell in any earthly temples built by human hands, there is a unique divine presence in every sacred place and house of worship – yes, in our ‘temple’ too, on the corner of Pleasant and Park Streets in Portland, Maine. My own conversion to personal Christian faith did not happen at a Billy Graham crusade or some miraculous experience. No, my conversion began (it began!) when I stepped inside the Cathedral at Chartres, France, in July of 1978. The churches of Paris, including Notre Dame, were impressive but left me unmoved. Chartres was different. I spent two days inside that huge Gothic church, studying every stained glass window, every statue, reading everything in my detailed guidebook and twice joining the guided tours of the most amazing tour guide in the world, Malcolm Miller. As far as I know he is still there, doing his daily tours, full of insight, full of theological depth and understanding and a master communicator of his deep knowledge. And there in the great space of Chartres Cathedral I experienced the beauty of the Lord. The space itself conveyed the beauty of God, and I believe something similar happened to David when he was in the temple. As a result, he desired to be in the presence of that beauty all the days of his life. Malcolm Miller has spent 60 years in Chartres Cathedral by now, guiding countless visitors to an appreciation of magnificent, beautiful Christianity.

Carved statue of Christ and Adam at Chartres Cathedral, France (click to enlarge)

One of the most moving stone carvings at Chartres is that of Christ cradling the head of Adam. How can one look at this carving and not be overcome by the incredible divine humanity and infinite compassion of the Lord. But it’s only one of many hundreds of carvings at Chartres, a luminous place, a place of spiritual transformation – as long as you allow yourself to linger and not be on a tour bus. So when I read David’s Psalm 27 I am drawn to memories of Chartres and memories of chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary. The beauty of the Lord is indeed something we can all experience. And we can experience it wherever we gather to worship the Lord. But you have to linger, you can’t be in a hurry. And you have to be quiet in your spirit so God can speak to you in the silence: Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19:11-12). God was in the silence. The beauty of the Lord is best encountered in the silence.