Psalm 51, a prayer of repentance so familiar to Orthodox Christians, teaches the double-edged wisdom of judgment and hope. Fr. Paul Lundberg suggests the psalm provides sobriety and a connection to the grace of humility, essential for anyone who wants to take leadership seriously, and to do it well. With "my sins ever against me" and acknowledging that "against Thee only have I sinned," does self-absorption run its course, realizing that our only hope is the hesed, the mercy of the Lord.
If you want like to learn more about current Biblical Hebrew or Greek course offerings as this podcast mentions, please contact Fr. Timothy Lowe.
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:03
You're listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. And I'm grateful to have Fr. Timothy Lowe join me as a co-host in these next few episodes on the Doulos podcast. So hello there, Fr. Timothy.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:27
Greetings, Hollie. Nice to be with you again.
Hollie Benton 0:29
And we're delighted to be joined today by Fr. Paul Lundberg. Fr. Paul works closely with the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative, providing guidance to the network of professional coaches and serving as a parish health coach for Doulos, the intensive program in servant leadership for parish leadership teams and parish councils. Fr. Paul serves at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and he operates his own company, Allaxis partners, which also focuses on leadership development, helping individuals and teams work toward transformative growth. So welcome, Fr. Paul.
Fr. Paul Lundberg 1:06
Hi, Hollie. It's good to be with you.
Hollie Benton 1:08
So good to be with you too, Father. So here we are in the middle of Lent, a time of reflection and repentance. In many ways, it's a period of spring cleaning, asking the Lord though, to clear out the cobwebs of distraction and sin within our hearts and minds so that it might be filled with His instruction, enlivening us to the work he calls us to do, those who would serve as a Doulos, a servant in his household. I'm so grateful that the church has ordered the prayer of Psalm 50/51, depending on the Septuagint version, in many of our church services for Orthros, Compline services, and even private morning and evening prayers. Because we hear it and recite it so often, it's a psalm that probably many of us have memorized, and it's likely a source of both hope and judgment as we pray this psalm. Personally, it's one of my favorite psalms, even though it often gives me a dry mouth or makes me sweat when the words penetrate my ear. It's a difficult and challenging psalm, yet I think it's filled with a lot of hope in remembering God's mercy. Here are just the first few verses of it Fr. Paul, "Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy steadfast love, according to Thy abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, Thee only have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight, so that thou art justified in Thy sentence, and blameless in Thy judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceived me. Behold, Thou desireth truth in the inward being; therefore, teach me wisdom in my secret heart." So Fr. Paul, thank you so much for selecting this passage. It's so rich in its poetry and its imagery. How has this psalm worked in you? And what would you have us consider as we meditate upon this psalm as a portion of God's word handed to us for instruction and our edification?
Fr. Paul Lundberg 3:14
Hollie, thank you for giving me the opportunity to let these verses breathe in my mind and heart over the last few days, as I've been thinking about them. And I've been thinking about them in particular, with regard to the exercise and practice of leadership, which is really a subset of stewardship. Some of us are given the service of leadership in the church, all of us to some extent or another. But I was thinking about this psalm in that context, and those first few lines that you read really stood out to me for a number of reasons. The first one that really grabbed me was this line, "For I know, my lawlessness and my sin is always before me." It's funny, because a lot of times we'll think, why would I want my sin to be in front of me all the time, that would be so depressing, it would be so demoralizing, right? I don't want to be spending my time in the fetal position on the ground crying about my sins. But it's really, from our understanding and our lived experience in the church, it's not a depressing thing to be conscious of our sin. It's grounding. It gives us a sobriety and a connection to the grace of humility, which we all know is essential for anyone who wants to take leadership seriously, and to do it well. And this next line, "Against you only have I sinned and done evil before you," and the first thing I thought about was Matthew 25, which we heard a few weeks ago. It's so much easier for us to be aware of our sins against other human beings than it sometimes is, for us to understand them in relation to God. It's very clear here, "Against you only have I sinned and done evil before you." He's not talking about anything, but sins that he committed in this life. But he's understanding them in relationship to God. And I thought it was a really interesting and powerful connection to that reading that we hear just before Lent.
Hollie Benton 5:31
I loved how you drew the connection to Matthew 25, the passage that comes up often in this podcast, "As much as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it for me," connecting that to, "Against Thee, Thee only have I sinned." That's a powerful connection.
Fr. Paul Lundberg 5:48
This is just mind blowing to me. And it almost gives us the reason, Why are we keeping our sins in front of our face all the time? Why are we always thinking about them, or trying to be aware of them, be conscious of them? Not so that we can walk around depressed and moping, but so that we remember the character of the one we serve, that you may be just or righteous in your words, and victorious in your judgment. I think it's really important for those of us exercising leadership to remember that it is God who owns these qualities. He defines them. He is the one who shows us what they are. And we only participate in them by virtue of His grace, and our synergistic effort to align ourselves with His will. And then finally, two final thoughts. "For behold, you love truth." Wow. And "You have revealed the secret and hidden things of your wisdom to me." It is so interesting. We remember Pilate, in John chapter 18, as Jesus is standing in front of him, says to him, in response to Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight so that I should not be delivered to the Jews. But now my kingdom is not from here. Pilate therefore said to him, Are you a king then?Jesus answered, You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born. And for this cause I've come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." And then Pilate famously says to him, What is truth? And I think what this psalm reminds us of is that the truth that God is most concerned with, is the truth about us, and about us in relationship with him. And if that truth is not understood, and perceived, we have no chance of seeing any truth in the world, as it really is. I think right now about the conflict happening across the globe. And as we're recording this, we're dealing with the conflict that's happening in Ukraine right now. Any of us who think we have even a sliver of the truth, watching this from halfway across the globe on mainstream media, we're fooling ourselves, we're fooling ourselves. And so it's a it's a real temptation to be distracted by these things. But I think God calls us to seek the truth about ourselves and seek the truth about ourselves in relation to him first, so that any other truth he wishes to reveal to us he can do, he can do so. Let me just stop right there and pause and ask you if any of those thoughts jumped out to either you Fr. Timothy or Hollie, so we can maybe dialogue a little bit or chat a little bit about those.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 8:47
Well, I must admit, I'm grateful that you chose this psalm because as Hollie mentioned, it's one we all know so well. We say it multiple times. And so automatically by repetition, we've memorized it, you know, I could say the whole thing right now, because you know, you're a priest, you do the services as well. But I haven't looked closely at it. It's funny, you can memorize something, but you know, fortunately, I had opportunity to learn Hebrew. So I really looked at the Hebrew of this one. Again, I'm amazed why has it taken me so long, Fr. Paul, to just look at it, okay, in a more deep way. I like what you said in terms of how it reflects leadership and fundamental truths. But I also took another take on the reference of David, right, you know, his repentance after his horrible sin. And so when I hear this, I have to hear it in the context of the Davidic story of his sinfulness, of his blood guilt. Because the problem is, you know, I agree with you in terms of our sins, that keeping them before us is so critical, that it's the only way we'll stay even remotely a little bit humble, because it's just so hard not to fall into self righteousness. And so, this psalm forces me to identify as the David in the psalm, and the only way I can do that, of course, is to know well, the story of David, and the tragic elements of that. Take the first verse where he implores God's favor. And he references this word we know so well, translated grace, often in English, but hesed in Hebrew, covenantal love, steadfast love, often as a point of reference for his only hope that if God is not willing to show His favor through His grace, there is no hope. There is no hope. It's like you said, it's getting to the core of how we possibly can even exist, because our sins are as worse as him. And obviously, they're very profound from his adultery and then from his blood guilt. Anyway, it really helped me to, again, focus on the David story, and I'm right there. And I like this word when he says, "My sin is," you mentioned before us, but it literally means in Hebrew, it's standing against me looking at me, I can't escape it. We escape our sins all the time, by ignoring them or pushing them aside, but no, no, I can't escape. It's I have to face it. And what does he do? He cries then for grace and mercy.
Fr. Paul Lundberg 11:20
Thank you so much Fr. Timothy. I have to say that you remind me of one of my aspirations, which is to learn Hebrew. I'm still woefully deficient. But I did find and I want to share with both of you what Elder Aimilianos has to say about mercy. Of course, Fr. Timothy brought us back to the original Hebrew word hesed, and this is from Elder Aimilianos's beautiful commentary on the psalms called Psalms in the Life of Faith. And he writes in his commentary in Psalm 118. He says, "The mercy of God is the going out of God from Himself. The absolute God who alone exists, pours Himself out on those He has created. God's mercy is the grace of God, a descent of God's uncreated energy. And this is nothing other than God himself. God is not some unapproachable power or force, not something simply outside and beyond creation. But something, indeed someone that is poured out and flows into the depths of every soul. God continuously floods us with His mercy. His grace is always rushing toward us, like an abundance of light, pouring through cracks and fissures in a wall." I share that just because I love it so much, and love the Elder of blessed memory so much. It's remarkable to me how with this continual outpouring of God's loving kindness and tender compassion, His mercy, we still manage to wall ourselves off from it, and away from it, and try to even fill in the cracks and that whilst we can't even see it, it's really remarkable and terrifying at the same time.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 13:08
It is the tragedy of the human being, isn't it?
Fr. Paul Lundberg 13:10
Fr. Timothy Lowe 13:11
That somehow even in the midst of our sinfulness, not as a theological idea, but as concrete, that we're still able to pretend it isn't there. I like what you said that our sinfulness which is standing over and against us, therefore, unavoidable, if we acknowledge it, is really the key. And it's not a depressing key, it's reality. It's reality. You referenced Ukraine and others, we are escapists. Because what we're seeing is too overwhelming. Hence, the cry that the only hope is the hesed, the mercy of God, which you read from the Elder. We still don't want to believe the truth about ourselves. And until we see that, and the Bible is going to remind us constantly, I mean, it sets every example of failure known starting in both Old and New Testament of just the human tragedy. And then as you say, we see it all the time, but still in the midst of that, how could I have done such thing? How can it be? I mean, we emote about a horribleness all the time, believing that we're still okay. Oh, my.
Hollie Benton 14:20
It also reminds me too of St. Paul, who talks about the thorn in his flesh, that constant reminder of his own weakness. And it's also St. Paul who says, I don't even judge myself. So it's a reminder of God's mercy, that God will have mercy on whom He will have mercy. And it's not even I who can judge that I'm not deserving of His mercy. I think often we like to go the other way and think that other people aren't deserving of God's mercy and that somehow I have won God's favor, but sometimes people get in a very low place. They can't imagine how God could forgive them.
Fr. Paul Lundberg 14:59
Yeah. And thank God we have so many examples of people that if we have ears to hear if we have the grace to hear, I think, of course, you know, coming up in a few weeks of Saint Mary of Egypt and many others, murderers even, who were forgiven and became saints. I'm glad you brought that up, Hollie, we need to be sensitive to the despair that people may feel because of their sin, and to lovingly remind them and encourage them that there's nothing that is beyond God's capacity to forgive. So thank you for mentioning that.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 15:34
Yeah, we do like to set limits on God, don't we? As Fr. Hopko used to say, "Yes, when we fall into despair and self pity, which we all know quite intimately, perhaps weekly, if not daily, the devil gets us twice, because ultimately, we make it about ourself." You know, I like this verse five, the Hebrew is much harsher. It says in sin and iniquity, I was twisted up and in sin, I was conceived. Now, if we don't read this theologically, we see the stress at the very beginning, let's say, David, because he's our biblical reference here. From the beginning he was a lawbreaker. There wasn't a time now he can imagine he wasn't. So I like how even the text squeezes us, again, to prevent the one problem and that is arrogance / self-righteousness. Once we get past that, then we don't have to concern ourselves with ourselves, then the mercy of God can do its work. And then the mercy of God will do its work through us to others. Matthew 25.
Fr. Paul Lundberg 16:39
Beautifully said Father, yeah, beautifully said.
Hollie Benton 16:42
Thank God. Well, thank you, Fr. Paul, for these reflections on Psalm 50/51. It's always a joy to bring two or three to gather to study His word, even in the Hebrew. So thank you, Fr. Timothy too for the hesed, the reminder of God's mercy.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 16:58
Absolutely. And Fr. Paul, I heard it. Study Hebrew. Don't do what I did, studied it at 19 and 20, and then wasted it away for 30 or 40 years until I came back to it and said, Oh, my God, this won't be on the recording. Oh, my God, what a waste. Because I had it. I had it. You know, I lived in Israel when I was 19.
Fr. Paul Lundberg 17:16
Absolutely. You know, maybe you can leave that in the podcast and include something in the show notes about a good resource for poor Anglo schmucks like me to learn some Hebrew.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 17:29
Nice to have met you, Fr. Paul.
Fr. Paul Lundberg 17:31
Good to meet you too, Fr. Timothy. And Hollie, thank you, as always for the opportunity to be able to speak with you.
Hollie Benton 17:37
Thank you, Fr. Paul.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai