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Friday, February 12, 2016

Songstories 27: Create Me Again (Psalm 51) (Vision, 1992, GIA)

Psalm 51: Create Me Again (sample on iTunes)

A couple of writing binges in the late 1980s and through about 1992 produced many of the songs that came to be the CD called  Vision, which we released through GIA in 1992. I went to Prescott Valley twice for a few days at a time, once alone, and once with Gary. All I took was my guitar, a notebook, and my Jerusalem Bible. For a change, the problem was less having writers' block than it was having no time to develop ideas for songs that I had. Feeling no possibility of finding the psychic space to do the kind of reflection that might ultimately lead to a completed song, my wife arranged to let me go to my mother-in-law's house to see what might develop.

I wrote about some of those songs in my post on the album Vision.   A few thoughts today about one of my favorites, "Create Me Again." Actually, they're all sort of my favorites. Vision is the CD which I think hangs together as a listening experience better than any of the other CDs. I mean, I love the music of every collection, and I really think they show a progression in both thought and songwriting so that I'm always very proud of what we put out as a CD, but Vision is sort of my Sergeant Pepper. The songs are really good, and it makes a kind of journey from "Be Thou My Vision" to "Spirits Seeking Light and Beauty," twin poles of my Irish heritage with a lot of spiritual oases along the way.

As a young man in college, I had already written a setting of Psalm 51 which I have thought about resurrecting over the years but can't quite bring myself to do it. It was a verbatim (or almost so) setting of the Jerusalem Bible text of the entire psalm with several lectionary antiphons that I thought might make the musical setting more useful. There were three different melodies for the verses, so they could be arranged in different combinations of stanzas and still make sense. But as I look back on it, though there are some good ideas in there, it's pretty clearly a product of my decades-long Cat Stevens period, and would probably sound a little dated in the arena-rock era of praise choruses. If I can hold out another ten years, who knows? The Cat Stevens sound might become hip again. ;-)

I was fascinated by the story of David and Bathsheba, having recently read God Knows, Saul Bellow's imaginative faux memoir of an aging David looking back over his life. As a young seminarian in the novitiate (1969-70) I was introduced to Louis Evely's spiritual classic, That Man Is You, which takes its title and launches from Nathan's parabolic indictment of David's murderous plot against Uriah in order to have easier access to Uriah's wife. You might recall that story, so vividly told in 2 Samuel 11-12, in which David unwittingly passes judgment on himself and is led to realize the full scale of the injustice he has wrought in his household. He is deeply repentant.

What is truly amazing is that God continues to love and favor him in the story, even with the revelation that David has committed both adultery and murder. Of course there are political reasons for reporting the story in this way, and there are perceived repercussions throughout the rest of the historical books of scripture for the monarchy in Israel, which was always suspect and not unanimously favored in Israel at any time, even when the kings acted justly, but in the story itself, God's love stays with David in spite of his treachery. Psalm 51 is a kind of testament to that, and has become the primary psalm of repentance in the church's arsenal of prayer. I guess we figure, if it worked for David, maybe it will work for us?
God, create a clean heart in me
Put into me a new and constant spirit. (Ps. 51:12)
This verse, to me, is the heart of the psalm, and my point of departure for the spirit of my setting. I learned from the commentary in the Jerusalem Bible that the verb "create" in this verse in Hebrew is never used unless "God" is understood as the subject of the sentence. In other words, the psalmist is asking God to be God, and to create again. A "clean heart" isn't about the pump beating in the body, about which there was no clear knowledge anyway, but rather about the center of the person, whatever it is that makes me me. I'm broken, the psalmist says, I'm damage goods, and I can't fix myself. You create, you made me. Create me again. This sense is amplified in the second half of the verse, in which "spirit" actually means "breath" (the word is the same in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.) Again, in Genesis, it is God's breath that gives life to water and dust in creation. "Give me that breath again that is the beginning of life," the psalmist is saying.

Clearly, my setting of the text is more, shall we say, in the nature of "dynamic equivalence" than formal, and ventures into the suddenly verboten waters of paraphrase. I get that. On the other hand, it follows the arc of the lament from confession of sin to profession of faith and forgiveness, and announces the intention to change. And underneath the adoration in verses 13-17 there is the promise that more songs and psalms will follow the sign of God's forgiveness, with the barely unspoken caveat that if the blackness endures, songs will cease, and then where will God be?

Maybe that's wishful thinking, or maybe that's the kind of bargain a troubadour makes for his life when he's desperate. In any case, I guess it works for me.

You fashioned the heavens, you gathered the seas;
Can you create a new heart in me?
God of compassion, you servant has sinned.
Breathe out your spirit. Create me again.

1. You are God, you alone. "Faithful love" is your name.
Let your rivers of mercy wash me of my shame.
Lies and betrayals haunt me like my grave.
Are you not their master? Can you not save?

2. Turn away, turn away, turn away from my sin!
Can you not see my anguish, my torment within?
Broken by sorrow, I bring you my heart.
Do not reject me, but show who you are.

3. Give me back the joy that comes from salvation,
Teach me to live life anew.
Make this broken heart a new creation,
And I will lead sinners to you, I will lead sinners to you.

4. Set me free, great savior, do not let me die,
For how shall I sing if in ashes I lie?
Let your judgment be mercy, my sentence forsworn.
Let all praise your justice when I am reborn:

Create Me Again (Psalm 51)  lyrics and music by Rory Cooney
Lyrics copyright © 1992 GIA Publications Inc., Chicago IL.