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Thursday, February 14, 2013

On Psalm 51

Be gracious to me, O God, according to your loving-kindness;
According to the greatness of your compassion 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 you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified when you speak and blameless when you judge.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.
You wish the truth to imbue my inmost parts, and inwardly you teach the wisdom I should know.[1] 
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of my salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise.

Psalm 51 is often used as a prayer or public reading at the beginning of the Lenten season, especially on Ash Wednesday (All three years of the Revised Common Lectionary use this Psalm on Ash Wednesday). The words are powerful and convicting – they are at once a lament over the hopelessness of our sin and of the glorious promise of our forgiveness from God. When read aloud this Psalm takes us from the depths to the heights in just a few verses of the most real language of humanity I’ve read.
         The Psalm is even more potent when we take its attributed setting into account.[2] If it is true that this lament Psalm is the result of David being busted by Nathan over the king’s infidelity with Bathsheba and the subsequent murder of Uriah,[3] then the contrition and repentance we read of is of the most raw, gut-wrenching reality of David’s life.[4] He has been busted in front of “God and everybody;” his sins are laid out for him to examine at the tip of Nathan’s bony finger shaking under his nose.
         What passion! What completely un-churchlike emotion! When we consider our sin - not a bullet-list of particular peccadillos that are more failings of virtue than crimes against God – our sinfulness and our alienation from the full presence of God in our lives and in this world we are brought low, as though we are descending into hell itself.
         We’ve seen hell this year. We’ve seen Sandy Hook and Aurora and we’ve seen the brokenness of our neighbors and our own hearts. We pray, breathlessly, “God have mercy” at these events, recognizing our powerlessness to change, let alone comprehend the wickedness we see in them. We are breathing the same prayer of Psalm 51- God have mercy…
         We don’t do sin well. Our culture would just as soon call sin a depression, a mistake, a moral lapse. We would rather go to therapy and “fix” the cause of the error, break the addiction, solve the problem rather than do the even more painful work or repentance. The church isn’t really helping this situation – many of my Baptist neighbors sit through sermons that are the embodiment of Christian Smith’s moralistic, therapeutic, deism.[5] As long as sin is something to fix or be remedied the reality of Psalm 51 and consequently of Lent is reduced to platitude and high-minded moralism.
         Barbara Brown Taylor has commented, “Abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away. Human beings will continue to experience alienation, deformation, damnation and death no matter what we call them. Abandoning the language will simply leave us speechless before them, and increase our denial of their presence in our lives. Ironically, it will also weaken the language of grace, since the full impact of forgiveness cannot be felt apart from the full impact of what has been forgiven.”[6] In much the same way that my temptation to adopt more Mennonite traditions that would take me apart from culture, the manner in which we are treating the sin that permeates Psalm 51would render us impotent in its face. I’m not going down the path of “naming sin as sin” as is the temptation; rather I believe that we cannot appreciate what is personally my favorite Psalm so long as we pussy-foot around the causes of our brokenness before God Almighty.
         The hook for me in Psalm 51 is in the line “let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoiced.” Without getting into issues of theodicy,[7] this verse represents the “middle moment” of the Psalm and serves as the hinge of the speaker’s spiritual feelings. I can taste those words, begging to hear a song of home, of hope, of something pleasant. I’ve cried for those same things – to hear joy and gladness amidst the constant cadence of bad news. I’ve felt at times that my spirit was ground into powder and blowing away in the breeze. This is a real lament and a request for the one true blessing – “God have mercy…”
         If we can crawl into the suffocating space created by this Psalm and especially by the cry for joy in the midst of the reality of our sinfulness then we can crawl through Lent. It is true that our joy will not be made complete until the Resurrection that feels so far away; but for myself and for my Baptist siblings, we would do well to crawl for a bit just now, praying “God have mercy…”

[1] Translation by Andrew Sullivan. See Sullivan, Andrew, “Psalm 51” in First Things no. 206 (2010), p. 64.
[2] See Claire Brooks, “Psalm 51,” Interpretation 49 no. 1 (1995), p. 62-66. See also Frederick j. Gaiser, “The David of Psalm 51: Reading Psalm 51 in Light of Psalm 50,” Word and World 23 no. 4 (2003), p. 382 – 94.
[3] 2 Samuel 11-12.
[4] I’m not including the pain David feels at the death of the son conceived with Bathsheba who dies in infancy; that episode would certainly bring a newer, deeper, grief.
[5] See Christian Smith, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of America’s Teenagers, Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2009.
[6] Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin. Cambridge: Cowley, 2001.
[7] The verse is troubling in that it implies God has “crushed” the bones of the speaker, thus demonstrating that God is responsible for the sin or at least the suffering that the speaker is experiencing.

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