If I Were Preaching, King David, Narrative Lectionary, Psalm 51

A Little Dirt

“A little dirt never hurt anyone,” declared Mrs. Toler, our Girl Scout leader. She was a science and math teacher at St. Agnes School and had daughters of her own. She broke through the all-indoors reign of the longtime troop leader, the terrifying Miss Stebbins, and took us camping. We made donuts out of biscuit dough by boiling them in hot oil over a campfire, burning hot and joyfully sweet after we rolled them in powdered sugar. I can call up the aroma and flavor of hamburger cooked over the same fire to add to our spaghetti sauce. Mrs. Toler knew what she was doing.

She brushed off our concerns about outdoor eating and sleeping, confidently.

When I became a woman and a mother, I carried her message into parenting. “A little dirt never hurt anybody.” I imagined myself as laid back, non-neurotic (ha!) and just generally hip to the idea that roughing it can’t kill you.

By which I mean I didn’t force a lot of unnecessary bathing on my children.

Then I contracted an auto-immune disease and became much more concerned about the hygiene of everyone in my immediate surroundings.

All of which means I am a much stricter parent to my step-son than I ever was to the older three. If he goes to wash his hands and comes back too soon, I demand to inspect them. I know some moms who love the smell of “I just played outside for too long” little boy. Maybe you know what a boy’s dirty hands feel like. They have texture, seem layered, almost. When you slide your thumb across the skin, it sticks.

“Go back and use soap.”

Sometimes my heart feels like those hands, a good heart underneath it all, but layered with the smudges of little hurts inflicted by others, the silt of guilty self-knowledge and the griefs-turned-crust shielding the tender parts.

“Create in me a clean heart.”

Psalm 51 asks for God’s assistance in heart renewal. It’s ascribed to David and associated with the aftermath of his affair with Bathsheba and his plot against her husband. As kathrynzj said in her sermon today, David managed to break about 50% of the commandments in just this one series of escapades. Nathan the prophet manages to convince him of his guilt, and David repents, hoping to rebuild his relationship with God.

Create a clean heart for me, God;
put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.

(Psalm 51:10-11, Common English Bible)

hand washing heartWe don’t know if King David actually wrote all the psalms, and there are plenty of scholars who think psalms came later, during and after the Babylonian exile, long after his time. But there is a strong association between David and this particular Psalm, as if even the intellectual among us can’t quite bear to part the two. This iconic figure is tender and tough, faithful and flagrant, loving and libidinous, warlike and woeful. He struggles to live up to his call, and when he fails, he comes back to God and asks for help. 

Even if a little dirt never hurt anybody permanently, letting it build up creates complications. It may seem like nothing will ever be the same, and maybe it won’t be exactly. Think of David, getting honest with himself about the ways he messed up not just his own life. A clean heart doesn’t come out of nowhere; it’s not a new heart. A renewed heart comes through the effort of being honest with God and with yourself.

Start at the sink. Lather up. Give all the things covering you to the One who always loved you, even when She dearly wished you would use the soap.

1 thought on “A Little Dirt”

  1. Beautiful, as always.
    Side note: I was *already* craving canned biscuit-dough donuts (my mom used to make them). And now I really, really, really want some.


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