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.

Abortion, Adoption, Lent 5B, Personal History, Psalm 51, Sex, The Inner Landscape

Twenty Years Later

I was 30, married, the mom of two little boys, 14 months and almost 6. It was Christmas, and I had bronchitis, and the doctor prescribed antibiotics, and they made me sick to my stomach, but even after ten days had gone by, I still felt sick.

You’d think I would have known by then, after two children and two first trimester miscarriages in between.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. (Psalm 51:1, NRSV)

You’d think.

But it didn’t seem real, quite, until yet another week went by and I still felt nauseated.

This is the year it’s been twenty years since then, and in some ways it feels like it all never happened, and in others it feels like five minutes ago.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. (Ps 51:2-3)

I was a funny bird in those days. I had lived a very clean, straight life. Really, I was a professional good girl. I put being good ahead of most everything else. I had two or three college stories about drinking a little too much, had only smelled pot from a distance and had absolutely no sexual history outside of marriage, which believe me was unusual for someone who graduated from college in 1982, all of it, even among “nice” and “Christian” young people.

Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. (Ps 51:4)

I worked hard at being good to compensate for feeling I was bad in every way.

It’s possible we can blame Calvinism for this, or Southern Baptists, or Southern culture and its emphasis on feminine purity, or my mom, or just my innate personality. I’m not sure where the fault actually lies; I only know I was conditioned or wired to take the responsibility on myself, whatever befell.

Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. (Ps 51:5)

Ah, well there’s the key, perhaps. I had two mothers, the one who conceived me, and the one who raised me, and that’s where it gets complicated, which is to say, right from the beginning. Because the mother who raised me never seemed to be able to forgive me for coming from somewhere else, from someone else, from a mysterious past that could not be controlled or known. I went into my teenage years terrified of repeating what my birth mother had done, even though I had no idea of her circumstances, the underlying understanding being that if she couldn’t keep me she must have been some kind of a slut, and that wasn’t what I was going to be, even if and maybe especially because the mother who raised me was so afraid I would.

I realize this is a charged word, especially now, but it is the word I had in my mind then, and it shows the kind of world in which I lived, full of judgment of women and their sexual behavior in particular. It’s different in my mind now, but the world hasn’t changed as much as one might hope.

I was determined to overcome that expectation. I had to overcome it. It seemed like the only chance I had to live the life my mother taught me I ought to want: to achieve the successful marriage, which was the only validation any woman needed to have.

(Brutal. It was brutal. I hope no one taught you these lessons. I do everything I can to teach my daughter something different.)

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. (Ps 51:6)


I was in high school and started college in the 1970s. Young people were having sex, lots of it, in those days before we knew about AIDS, and girls were getting pregnant. Nice girls, Christian girls, all sorts of young women were having sex and getting pregnant. In my neighborhood outside Williamsburg, Virginia, we whispered about the family that paid for three abortions in the same year: one for their daughter and two for girls their son had gotten pregnant. I took the unsurprising attitude for an adoptee that this had to be a bad thing. After all, would I even be here if abortion had been so readily available in the year I was born?

I took that attitude, but when my friend, S, needed a ride to the clinic in college, I took her. She was afraid a pregnancy would crush her parents, who were already having a tough year because her father had been laid off.

And when my friend, P, who was if anything a good-er good girl than I, more pious — she even became a charismatic at college!! — when she told me about her multiple abortions, which she had because she never planned to have sex and therefore never had protection available, she told me her mother said to think of it as making a blood sacrifice.

Some mothers will tell us anything to get the story to turn out the way they want it.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Ps 51:6-7)

Wash me clean.

Well, if you don’t get dirty, you won’t need to be washed clean. That seemed to make more sense. If I could only be good enough, truly good, more good than P or S or the family down the street in the upscale suburb, no one would have to talk me into anything.

But in 1992, no matter how good a wife and mother I tried to be, nothing about the pregnancy felt real to me, except that something felt wrong. We couldn’t figure out when the baby was conceived; the predicted due date was a shock. Then prenatal tests pointed to a problem and more tests confirmed a genetic abnormality. I didn’t expect to be talking to my trusted doctor and hearing him say I had a choice about whether to carry to term.

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. (Ps 51:8-9)

I believe we made the best choice at the time. That does not mean I felt good about it, or that I regarded the life lost casually, as some people think women who terminate pregnancies must.

Most everyone close to me (parents, in-laws, spouse) felt ready to move on, relieved that the procedure was safe and legal, that it could take place in a fine hospital in my own city, that I received high-quality medical care.

Oh, it pleased my mother!  (I believe she feared her impaired grandchild would survive. This, too, was brutal.)

Meanwhile, my milk came in.

I grieved. 

I felt guilty, though I did not regret the decision, and I wondered, unsurprisingly, why this terrible choice had to be part of my life, why God’s eye had been off the ball when I was clearly such a good, good, good girl and such an unlikely candidate for an abortion.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 
(Ps 51:10-11)

When you’re hoping to go to seminary, and you end up in the hospital to have a pregnancy terminated on Good Friday, it’s a dark place to be.

For me, it remained dark for a long time. I felt cast away from God’s presence, and I hated that. Later I was angry. My pastor assured me that God was big enough to handle my anger, but that made me madder! Surely there had to be a better way for God to run things than to let misery occur and then be receptive to our anger?!?!!

I concluded, eventually (and this is good news for everyone to whom I ever have or ever will be a pastor), that sometimes bad things happen and those bad things are not a judgment on the people who suffer them. And where God is at those moments remains a mystery, although I will say that when I have been at my lowest, God has reliably provided the help that I needed to get from one day to the next until I could do it by myself again.

In 1992, that help took the form of an older friend whose own history contained abortions she didn’t really want to have. She sympathized with the complex nature of my situation, and instead of trying to redirect me to the relief felt by my family, she said, “Why don’t you pray Psalm 51?”

I remember reading it for the first time — well, it probably wasn’t the first time ever, but it felt new — and thinking, “This is not me! I didn’t do anything wrong!” Holding that thought was making it possible to get up and get my boys ready for the day. Holding that thought was crucial.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. (Ps 51:12)

I kept going, barely, but I was still bone-crushingly sad. It really didn’t get better until I was able to hold both the relief and the sorrow together, to know in my marrow that I could feel both at the same time. Then I began to feel restored.

God did not do this thing to me. God did not condemn me for making the best choice I could knowing what I knew then, and although my life has been personally complicated and not even close to what my mother would have deemed successful, I do not feel punished by God.

And I am grateful for and to the friend who knew, from her own hard experiences, how much a psalm could mean, those old words forming a ritual expression intended to bring us back into relationship with the God we blame when the fault is really in the frailty of humankind, in our complicated bodies that don’t always work perfectly, and in our striving minds that don’t always reach the right conclusions, and in our broken and breaking hearts that don’t always give the love we want to receive.

I continue to struggle with taking the blame for, well, almost everything, but twenty years later, I don’t feel I was at fault for what happened in my life that winter and spring, and I willingly take responsibility for the choice I made, and although I still feel sad about it most every Lent, I do not regret it.

And if there are parts of the story for which I needed to be forgiven, rest assured, it has all been asked and answered, long ago.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Ash Wednesday, Matthew 6:1-18, Psalm 51, Sermons

Wash Me Clean

(A meditation for Ash Wednesday March 9, 2011 Psalm 51:1-17; Matthew 6:1-18)

It’s Ash Wednesday, and there are some years when I feel less like Lent than others, and this is one of them. I want a different approach, not self-denial, as if giving up chocolate in my coffee will somehow make me more like Jesus.

No.

That’s not the way to Jerusalem I feel called to walk this year. Lent is man-made, whether you see it as a season for giving things up that distract you or taking things on you believe will improve you. It’s all human-organized. And it’s hilarious to me that out in the word people are talking and tweeting and Facebooking about the things (wine, beer, candy, desserts, even Twitter and Facebook!) that they will eschew for 40 days or so, minus Sundays, when the gospel for tonight clearly says, “don’t talk about it to anyone.”

Don’t show your self-denial. Show your joy. Wash your face and do your hair and show that shining beauty of God’s love to the world. Only God needs to know about what’s happening inside, what you’re going through, what you’ve given up, what you’ve laid aside to be able to have that face.

Don’t show off.

Don’t show off, or you just find a new way to commit sin.

Now, sin is a word that makes us uncomfortable. We seek euphemisms for it, because we want to soften what we assume will be the Almighty response to our failings and foibles. Sin is what Psalm 51 describes, not from an outward and accusatory perspective, but from an inner vantage point that works through a process of identifying sin and expressing remorse and receiving forgiveness. It reminds us of the essential human experience of being divided from the divine, and of the actions we wish we hadn’t undertaken, as well as of the feeling of being dirty because we think we are disconnected from God.  And that feeling of being in a discordant relationship is the key to understanding sin.

Sin is anything that gets in the way of our relationship with God.

So, on some level, it’s the human condition. We are distracted by the material world we have made out of God’s creation. We are distracted by other people. More and more we are distracted by the noise of the entire world bearing down on us 24 hours a day on the television and the Internet. All these things distract us from relating to God, but I promise you the people of Jesus’ time had their own distractions, things that led them to look for a way to maneuver themselves back into God’s good graces. It was their ritual approach to getting right with God that Jesus advised against.

He said, and I believe it, that God’s love is not available only if we do the right things in the manner accepted by the religious culture around us. God–thank God!!–loves us, no matter what.

The question here is not about God’s love but about our capacity to feel it. And the really crucial point from Matthew’s gospel is that Jesus asks us to rethink the human experience and trust that God will love us instead of believing the lie that we need to bargain God into that love and approval by showing off our capacity to be fancily faithful.

All we have to do is talk to God. The words don’t have to be glib or poetic. The fast we undertake doesn’t need to be public; it’s better if it isn’t.

Image found here

I know the difference between a sort of sorry and a real sorry. I bet you do, too. In my life I have been a master of the defensive “sorry” that really means, please tell me it wasn’t my fault! This is not the sorry of Psalm 51. The Psalm speaks of our hearts being broken, or I would say broken open. It speaks of having a contrite heart, which to me means being able to own the disconnection from God or the inaction in our lives or the violation of another person. It means to want things to be different, genuinely different, going forward.
We sometimes manage to convince ourselves that others feel this way when they don’t, really. We usually know better about ourselves.

God is smart enough to know the difference. And the place where healing occurs, where the oil of forgiveness can spread into all the cracks of our brokenness, where the water of new life washes away any feeling of being soiled, is the place where we really, truly mean our “sorry.”

Any limitation on forgiveness is not God’s; it’s ours.

So give up chocolate if it helps you get there. If I happen to do it, I won’t tell you about it. If I’ve thought up something else, I’ll keep that to myself, too. I’ll just do my best to keep washing my face and conditioning my hair and showing up in the world hoping to share an awareness of the one whose grace washes me clean in the way that matters most. Amen.