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based on Psalm 51:1-12
by Doug in Riverside

When we who are made in the image and likeness of God turn to God in prayer, our thoughts and emotions and words cover the spectrum between praise and lament. We tend to praise God when things are going well, when we experience “well-being, order, security, and trust in the reliability of God’s good creation” (Hopkins, 1990:16). But when things are not going well, when we find ourselves in a situation of disorientation and distress, our prayers often turn to laments: “Why me, O God? What have I done to deserve this anguish?” Or: “How long, O God? How long will you hide your face from me?”

In her book Journey Through the Psalms – A Path to Wholeness, Denise Dombkowski Hopkins points out that the psalms offer us a “school of prayer”: “The psalms teach us that there are many different kinds of prayer and many different ways of praying to God that articulate the whole range of human emotions: fear, praise, anger, thanksgiving, joy, despair. All of the emotions that mark a person’s struggle for faith from day to day appear in the Psalter. Psalm language grasps for us the many facets of God and our relationship to God, whom we experience as both present and absent” (p. 3). Last week’s psalm was the cry of anguish of a poet lamenting the absence of God in her or his season of disorientation.

The psalmist has done nothing to deserve this suffering, and is complaining in faith to God. God is not so far absent that the psalmist has given up on prayer itself; but the prayer is a lament about undeserved disorientation. By contrast, this week’s psalm, which is one of only seven “penitential laments” in the psalter, gives voice to the psalmist’s “acceptance of suffering as deserved punishment for sin” (p. 57). Tradition assigns this psalm to David as an expression of his deep regret and repentance in the aftermath of his sexual abuse of Bathsheba, the killing of her husband Uriah, and the death of the child conceived when he forced Bathsheba to submit to his advances. This is not what we would call a wholesome or uplifting story. Our summer church school curriculum for the past couple of weeks has done its best to suggest ways of telling this story to children, but the curriculum’s suggestions would have taken me a little bit beyond my comfort zone, and so I’ve chosen to talk with the children about the ark and the tabernacle and the temple instead. It’s safer to talk about sacred buildings than about sinful people, I guess!

But the truth remains that the story of David and Bathsheba is just as real and just as troubling in the twenty-first century after Christ as it was in the ninth century before Christ. Powerful men use their positions of power to take sexual advantage of less powerful women. These kinds of things happen in the workplace, the White House, even in the church. And what usually accompanies sexual misconduct is denial: either “I didn’t do it” or “well, we were both consenting adults.” David remained in denial until he was confronted by the prophet Nathan, whose not-so-subtle parable about a rich man who took a poor man’s lamb led the king to pronounce judgment on himself. Psalm 51, which gives voice to the contrition of a person who knows full well they have done wrong and who is no longer in denial, is typically read in the church during the Lenten season, when we are encouraged to reflect on our personal and social sinfulness.

But it also reads well at other seasons, especially during a season of distress and disorientation caused by our own wrongdoing. President Clinton chose the words of this psalm when he was seeking to make public amends to the nation for his sexual misconduct in the White House. In the “school of prayer” which is found in a penitential psalm such as Psalm 51, there is a three-step progression in this ultimately healing encounter with oneself and God. A penitential prayer takes the form of contrition, confession, and conversion: * Contrition: Have mercy on me * Confession: Against you have I sinned * Conversion: Create in me a clean heart

Two contemporary prayers of confession, one which emphasizes the author’s depth of contrition, one which emphasizes the author’s desire for conversion: Evening Prayer of contrition and confession by John Baillie (A Diary of Private Prayer, 1936, p. 15):

“O Father in heaven, who didst fashion my limbs to serve Thee and my soul to follow hard after Thee, with sorrow and contrition of heart I acknowledge before Thee the faults and failures of the day that is now past. Too long, O Father, have I tried Thy patience; too often have I betrayed the sacred trust Thou hast given me to keep; yet Thou art still willing that I should come to Thee in lowliness of heart, as now I do, beseeching Thee to drown my transgressions in the sea of Thine own infinite love.

My failure to be true even to my own accepted standards: My self-deception in the face of temptation: My choosing of the worse when I know the better: O Lord, forgive. My failure to apply to myself the standards of conduct I demand of others: My blindness to the suffering of others and my slowness to be taught by my own: My complacence toward wrongs that do not touch my own case and my over-sensitiveness to those that do: My slowness to see the good in my fellows and to see the evil in myself: My hardness of heart towards my neighbours’ faults and my readiness to make allowance for my own: My unwillingness to believe that Thou hast called me to a small work and my brother to a great one: O Lord, forgive.

Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and give me the strength of a willing spirit.” Morning Prayer by Ted Loder (Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle, 1984, pp. 98-99): “Help Me to Believe in Beginnings”

God of history and of my heart, so much has happened to me during these whirlwind days: I’ve known death and birth; I’ve been brave and scared; I’ve hurt, I’ve helped; I’ve been honest, I’ve lied; I’ve destroyed, I’ve created; I’ve been with people, I’ve been lonely; I’ve been loyal, I’ve betrayed; I’ve decided, I’ve waffled; I’ve laughed and I’ve cried. You know my frail heart and my frayed history— and now another day begins.

O God, help me to believe in beginnings and in my beginning again, no matter how often I’ve failed before.

Help me to make beginnings: to begin going out of my weary mind into fresh dreams, daring to make my own bold tracks in the land of now; to begin forgiving that I may experience mercy; to begin questioning the unquestionable that I may know truth; to begin disciplining that I may create beauty; to begin sacrificing that I may accomplish justice; to begin risking that I may make peace; to begin loving that I may realize joy.

Help me to be a beginning for others, to be a singer to the songless, a storyteller to the aimless, a befriender of the friendless; to become a beginning of hope for the despairing, of assurance for the doubting, of reconciliation for the divided; to become a beginning of freedom for the oppressed, of comfort for the sorrowing, of friendship for the forgotten; to become a beginning of beauty for the forlorn, of sweetness for the soured, of gentleness for the angry, of wholeness for the broken, of peace for the frightened and violent of the earth. Help me to believe in beginnings, to make a beginning, to be a beginning, so that I may not just grow old, but grow new each day of this wild, amazing life you call me to live with the passion of Jesus Christ.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. There is a time for praise and a time for lament. There is a time for contrition and confession and conversion: not that we should wallow in our guilt and self-loathing, but that we should, “with the help of God’s grace, grow into love of other human beings as well as God.” As Roberta Bondi writes (Christian Century 3/15/00, p. 314), this desire to grow in love is “our lifetime’s work.” She continues: “Growth in love is not possible…unless we are able to be honest with ourselves [and with God], to feel deep regret and repentance.” If there is one thing the psalms teach us about prayer, it is about the need to be honest in our prayer life, in these surprising encounters with ourselves and with God. When we are honest about the wrong we have done, prayer can lead us through the steps of contrition, confession, and conversion, to a place of healing and grace and new life.