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Psalm 51:1-17

When I read Psalm 51 I am reminded of Bryan Stevenson, lawyer for death row convicts and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. In his book Just Mercy, he writes, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” The only reason we have Psalm 51 is because David, king of Israel and formerly praised as a “man after God’s own heart,” did some truly terrible, heinous things. He abused his power as king in the worst ways possible: coerced (and/or raped) a married woman to have sex with him and impregnated her; then spent a lot of time and effort in deceit trying to cover his tracks before killing off her husband and making the whole army complicit in his murder; and finally brought the abused and now widowed woman into his home as his wife in a public act of “charity.” 


We don’t usually seek out such murderers, liars, cheaters and serial abusers of power to teach us about life with God. We are quick to cancel, silence, shame, and scapegoat those who publicly display this kind of toxic behavior and abuse (unless we deem them to be operating in our favor… but that’s a different conversation). In Psalm 51, however, we have the rare chance of learning from a perpetrator who does not deny the charges against him, and models a shocking level of honesty and humility in his confession of wrongdoing.


When I read Psalm 51, I also think of the many women and men I journeyed with during my years in recovery ministry. Not that any of them did what David did – but they, too, knew the language of unmitigated honesty and humble confession. In Celebrate Recovery, the first of the twelve steps says: “We admitted that we were powerless over our addictions and compulsions, and that our lives had become unmanageable.” It seems that prior to being confronted by the prophet Nathan, David had been trying to manage his compulsions for a long time, and only succeeded in making it worse for everyone and himself.


And even when Nathan confronted him, David had a choice – he could acknowledge the mirror held up, and admit the ugliest truths it revealed; or he could deny it and continue trying to control things further abusing his power to elude correction. David chose to see himself clearly, and stood in front of that mirror long enough to admit that his life was, indeed, unmanageable.


I appreciate how Euegene Peterson rendered verse 10 in The Message: “Shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.” Like any true confession, David’s confession needed to start from the place of recognizing the truth, and calling it what it is – an unmanageable chaos that needs a whole new creation. But it’s not just honest at the beginning. It requires honesty all the way down to the foundations.


The fourth and fifth steps of recovery are perhaps the most terrifying, and for this pastor celebrating from the sidelines, the most awe-inducing steps in the recovery process: “We made a fearless, searching moral inventory of ourselves. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” This may be the bravest work I’ve ever witnessed people do. What I saw in my friends in recovery seems to be the same thing we witness in David’s confession: a desperate need for a different life, and an unbelievable amount of trust in the God who promises it.


It requires tremendous courage to make a “fearless and searching moral inventory,” and then name it out loud. But the kind of courage required here doesn’t grow out of a vacuum; it flourishes only in places of safety. In order for David or any of us to take a leap off the complete-honesty high-dive, there must be a knowledge that it is safe to do so. We need an assurance that life on the other side of honesty will be livable, and maybe even better than the life we are currently living.


Unfortunately, we humans often create very unsafe environments where an honest confession is nearly impossible. Who can bear to name the full and exact nature of their wrongs if the only outcome awaiting them is being canceled, shunned, publicly shamed, or scapegoated? And yet in God we see the abundance of grace, mercy, safety, and love that feels impossible for us to imagine. David knew this.  Somehow, even in the midst of all he lost sight of in the height of his destructive and abusive behavior, David did not lose sight of the God who had proven to be a safe refuge in the time of trouble. Even in the time of trouble of his own making – David knew where to go, and that it was safe enough for him to come out of hiding and ask for God to do what he could not.


Each Ash Wednesday we are invited to come out of hiding again, to remember that we are human: imperfect, limited, and deeply loved. We are reminded that in God’s presence it is safe to be human, safe to be needy, safe to be honest, safe to admit our lives are chaos. God makes it safe to say that we don’t have our lives together and that on our own we’ll never be able to get them together. It is safe – and celebrated! – to say that we desperately need God to provide what we cannot provide ourselves.


In this safety we find a place of healing and transformation, where our chaos becomes the building material for new life. And then one day, maybe, by God’s good grace, we the Church can embody the safety of God for the chaos of others’ lives, as we are transformed into new creation together.