“Have Mercy on me, O God…” (Psalm 51:1). It doesn’t come any simpler, and more obvious, nor any more necessary. This psalm was the appointed psalm for the day on which I knew that I would receive the written notice of my prohibition. Like many days before and like every day since, I wept. I read the inscription, “To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba”. How apt and searingly necessary. And I wept, at what I had done, and for the pain and despair I have brought to my wife, to my family, to my family of God, to my Revd Father in God, my Bishop. And to God.
I read and re-read this Psalm daily. It is on my desk and it is in my heart. Whenever I pause to consider the day before me, I bring it up, “Have mercy on me, O God… blot out my transgressions.” Odd that. Blot them out. Hide them away? Is that what King David was thinking and hoping for? A desire to hide away from what he had done and to ask God also to remove them from his life? It reminds me of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984, with Winston Smith removing from history all those whom Big Brother has determined to be non-persons. But it is not like that. Whereas Orwell describes a world of mistrust and abusive power, the world of David is one of a loving God, who does not destroy but renews, a God who does wonderful things with broken instruments. David is behaving as the human he was: fallen, broken, wrong. He understandably asks for his sin to be blotted out. He wants it to be gone. But he also realises, “I know my sin is ever before me.” No matter what God does, no matter what David thinks, he has sinned and it shall ever be so.
David pours out his heart to God, but also to whoever was there before him who was prepared to listen, including Nathan, perhaps. From verse 4 (Psalm 51:4) onwards we are ‘treated’ to a show of overwhelming despair and of an emptying man. A deflating man. A man who knows this is part of who he his through the very frailty of the fallen Adam. He knows he has sinned against God, the God who made him and who loves him, and he wants nothing else but mercy for what he has done. He may cry out for blotting and washing, but he also knows (and we find out as the Psalm continues) that the only way through this is by contrition and a desire to be with God. He does not turn away from God. His desire for blotting is not to be seen as a desire for God to ignore anything, but is a desire for God to help him.
And so he turns (Psalm 51:7) from a passive washing to an active purging, with hyssop. Therapy, treatment, for his sin, the sin I have also committed. Just like David I seek to be treated by God; David knows that he will be changed after this treatment. I pray for transformation. He seeks repentance through this transformation, not a hiding away but an open and public experience of renewal. He wants to hear the gladness not from a place of perfection—he knows that is not possible—but from a healed experience where “the bones that you have crushed rejoice”. A bone crunching penitence. David knows he must be made clean, and that the holy spirit must be present within him for this to happen. That is the repentance: to turn away from sin, and to seek the spirit of God, not to fall short, but to know also how to let the arrow fly true. “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me” he begs (Psalm 51:11). I beg. How this Psalm speaks to me. How it reveals the tattered core of my own heart and places it in front of me. Like David, I seek to be restored with “the joy of your salvation”.:
At which point we come to the hinge, the pivot, of the Psalm. “Then I will teach transgressors your ways and sinners will return to you…” (Psalm 51:13). I am no better than anyone. I am worse than many. I have fallen and seek a way to behold God’s glory once more, through confession, forgiveness, and absolution. But it does not simply leap up before me. It is a path towards something glorious and joyful. As I journey, when I am given the chance to be restored, then will I teach others who have been like me that there is hope, and that there is a way to return home, to be reconciled to God. David asks, pleads, begs, “Deliver me, and my tongue will sing of your deliverance” (Psalm 51:14). Let me speak of your words and of your works in this place that is my home, a place I know that is filled with people who wander like I have wandered, and who seek like I seek. It is a place of beauty and of love, but it is bereaved by its own adultery and failure: a place of faith and hope and a place of despair and loss.
I have stood before many already to confess my failure. Lord, you have “opened my lips” and I have declared your praise. I have confessed my sin to many, and in doing so I have sacrificed my broken heart to God. My contrite heart is broken in pieces. It lies in the sanctuary at St Francis, waiting for God’s delight, not in any burnt offerings, but in the sinews of my cardiac arrest. My broken heart is not burnt, but I offer it in hope and faith that it will be received and not despised. Then, when I can gather up the pieces and share them, I can rebuild the walls of Jerusalem also in this parish: in God’s name, in praise and with thanksgiving, for a contrite and broken heart restoring itself to the one who created it.