Create in me a clean heart, O God.
– Psalm 51 –
The Lord will fight for you.
You need only to be still.
– Exodus 14:1 –
Love the Lord your God… and love your neighbor…
all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
– Jesus –
The end of another Ash Wednesday.
Another day for working hard at being good. Another day to read Psalm 51 in the Ash Wednesday service, while your ash-smudged parishioners wrestle with varying levels of guilt, shame, or self-satisfaction (thank the Lord that I am not that man, he looks super guilty, I’ll bet he did something really bad this week).
I had been on track for a really killer series of pieces on repentance and the Psalms starting this week (lots of Brueggemann!), but life can be just humming along like a well-tuned car, and then the exhaust pipe can fall out in the middle of an intersection, leaving you on the side of the road calling tow companies, hoping someone is open at 9PM.
The last two weeks have felt like one emergency, one hospital visit, one bizarrely bad coincidence after another. I slept on some futons and wept on some floors. We did some emergency midnight shopping sprees in Kroger, buying comfort snacks (Digestives and Fireball) and filling the cart with lavender products – candles, shampoo, diffuser.
Lavender is for peace, she said plaintively, so we lit the lavender candles and plugged in the diffuser and she took a lavender drenched shower. And we tried not to get to discouraged when the dog pulled the diffuser off the table and drank the lavender water (“it can’t hurt her, right? It’s natural?”)
So here we are on Ash Wednesday, ready to get done that hard work of repentance and thinking about our inevitable death, y’all, and I’m overtired, under-washed, and tightly wound. And smelling vaguely of lavender.
Purple for repentance, ashes for death, lavender for peace. One of these things is not like the other, Jesus, I said in the car while I drove to the monastery, hunting for clarity and a breath of air. Asking for peace on Ash Wednesday seems out of place for the liturgical calendar. Peace is not what we do when we repent. Peace is not what God gives us when we think about death
Peace is not part of this season.
This is a season for hard work, not for rest.
Psalm 51 is the Official Lent Psalm, the most Repentancey of all the Repentance Psalms. I read it every day this week, hoping to see something new in one of the most overused psalms, and the only psalm I’ve ever been irritated with.
I’m just, finally, worn out with trying to repent. Maybe I’m tired of making myself a project. Maybe I’m tired of making other people projects.
But in Psalm 51, It sounds like David is, too.
The words that David uses are not action words. Or, rather, they are action words, but they are actions of God. They aren’t actions of David at all.
Create in me a clean heart.
Grant me a willing spirit.
Open my lips.
“You desire truth in my inmost parts,” the psalmist begs, “therefore teach me.”
You want me to be holy, so You’ll have to make me holy.
You want me to be clean, so You’ll have to wash me off.
Doesn’t David sounds a little sassy here? You want me clean, God? Then go ahead, wash me, because I’m not going to get clean on my own. You desire truth? You’re gonna have to teach me.
Jesus, you want to make me holy this Lent? OK. Get on it. Do your worst. I’m ready for it, but I also am bringing literally nothing to the table except this giving up, letting go, backing down.
The sooner we let go of our own “holiness projects,” the better.
The harder we try to make ourselves perfect, the farther we walk from God, and the farther we drift from our neighbors. Our obsession with holiness often creates boundaries between people, between ourselves and those we love. Our obsession with our souls and the grand the project of Being Good rarely makes us more kind, compassionate, gentle. Give up Facebook, chocolate, coffee if you must, but are our Lenten practices drawing us near to the mercy seat and to each other? Or, like in C.S. Lewis’ allegory of heaven and hell, are we living in houses that are gradually drifting further and further apart, each one of us with our Holiness Calculators and Soul Projects, unaware that all the Law and the Prophets come down to this – Love God, and love your neighbor.
All of the Holy Days, spiritual practices, spiritual disciplines, “quiet times,” come down to this – love God. Love your neighbor.
Even Lent. Even tonight.
If our Lenten practices don’t draw us closer to God, and to the people around us, they are one more burden to carry.
Ashes for death, purple for repentance, and lavender for peace.
There is a kind of peace in Psalm 51. It is the peace of the one who has finally given up his projects. It is the peace of the one who finally knows that if any love is going to grow in his soul, it will have to come from You, Lover of our souls and Heartbeat of the world.
I am holding on to Psalm 51 this week. I’m holding on because if God wants me to be clean, God will have to be the one bringing the buckets of water, because my washcloth is too small and barely damp and entirely useless. If God wants me to speak, God will have to open my lips, because I am out of words. And if God wants me to be with Her, She will have to draw me in.
And She does want me to be with Her. More than She wants my good works, my perfect repentance, my spiritual cliches, my ashy forehead, my clever wordplay, even my analysis of Brueggemann. God continues to say to us, again and again, “I would rather you were with Me than good.”
The entirety of our Holy Days, our fasts, our feasts, our repentance, our celebrations, our service, our worship, our chaplaining, our listening, our praying, our casseroles – every single piece of what we do comes down to –
Love God. Love others.
So this Lent, I am thinking about how my Lenten practices have gotten in the way of love. I am thinking about how I have chosen “repentance” as a self-satisfactory spiritual discipline that kept me at arms length from a God who knows that I cannot wash myself, and is longing to make me clean. I am thinking about how my spiritual disciplines have kept me from intimacy with people that I love, and how if Lent is not part of our love for our neighbor, Lent is nothing but a crashing symbol.
Love God. Love others.
Ashes for death, purple for repentance, lavender for peace.
Receive your ashes. Love your neighbor. Be at peace.