10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit. (Psa. 51.10-12 [12-14])
Psalm 51 is read in its entirety by the entire congregation during the Ash Wednesday service. I remember the first time I ever attended this service. Elizabeth and I were engaged and attending an Episcopal church outside of Wheaton, IL. It was a stressful time for both of us, but I was reduced to tears. I wasn’t feeling particularly sinful and I don’t think (and didn’t think at the time) that I was more degenerate than any other or than I had been in the past. It was a cumulative effect of the entire service. It was an incredibly cathartic and worshipful experience.
Those who know me will testify that I am quite the smart a$$. But not then and not there. Even 15 years later the liturgy still moves me, every Eucharist, every Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter morning. Sure, I still find the juxtaposition of something like ash falling all over the nose of our most (self) revered woman in the congregation amusing and suppress a smile. (And I am still fearful every time I have to serve the wine that I am going to tip it all over someone.) But to worship God both in form and function, with freedom and with liturgy, is a great and humbling joy.
All if this is by way of preamble to say that the first time we read Ps. 51 aloud during the Ash Wednesday service I realized I knew at least 3 worship songs we used to sing in IV from verses 10-12 alone. I chose to begin this series of devotionals with Ps 51 because it encapsulates so well our prayer of penitence. (And as Indiana Jones knew well, “a penitent man kneels before God.” It applies to woman as well, of course.) A cry to God to forgive us and cleanse us of our sins and to then recreate us so that we may serve him by serving others.
Through the course of these three verses the psalmist moves from entreating God to purify him to asking for the power to remain in a right frame of mind and soul. Often times I leave a service convicted and convinced that there are very real and practical changes to which God is calling me and yet the energy and enthusiasm will wain over time. That is the challenge and promise of Lent to me. It is a set period of time wherein I ought, with God’s help, to be able to remain focused and committed to my lenten vows.
In Alcoholics Anonymous they emphasize that the journey to sobriety is “day by day” If we try and say, “today I will stop doing [whatever] for the rest of my life,” we can be overwhelmed by the prospect before us. The vista is huge and far reaching, how am I ever going to make it? Yet if we say, “I am not going to do that today,” we find that it is manageable. One day at a time, step by step, one prayer at a time.
The fact that the Hebrew root for the phrase “restore to me” is *שוב, the same as that for repentance is a reminder that this is a process of repentance, of turning from our prior path of our own design to the path God has established for us. But the road can seem long and daunting if we try and consider it all at a single glance. Instead let us pray with the psalmist that God might regularly remind us of the joy of his salvation and sustain in us a spirit willing to follow his Way.