Psalm 51: Spring Cleaning

Fifth Sunday of Lent 

March 21, 2021

Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 51, a psalm to inspire our spring soul-cleaning.

A clean heart create for me, O God,
    and a steadfast spirit renew within me.

Psalm 51:12

Happy Spring to all of you in the northern hemisphere! Blessings of new life and hope!

And for my southern friends already in your Autumn Season, blessings of change and release!


Psalm 51 can speak to our hearts in whatever season we find ourselves.

After our long winters, external or internal, we may call upon God for a fresh budding of our hearts:

Give me back the joy of your salvation,
    and a willing spirit sustain in me.

Psalm 51: 14-15

When bright summer wanes and vibrant trees speak of leave-taking, we may pray to remain in warmth and light:

Cast me not out from your presence,
    and your Holy Spirit take not from me.

Psalm 51: 13

Across our hemispheres, we all share the longings of Lent to be cleared of all that blocks us from Grace in our lives – to have the hidden corners of our small selfishness swept, polished and ready for Loving Mercy:

Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
    in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
    and of my sin cleanse me.

Psalm 51: 3-4
The Heart Cave

       I must remember
To go down to the heart cave
& sweep it clean; make it warm
with a fire on the hearth,
& candles in their niches,
the pictures on the walls
       glowing with a quiet light.

       I must remember
To go down to the heart cave
       & make the bed
with the quilt from home,
strew
       the rushes on the floor
                                  hang
lavender and sage
                      from the corners.

           I must go down
To the heart cave & be there
           when you come.

- by Geoffrey Brown

Today, as we might take a walk under the nearly budding trees, or over their first fallen leaves, let’s ask God to walk with us:

Lord, you  open my lips;
and my mouth to proclaim your praise.
For you do not desire sacrifice or I would give it;
a burnt offering you would not accept.
What you want of me, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn.

Psalm 51: 17-19

I open my heart, O God, to your Heart.
Teach me Love.

Poetry: A Spring Poem – Luci Shaw

all the field praises Him/all
dandelions are His glory/gold
and silver/all trilliums unfold
white flames above their trinities
of leaves all wild strawberries
and massed wood violets reflects His skies’ 
clean blue and white
all brambles/all oxeyes
all stalks and stems lift to His light
all young windflower bells
tremble on hair
springs for His air’s
carillon touch/last year’s yarrow (raising
brittle star skeletons) tells
age is not past praising
all small low unknown
unnamed weeds show His impossible greens 
all grasses sing
tone on clear tone
all mosses spread a spring-
soft velvet for His feet
and by all means all leaves/buds/all flowers cup
jewels of fire and ice
holding up
to His kind morning heat
a silver sacrifice
now
make of our hearts a field 
to raise Your praise.

Music: I Come to the Garden Alone – C. Austin Miles

“In the Garden” ( – sometimes rendered by its first line “I Come to the Garden Alone”) is a gospel song written by American songwriter C. Austin Miles (1868–1946), a former pharmacist who served as editor and manager at Hall-Mack publishers for 37 years. According to Miles’ great-granddaughter, the song was written “in a cold, dreary and leaky basement in Pitman, New Jersey that didn’t even have a window in it let alone a view of a garden.” The song was first published in 1912 and popularized during the Billy Sunday evangelistic campaigns of the early twentieth century.
(Source: Wikipedia)

Psalm 51: I Desire Mercy

Saturday of the Third Week of Lent

March 13, 2021


Hosea’s Warning

Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 51 which, together with our other readings, tests the depths and sincerity of our prayer.

A clean heart create for me, God;
renew within me a steadfast spirit.

Psalm 51:12

Our readings today put this consideration before us:

What is prayer really,
and what is the quality of my prayer?


Hosea tells us

For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice,
    and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.


Luke tells us

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.


And our psalm tells us

For you are not pleased with sacrifices;
    should I offer a burnt offering, you would not accept it.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
    a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.


To sum up our readings, here’s what prayer is NOT:

  • It is not a roll call of our sacrifices and righteousness.
  • It is not fasting, or paying tithes, or even keeping the commandments.

Then what is it?


Prayer is an intimate exchange with God
with whom we are humble, honest,
open, generous and grateful
– with Whom we are safe, confident and in love.

Prayer is our response to God
who desires our merciful hearts.
… so
Let us Pray.

Poetry: A Prayer from Teresa of Avila 

May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received, 
and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones, 
and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.
It is there for each and every one of us.

Music: Peaceful Moments – Regi Stone

Psalm 51: In Accord with Your Merciful Love

Friday after Ash Wednesday

February 19, 2021


Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 51, that magnificent penitential psalm which is one of only seven among the 150. The psalm, set between two readings that do with fasting, suggests that what we should “fast” from is sin.

Some interpreters attribute the psalm to David, deeply repentant after his treacherous acts toward Uriah and Bathsheba. Others say that this was a subsequent assignation because the psalm so fit the incident.


Whatever the case, Psalm 51 gives of us a picture of someone profoundly aware of failure in faithfulness to God – not just a sin against another human being, but against God.

For I acknowledge my offense,
    and my sin is before me always:
“Against you only have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight.”

Psalm 51:5-6

Still, coupled with this aching repentance
is the absolute conviction
of God’s superseding Mercy.

Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
    in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
    and of my sin cleanse me.

Psalm 51: 3-4

The psalmist has a large, lyrical notion in mind:
that God should take the scattered, chaotic, failed self that he is,
and out of it form a new, restored self.
The movement from failed self to restored self
is a gift asked of God in confidence.

Walter Brueggemann: From Whom No Secrets Are Hid


Praying with this psalm, the symbol of an arrow came to mind. You might have noticed the symbol recently on Valentines Day, used to describe the power of love to engage the heart.



But if the arrow is broken, how will it be made whole again?

Lord, you will open my lips;
and my mouth will proclaim your praise.
For you do not desire sacrifice or I would give it;
a burnt offering you would not accept.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn.

Psalm 51:17-19

On this Lenten journey,
may we bring contrite hearts
– our “broken arrows” – 
to God,
asking to recognize our failures in love
and to repent sincerely of them.


Poetry: Possible Answers to Prayer by Scott Cairns

Your petitions—though they continue to bear
just the one signature—have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties—despite their constant,
relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value—nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.
Your repentance—all but obscured beneath
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment—is sufficient.
Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.
Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—         
these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.

Music: Broken Arrow – Let God turn your whole world around in this song by Rod Stewart

Who else is gonna bring you a broken arrow
Who else is gonna bring you a bottle of rain
There he goes moving across the water
There he goes turning my whole world around

Do you feel what I feel
Can we make it so that's part of the deal
I gotta hold you in these arms of steel
Lay your heart on the line this time

I want to breathe when you breathe
When you whisper like that hot summer breeze
Count the beads of sweat that cover me
Didn't you show me a sign this time

Who else is gonna bring you a broken arrow
Who else is gonna bring you a bottle of rain
There he goes moving across the water
There he goes turning my whole world around, around

Do you feel what I feel
Do you feel what I feel
Ah can you see what I see
Can you cut behind the mystery
I will meet you by the witness tree
Leave the whole world behind

I want to come when you call
I'll get to you if I have to crawl
They can't hold me with these iron walls
We got mountains to climb, to climb

Who else is gonna bring you a broken arrow
Who else is gonna bring you a bottle of rain
There he goes moving across the water
There he goes turning my whole world around
Turning my whole world around
Turning my whole world around

Psalm 51: Even now…

February 17, 2021

Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, as we begin the Holy Season of Lent, we pray with Psalm 51. It is an elegiac summons the Lord offers to those who hunger for restoration, for those on hope’s last shore.

Blow the trumpet in Zion!
    proclaim a fast,
    call an assembly;
Gather the people,
    notify the congregation;
Assemble the elders,
    gather the children
    and the infants at the breast;
Let the bridegroom quit his room
    and the bride her chamber.


Perhaps there is something that dramatic in your life that you will want to bring to God’s Mercy. But for many of us, Lent is a time to stop ignoring the little things in our lives that cripple our full redemption.

Those:

  • unforgiven hurts 
  • unresolved angers
  • petty jealousies
  • unloving criticisms
  • unkindnesses
  • petty cynicisms.

It is a time to face up to our failures to
pray, listen, hope, encourage,
witness, truth-tell, bless.

It is a time to:

  • become poor in spirit
  • mourn our suffering world
  • be meek before the power God’s Word
  • deepen in hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • be merciful
  • be pure of heart
  • be peacemaking
  • befriend persecuted

Lent reminds us that it’s not good enough to be good enough. Lent is about the “whole heart” thing. Is there anything keeping us from it?

Even now, says the LORD,
    return to me with your whole heart,
    with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
    and return to the LORD, your God.



Psalm 51 gives us a time-tested formula for a transformative Lent:

  • acknowledge sinfulness
  • ask forgiveness
  • act on God’s Grace
  • give thanks for God’s mercy

It’s a cycle we should repeat daily, but during Lent it’s time to take it up a notch.


Poetry: Marked by Ashes – Walter Brueggemann

Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day
This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
     halfway back to committees and memos,
     halfway back to calls and appointments,
     halfway on to next Sunday,
     halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
     half turned toward you, half rather not.

This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
   but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
     we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
       of failed hope and broken promises,
       of forgotten children and frightened women,
     we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
     we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.

We are able to ponder our ashness with
   some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
   anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.

On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
   you Easter parade of newness.
   Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
     Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
     Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
   Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
     mercy and justice and peace and generosity.

We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.


Music: Tears at Bedtime – Grundman

Psalm 51: Begin Again

Memorial of Saint Bernard, Abbot and Doctor of the Church

August 20, 2020

Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 51 in which God promises refreshment to our parched and hardened hearts.


Let’s talk about “parched”. Early in the pandemic, a dear friend gifted us with a vigorous basil plant. A practical culinary addition to our meager garden, it really was so much more. It became a symbol of hope over these pandemic days that can be cloudy in more than meteorological terms!

I have taken good care of the plant. But last week! I got distracted by something., something so important I have forgotten what it was! In my distraction, my little basil became parched.


Our souls become parched too, often because we let ourselves become distracted from their care. Like beautiful plants, our spirits have to be tended daily, nurtured with prayer, silence, gratitude and charity.

Psalm 51 reminds me that God is patient with our “distractions”. God will refresh and renew even the most neglected garden.

Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and a willing spirit sustain in me.


Our first reading from Ezekiel offers a further encouragement that anything gnarled or hardened in our hearts can be resurrected by God’s Mercy.

I will sprinkle clean water upon you
to cleanse you from all your impurities,
and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you,
taking from your bodies your stony hearts


Poetry: Houseplants in Winter by Eamon Grennan

Their survival seems an open question:
I make a mess of watering, prune
without discretion, grieve over the leaf
whose borders burn and curl. Their
fresh petals a perpetual surprise – 
minute coral hearts, magnesium stars. 

I've lined them up on the table
I work and eat at, facing the small window
that faces almost south, placing myself
under the pale sway of their silence.
They play their deaths and resurrections out
in our cramped common quarters.

I gave the rose-geranium too much water:
its roots grew bog-black, sodden, and
nothing could keep its sweetness
in our lives. The jade, for all its
early promise and parakeet-green shoots,
won't root: it bows its leathery heads. 

The rest seem busy getting by. Removed
to the margins of our noisy mealtimes
when my children visit, they grow used
to the smell of bread frying in goosefat
for breakfast, small talk, the after-
dinner pungency of a peeled tangerine.

The speechless life they lead is Greek
to me: when live flowers rise
out of dead heads, I reckon it's as much,
for the moment, as I need to know.
The light that falls on them
strikes me too, till I feel as rooted

as I'll ever be in this home
from home. Look at us, they seem to say,
flourishing under straitened circumstances:
you see we make do with your handfuls
of earth, your cups of water, these daily
visitations of winter light that cast our
impeccable shadows on your razed page.

Music: Psalm 51 – Shuv Creative
from their website: This worship video sung in Biblical Hebrew directly from the Scriptures is a powerful tool to open the heart for repentance.

Psalm 51: Secret Heart

Friday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

July 10, 2020

Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 51, a deeply moving plea for a pure heart and a right spirit. Psalm 51 is a penitential psalm known by its Latin name, Miserere (Have Mercy). You, dear readers, may remember a reflection on this beautiful psalm from just about a month ago.


As I prayed with Psalm 51 today, I asked myself how my spirit has been doing in the intervening month. May I challenge you all with the same question?

Corona time is not easy on the Spirit. Confinement, uncertainty, suffering and loss have impacted all of us in some way. Restrictions away from friends, family, and community deplete us. Social unrest and political lunacy unsettle us.

On the other hand, some of us have been able to embrace this time as a long retreat from “the way things were”. It has been a time of washing our hearts down to their bare muscle. We have sat in the quiet with questions like “What is it that I most love,  most trust, most need, most believe in, most hope for?”.


It is such an appropriate time to pray Psalm 51, to be with God in our “secret heart” – that place where no one else ever hears our rawest thoughts and purest prayers:

  • to acknowledge any sin or guilt we carry
  • to name our desire for healing and clarity
  • to listen to the whispering of Wisdom within us
  • to find our strength by finding our rootedness in God
  • to reclaim joy even in the midst of difficulty
  • to make our heart at home in praise
  • to be righted by Mercy

Let’s pray with and for one another as we cherish this Psalm.


Poetry: The Place Where We Are Right – Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Music: Wisdom in the Secret Heart – Shane and Shane

Psalm 51: A Contrite Spirit

Tuesday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

June 16, 2020

Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 51, the Miserere. Perhaps the most recognized of the penitential psalms, it is said to have been written by David after his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. ( although it more likely was written separately and applied to David’s situation later.)

This psalm is so rich in deep spiritual psychology that it would be a shame to dismiss it simply as a “confessional”. The psalm truly teaches us how our soul’s vigor and wholeness may be restored in an environment of sin where we are often both consciously and unconsciously complicit.


Let me give an example of how I see this. Last night in my city, a group of protesters gathered around a statue of Christopher Columbus, supposedly, “to protect it” from dismantling by “them”. Many in the group carried clubs and bats; a few carried military-style weapons. All of the “defenders” were white, angry, and mostly men.

I ask myself what were they really there to do. What did they really feel they had to defend? Did their violent public intimidation scream out, “We love Christopher Columbus!”? Or did it shout, “We refuse to acknowledge that our heritage is laced with racism and sinful domination!”?


For me, this is the kind of sinful circumstance which Psalm 51 can help us redeem. We may not act out our culpable ignorance, violence, defensiveness, or racism like last night’s threatening mob. But we must examine what we retain of these sins in our choices, attitudes, speech, and complicit silence.

How does Psalm 51 guide us to that kind of redemption?

First, there is a broken-hearted recognition of failure in holding up our end of relationship with God. Because, as David acknowledges, it is God whom we ultimately offend in our crassness toward one another. It’s not about only one sinful act, like the list we made before our grade school confessions. It’s about a fissure in love, honesty, and loyalty to the One who gives us all life.


Second, there is confession – saying out loud the failure that has replaced love. My favorite Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, describes it as Truth-telling:

Psalm 51 makes available the truth of our life before God. On the one hand, it resists arrogant autonomy that imagines (with David) that we can live without accountability or dependence on the will and purpose of God. On the other hand, it contradicts the practice of denial that is so seductive in a society that has no time, patience, or energy for the nurture of an interior life. It turns out that truth-telling before God is an indispensable condition for joyous existence. Such emancipation makes for exuberant singing and glad generosity. (Walter Brueggemann: From Whom No Secrets are Hid)

Third, and most important because it is woven through and sustains the other two, is the immovable confidence in God’s mercy and God’s desire to give it.

For you do not desire sacrifice or I would give it;
a burnt offering you would not accept.

My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn.

Psalm 51 is a big one. If you have time, read the whole thing reflectively. It’s good medicine once we have the courage to swallow it.


Poetry: To Live in the Mercy of God – Denise Levertov

To lie back under the tallest
oldest trees. How far the stems
rise, rise
               before ribs of shelter
                                           open!

To live in the mercy of God. The complete
sentence too adequate, has no give.
Awe, not comfort. Stone, elbows of
stony wood beneath lenient
moss bed.

And awe suddenly
passing beyond itself. Becomes
a form of comfort.
                      Becomes the steady
air you glide on, arms
stretched like the wings of flying foxes.
To hear the multiple silence
of trees, the rainy
forest depths of their listening.

To float, upheld,
                as salt water
                would hold you,
                                        once you dared.

 To live in the mercy of God.

To feel vibrate the enraptured
waterfall flinging itself
unabating down and down
                              to clenched fists of rock.

Swiftness of plunge,
hour after year after century,
                                                   O or Ah
uninterrupted, voice
many-stranded.
                              To breathe
spray. The smoke of it.
                              Arcs
of steelwhite foam, glissades
of fugitive jade barely perceptible. Such passion—
rage or joy?

                              Thus, not mild, not temperate,
God’s love for the world. Vast
flood of mercy
                      flung on resistance.

Music: Miserere Mei Deus – Gregorio Allegri 

Want a Sign? Wake Up!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

 Click here for readings

Today, in Mercy,  our readings talk about the “sign of Jonah”? What is that really, and how does it speak to me?

The passage from the Book of Jonah describes a remarkable event. Jonah, finally coughed up from the belly of a whale, marches part way through Nineveh announcing its impending destruction.

What if somebody did that in your neighborhood ? Would you ignore them, call the police, or maybe move? Not the Ninevites. They LISTENED! They recognized Jonah’s message as a last ditch chance to get their act together! Talk about conversion! Even the king ripped his robes and sat in ashes!

Ps51_miserere

When those questioning Jesus ask for a sign that they should repent and change, Jesus has had it with them. He basically says “No sign; learn a lesson from Jonah.“ In so many words, he tells them “I am your Jonah. I am your last ditch chance at conversion.”

Is there a message for us? Are we as bad off as the Ninevites or the dense crowds missing Jesus’s point? Are there realities in our lives that need conversion of heart?

Often, when asking ourselves such a question, we look to the sins we commit through our weakness and selfishness. We confess, own up, seek forgiveness for the things we have done.

But sometimes we are blind to our sins of omission – the things we haven’t done that we should have – the forgiveness withheld, the support never offered, the gratitude unexpressed, the half-hearted work for which we claim full payment, the family and community where we take but seldom give, the times we let ourselves and others be less than their best selves.

I don’t think Jesus wants us to sit in the ashes over these things, but rather to be honest with ourselves and shape up. Through prayer and reflection, we need to ask for the grace to hear Jonah’s voice in our lives.

Music: I Repent – Steve Green

A Clean Heart

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Readings: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/081818.cfm

Ps51_clean heart

Today, in Mercy, God tells Ezekiel that each person will be judged according to her/his own ways – not according to the deeds of our parents, family or friends.

In the Gospel, Jesus blesses the innocent children and says that those in the Kingdom of Heaven must be like them.

Most of us are a long way from innocence. We have our agendas, our politics, our status, our possessions, our grudges, our prejudices that often come between us and a spiritually pure heart.

If we want to be different, today’s Psalm 51 allows us to lay it all on the heart of Jesus.   Create in me a clean heart, O Lord.

(I hope you enjoy this gentle rendering of the psalm in Hebrew.)

Music: Choneni Elohim, from Psalm 51 (Be Gracious to me O G-d) ~ Christine Jackman