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Hope is Now: Secret History

Reflections from Our Pastors

   For centuries, the Church has lifted up for us the seven “penitential psalms,” one of which is Psalm 32 (with 6, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143 being the other 6). This expression of repentance begins, not with the confession of sin itself, but with its resolution, its destination: “Blessed is he whose sin is forgiven.” We might think blessings are good things God showers on us. But the big blessing is being forgiven, being one with God, the fractured relationship healed.

How fascinating that Psalm 32’s peculiar focus is on how crucial it is to declare your sin, to realize it, own it, acknowledge it, and admit it. But not in a legalistic way, like God won’t be merciful until you openly apologize. Notice verse 3: “When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away.” It’s not merely that God needs to hear from us; we need to get there for our own health and well-being! Covering up, hiding, pretending, not knowing your own dark side: so exhausting. Studies have shown that if you harbor racist attitudes, you have more heart and respiratory ailments. Bottled up anger will literally eat you alive with ulcers, stress, physical aches. Think of Roskalnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or the college students in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History: no one out there knows your crime! But profound emotional and physical consequences plague you anyhow.

A psychologist or a doctor might analyze why. As people of faith, we know that any time our thoughts, urges and passions get out of kilter with what God made us for, our created selves get out of whack. How good of God to provide a catharsis for us, like opening up with a therapist. We declare our sin, we even poke around trying to find sins in ourselves we’ve not noticed, we dare even to expose what we thought was righteousness but really is out of sync with God’s true way.

Sin, after all, isn’t just a deliberate violation of a known law from God. Sin resides deep in our bones. We don’t have a problem; we are a problem – for God, to ourselves, and others. Racism, we hopefully are learning, riddles the foundations of our nation and selves. Isabel Wilkerson (in Caste) reminds us that we needn’t be shamed by this truth: if you go to a doctor, they will not treat you until you take the clipboard and check whether your parents or grandparents had diabetes, cancer, arthritis or heart trouble. If you check “diabetes,” you don’t curl up in shame. It’s just in your family history, and the doctor needs to know to heal you. We’ve all got dark stuff, from a mistake I made 20 minutes ago to debris from decades of a culture out of whack.

“If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9). It’s the “cleansing” that is of so much interest. Not merely getting out of trouble, but going through a purging – or maybe undergoing surgery: there’s something in me, in you, in all of us that will be the death of us if left unattended. God comes with the sharp scalpel of God’s Word to cut the thing out so we can live.

And be happy. The last line of this penitential Psalm reads “Be glad in the Lord.” Understandably, we more often pray to God to help us be happy with… well, with whatever. God, help me be happy in my work or my marriage or my aging. This Psalmist implies that the gladness is simply being close to God, the relationship unmuddied by unconfessed sin or a history of waywardness. A deeper happiness, this divine gladness we (and the Psalmist!) call Joy.

A prayer I picked up at an old church ruin in England (Bolton Priory) concludes with this ask of God: “So let me be with you and be happy.” Not two separate things, are they?

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