At its heart the Psalmist is confessing that she or he has fallen into an unfaithful life and unfaithful acts, which go against the call of God’s best. In confessing, she or he stands in solidarity with those before her or him who as fore-runners of faiths also so failed.
I can relate with this in a way. As I’ve gone through into a more mature adult faith, I have ended up confronting shortcomings in my own religious upbringing. My parents of course gave me the best they had to offer, as all parents do, but even they have in later years moved away from the very rigid faith of the offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists found in the Church of God movement in my childhood. As an adult I have found myself looking back and critically evaluating that upbringing and finding some kernels of life-giving experience and values that still shape me, but many aspects of that upbringing that were barriers to me truly experiencing life as God made me to, barriers to more fully connecting to others, to myself, and to God’s world. I find too myself looking back at my experience in each phase of my spiritual journey – as one influenced by charismatics through my high school youth for Christ group, by evangelicals through my early ministries, and by more independently minded Christians in the nondenominational expressions of the emergent / progressive Christian movements. In each area of my faith journey, there remain kernels of life-giving values, experiences, & relationships like shimmering golden nuggets I can gather. Yet there are also choices I made trying to be faithful to those perspectives which, looking back, were not my best moments. They were falling into patterns each of these expressions of faith had which expressed less the life-giving presence of God and more the insecurities, short-sightedness, and need to be right of the people organizing those faith directions.
I’ve also as I began to work on emotional healing from scars from my childhood begun to confront the patterns in my family life going back generations, patterns I now see all around me in the religious communities I’ve been a part of and in the wider culture I live in here in the south. Facing into those patterns requires admitting the ways in which I let them become a part of me, shaping my life and destiny unexamined. It is confessing both brokenness and sin, which in Scripture is not being horribly evil but missing the mark of God’s best.
I can identify with the Psalmist standing there and saying they have sinned just as their ancestors. My ancestors were hard-working farmers and teachers. Yet they were complicit in a society that took land from natives to our country by force, the very land on which they farmed; complicit in a society that held back people of color not just through enslavement but also through systems of prejudice and discrimination that kept them in second-class status. Their faith which was so life-giving to them is complicit in persecuting people of other faiths, as Christianity has responsibility for the Inquisition, the Crusades, the witch-hunts of New England, and at times being the source of rhetoric of fear and exclusion of other faiths. And yet their example of prizing education is why I embraced a path of education and understanding of others. Their example of hard work is why I love my work as a chaplain and pastor. Their example of simple lived Christianity that loves neighbor as best they can is part of why I have a desire to see all my neighbors, no matter their background, as God’s children.
Too often when we look at our lives and then look back into the past we either fall into one of two pitfalls. On one side, we look back and idolize those who came before as sharers in a better age. We long nostalgically for a simpler time, forgetting it was never so simple and there was much injustice, discrimination, heartache, and loss than too. We can also make the mistake of thinking we have arrived, and judging those who went before us as forebears of faith as if they were evil, wrong-headed, primitive, short-sighted and as if we are the deeply enlightened ones. In truth, they did they best they could many of them with what they had been given. There is much we can be thankful for in what they did, and much that ought to break our hearts. But we are not better, for we still make the same kind of compromises in our faith. I still have computers and Iphones and technology which were built if not by slave labor by hands of those often inhumanely treated in other parts of the world. I still am a part of a system which chews people up like so much bread. I still am a part of a society built on the backs of natives who were killed and driven from their land, and on the backs of African slaves which has yet to make amends for such evil. I still live in a society in which people of color face harassment, discrimination, and abuse far too often. And often instead of looking, raising my awareness, engaging in the fight for justice, I play video games, watch Netflix, or turn off the news.
Rather the ground is level at the foot of the cross. All of us fall short. We must be willing to confront how very much we, like our forebears in faith whose shortcomings are glaring, also have shortcomings too. Some are obvious. I am convinced there are some we will not see until glory-land, but which will become obvious in generations to come as those who continue to hear the still-speaking God have their awareness raised and look back with greater clarity on our lives, able to see what we cannot in regards to how our way of life impacts those around us & our world.
Yet I said this psalm is to me a testimony to love. I truly think it is. The reason I say this is because the Psalmist is able to look back on her or his life, and the lives of those that went before them in faith, and say And yet… And yet God did not give up on us. And yet God continued to call out to us on the way to go. And yet God continued to rescue us, to lead us away from the path of destruction. And yet God continues to reach out to us in love.
The fact that we can look back on our past littered with wrong messages, tragedies, heartache, and bad examples and find such kernels of gold, moments of awareness, and deep joy is signs that, like the Psalmist, love is what is moving our histories and lives forward.
You see, as the story of Jesus’ baptism so beautifully pictures, the way in which our God views us is not ultimately in terms of what we have done right or wrong, but that we are God’s own. God always ever looks at us with the eyes of love and says are names followed by “this one, this one is the child whom I love. This one, this one is the one in whom I am well pleased, not because of what they have done right nor despite what they have done wrong, but simply before any of that because they are my precious children”
At the center of life, beating light a heartbeat, is this heart toward us. Knowing this frees us to look with brutal honesty at our lives. We will not be cast off for our failings or shortcomings. Rather we will be embraced and like a mother takes the hand of her wayward child to keep him out of the street, so our loving Parent will extend a hand even as we are failing to offer to lead us back onto the path of life.
So we do not have to groan in fear, as I did as a young Christian, that we had done that one sin which would keep us out of our Father’s Kingdom. Rather we can know we are loved by a Father and Mother, a Friend and Guide, a Teacher and Companion, whose love for us will never run die. The constancy of that love can give us courage, courage to confront the most fearful enemy of all: our own brokenness, our own shortcomings, our own shadow. In facing into those harsh realities we would rather ignore, we open ourselves up to the God who brings light into darkness showing us the dark places of our soul, so that we can be transformed.
Such transformation is the goal of confession of sin. Seen in this way confession our failings, shortcomings, and sins whether through a prayer in church, talking to a preacher, a therapist visit, or from the heart to a friend, is a testimony to love. It is God’s love that frees us to be honest with ourselves and others, knowing God sees us just as we are and extends unshakeable love.
May that unswerving commitment of God to you shape your day this day and all your days.
Your progressive redneck preacher,