A Word to Ash Wednesday

Christian psychologist and author Paul Tournier observed that people who come to him for counseling typically display a internal tension. On the one hand, they want to talk with him; they want to tell him about themselves, disclose their fears, hopes, and longings, describe their behavior – they want to be open so that they can make a real connection with him. On the other hand, they resist talking with him; they want to hide pieces of themselves, not say too much – they want to keep their distance.

The patient, or counselee, knows that his or her hope for getting at issues and effectively handling them lies in honest and open dialogue with Dr. Tournier. At the same time, the counselee avoids that honest and open dialogue out of a nagging fear: that little voice inside that says, “If I lay myself out to him, he will reject me. I'll lose Dr. Tournier's respect or approval.”

Tournier says that the counselee would struggle with this tension during their sessions. The result was long periods of silence – long periods of silence during which the counselee thinks through this inner dialogue: “What do I tell, and what do I not tell?”

Tournier goes on to say he discovered that during these silences there is another dialogue going on in the person: a second, parallel dialogue. This second, parallel dialogue is with God. Even if the person is not a believer of any sort, and thinks he or she is wrestling only with himself or herself, there is a dialogue with God going on – when, for example, the person is trying to make sense of disease and healing, or trying to get a handle on questions about when I am responsible for things and when I am not.

And in this dialogue with God, a parallel internal tension is there, too: I want to connect, and I want to keep my distance; I want to be completely open to God, and yet I don't know if I really want to find out what God thinks of me.

Our Ash Wednesday services begin with Psalm 51. Psalm 51 is for us in this second, parallel dialogue – our dialogue with God. It part, Psalm 51 speaks to us; in part it speaks for us. Psalm 51 is the song of a person who risks coming clean with God – chooses to be honest with God to the bitter end. Why? To connect with God; to become whole. A person could write an essay on the biblical notion of sin just by exploring the vocabulary for sin in this psalm. Three different words give us three pictures – three images to expand our understanding.

  • In verses 1 and 3, the word is “transgression.” “Transgression” has the sense of rebellion, like a child rebelling against parents (Isa. 1:2).
  • In verses 2, 5, and 9, the word is “iniquity.” The literal meaning of “iniquity” is “to be twisted” (Isa 24:1), “bent out of shape” or “bowed down” (Ps. 38:6).
  • The Hebrew word translated “sin” in verses 2, 3, 4, 9 comes from the idea of aiming at something and being off target, missing the mark.

Balancing these three words for sin are three words for forgiveness, each offering a little more nuance.

  • Washed. Just as dirty clothes need to be washed to look and feel right, so a person who has sinned wants to be rid of the look and feel of sin (vv. 2, 7).
  • Cleansed. This goes deeper than an observable washing. The psalmist wants his sin to be eradicated (v. 2), just as someone who is made clean from a terrible skin disease has that disease eradicated (2 Kings 5:10, 12, 13, 14).
  • Blotted out. The psalmist asks that his transgressions be blotted out or wiped away (vv. 3, 9), just like tears can be blotted out or wiped away (Isa. 25:8).

My mother especially likes the part of this psalm that begins “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” I didn't know this about her until after we had sung it in a Sunday morning service I went to with my family at my home church when the congregation dedicated a large bronze chancel cross in memory of my father. Mom wanted “Create in me a clean heart, O God” to be in the service because those words have been so reassuring to her from the time she little. “Create in Me” came after the sermon; Mom remembers thinking as a young girl that she didn't feel that she could live up to what the preacher had just said in the sermon, and so it was especially comforting for her to sing about God giving her a new start, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

It strikes me that only someone who cares about God could pray this psalm: “Cast me not away from your presence”. If God doesn't matter to me, I'm not going to care about being cast away from God’s presence. “Do not take your Holy Spirit from me” arises out of an impulse of faith.

Verse 12 strikes a note of hope, and does so in such a way that we – from our vantage point in time – can see it looking forward to God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

“Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” The joy – the joy of your salvation. Jesus Christ – crucified and risen – is the definitive expression of God's salvation. It is through Jesus Christ that God washes, cleanses, and blots out our sin. It is through Jesus Christ that God creates in you and in me a clean heart – gives us the joy of God's salvation.

“And sustain in me a willing spirit (Spirit).” For today and tomorrow, God the Holy Spirit continues to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify us.

As long as we live, the tension between wanting to connect with God and wanting to hide from God will be with us in some way. For that, there will always be Psalm 51.

O Jesus, you place on my forehead the sign of your saving cross: “Turn from sin and be faithful.” How can I turn from sin unless I turn to you? You speak, you raise your hand, you touch my mind, and you call my name, “Turn to the Lord your God again.” These days of Lent prove a blessing as you journey with me and with all your people. Turn to us, Lord God, and we shall be turned to you. Amen.


God be with all of you and with all of our churches in this Lenten journey.

Bishop John Roth