Previously I suggested that the Penitential Psalms might be a good set of prayers for this election season. Why? Not sure I know. Maybe it’s something to discover.
I’m quoting these psalms from the NRSV. The titles given by the NRSV translators are their own, not part of the text they received. But they are insightful. The title they gave Psalm 6 was “Prayer for Recovery from Grave Illness.”
Nationally and individually I think we have a heightened awareness of illness these days because of the pandemic. But not only because of the pandemic. Do you not feel, as I do, that we are afflicted with a spiritual virus as well? Malaise seems to me to be a good word: a generalized sense of not being well.
This second psalm in the set of the Seven Penitential Psalms received from the NRSV translators the title “The Joy of Forgiveness,” which puts us back into the territory we expect when we see “penitential,” namely, guilt. But I am interested in the way range of feelings, or symptoms, seem to hang together—both in the Psalms and in life: illness, pain, unease, weakness, sorrow, bewilderment, guilt, regret. These are not synonymous, nor can you construct a taxonomy that shows how each always causes or is caused by another. But they are related. They are passive negativities—negatives that one suffers.
There are also active negativities: anger, hatred, malice, verbal and physical violence. When one person or group’s active negativity is focused on another, that other person or group is likely to feel some of the passive negativities. But it seems to me that more generally when there is a significant amount of active negativity in the environment, everyone in general—mainly of course the direct victims of the active negativity, but also those who are not directly targeted, and also those who are doing the attacking—everyone in general enters into a general malaise. Which means that in addition to the acute suffering of those specifically targeted, there is also a kind of cloud of passive negativity across the whole sky.
I think of the first chapter of Isaiah:
Why should ye be stricken any more?
ye will revolt more and more:
the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.
From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it;
but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores:
they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment.
Your country is desolate,
your cities are burned with fire:
your land, strangers devour it in your presence,
and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers.
And the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard,
as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers,
as a besieged city.
We—by which I mean we Americans, and especially we American Christians (who I hope are especially sensitive to such things)—know ourselves to be currently residing under such a cloud. We are not imagining it. It is there.
When we are under such a cloud, we can know that it is dark without being entirely sure who turned out the lights. We can be beaten up without knowing who struck us, offended without knowing whose words have hurt us. We can sense that we are being lied to even (especially?) when we don’t know what’s true. We can sense that we are being scorned and insulted without quite catching everything that is being said and signaled against us.
We can experience a season of bewilderment, anger, and anxiety that settles into a chronic sadness.
And amid all this we can feel guilty without knowing precisely what we have done wrong, or even without being sure that we have done wrong.
Now, if we refuse to admit and sit with the sadness, with the pain, and especially with the guilt, out of unwillingness to be passive (which means, to suffer), we transform the passive negativities into negative activity, going on the attack, because activity is always better than suffering (passivity).
But if we can find the grace to sit still for a moment and suffer, allowing ourselves to acknowledge and feel the negativities, then for our wounds and sickness we want healing, for our sorrow we want to be made glad, and for our sins we want forgiveness. We may not even know precisely which of those we need at a given moment. Under the cloud we need them all.
This, I think, is what the Penitential Psalms are about.
There—here in Psalm 32—we find forgiveness, protection, relief, deliverance, guidance, transformation, and joy. We do not find a hatch door that drops us directly into joy. It is a pathway. One takes a certain number of steps.
The Joy of Forgiveness
OF DAVID. A MASKIL.
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let all who are faithful
offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
shall not reach them.
You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.
I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not stay near you.
Many are the torments of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.
Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.