Psalm 51 is attributed to David, after his conversation with the prophet Nathan, after David’s sexual encounter with Bathsheba. That’s in 2 Samuel 11, if you want to look, at it. This story contradicts some popular stereotypes about the Bible. David and Bathsheba’s story reminds us that the Bible is not boring, that biblical families and marriages are not all to be imitated in our lives, and that the Bible does not provide straightforward, simple instruction for us.
David is king of Israel. He sends his army into battle, but stays behind himself. After an afternoon nap, David is walking on his rooftop and sees Bathsheba taking a bath. He wants to have sex with her, so he sends a messenger to find out about her. Even when he gets confirmation that this is Bathsheba, wife of Uriah (who is off in battle at David’s command), David has her brought to his house and has sex with her.
When she realizes she’s pregnant she sends word to David. He decides to hide his paternity. He calls Uriah back from battle and tells him to go home to his wife. Uriah won’t do it while his comrades are on the battlefield. David gets Uriah drunk, hoping he’ll get over his moral conscience and have sex with Bathsheba, but he still won’t.
So David sends Uriah back to war and sends a message to his commander Joab “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” Joab does it, Uriah dies, Bathsheba mourns him, and after her mourning period is over, David marries her.
What stands out to you about David and Bathsheba’s story? As a kid I thought it was cool that Bathsheba is the one who takes a bath. Although her name is more correctly pronounced Batsheva, her bath defines her character in most of our minds. But most of us don’t understand what this bath was about, which makes sense, cause most of us aren’t Jewish.
The text specifically says that Bathsheba is taking her monthly cleansing bath, a religious ritual after menstruation, childbirth, ejaculation, and lots of other times. When you picture Bathsheba’s bath, do you imagine her on a rooftop? It’s easy to do, especially since that scene has been painted by so many classical painters. Actually, the one on the roof is David, Bathsheba is at the mikveh, a community religious cleansing pool at least as big as our baptistery. It has to be big enough for full immersion, and it’s not hers, it’s a community bath.
So Bathsheba’s where she is supposed to be, not trying to tempt anyone. David is supposed to be at war but stays home for afternoon naps. We don’t know what Bathsheba wants or thinks about their sexual relationship, or later their marriage. We don’t know if she ever understands that David has her husband killed on purpose.
David’s sins in this story are plentiful and outrageous. But it takes the prophet Nathan to help David see himself. Nathan tells David a parable about a lamb and two men and David finally sees his own selfishness. He says, “I have sinned against the Lord.” (I would remind him he sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah, too.)
Hear again the opening lines of Psalm 51, as David’s song of confession:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
Many Christian churches recite a confession every Sunday – Brethren traditionally don’t, we stay away from creeds and bring fresh words to worship week after week.
We also focus on discipleship, and we can be skeptical about people sinning, confessing, sinning some more, confessing some more.
And we’re waking up to the spiritual harm caused by so many churches and theologies about sin that shame people into thinking their very selves – their gender or their sexuality or their race or their disability – are sinful. Since sin can be talked about so harmfully, we might avoid talking about it at all.
These are three good reasons to be careful about how we understand sin, how we talk about it here, and how we involve confession in our faith and worship. Even though it’s hard to do all this sin and confession stuff in ways that cultivate health and wholeness, it’s worth the hard work.
Confession is good for the soul, we say, and all kinds of religions practice it.
From Yom Kippur to Catholic Confession, from Buddhist repentance within the sangha to AA stories within the meeting, baring ourselves before God and our trusted comrades is fundamental to our spiritual wellbeing. Confession is actually making a comeback in Christianity, and it’s also showing up outside the church, in movies like Flight, where Denzel Washington flies a jet upside down, or the international sensation PostSecret, which has inspired millions of people to write anonymous confessions on a postcard and mail them to a man named Frank.
When I look for fresh ways to approach confession, I think about all that we’ve learned from addiction and recovery. I think of AA Steps 4 & 5: [We] made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
[We] admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Overall, Brethren don’t know a lot about 12 step programs like AA. Have you heard the one about the two Brethren who walk into a bar? (That’s the joke – it’s funny to even think of Brethren in a bar, or at least it used to be.)
There are drinkers, alcoholics, and recovering alcoholics in Brethren churches, but in almost all Brethren churches I’ve spent time with, people do NOT talk about this. Instead I hear some Brethren joke about drinking beer in a coffee mug when they’re out to dinner at Annual Conference. Or pastors say they drive to another town to buy alcohol so their parishioners won’t see them. When we hide alcohol in our lives, we tell alcoholics – recovering or not – that they should hide, too. People don’t heal much when they’re in hiding.
So if we talk about sin, talk about confession, we get to talk about forgiveness, grace, healing.
Janis Joplin sang “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” and she lived and died that reality. She hit rock bottom, but it came too late and she died of a drug overdose.
If we’re lucky, we hit rock bottom with someone around to witness it and support us. Hitting rock bottom means we’ve got nothing left to protect, we’ve lost our security, our stability, our secrets. Hitting rock bottom is terrifying and dangerous, and if we survive it, it’s an essential opportunity. Once we’ve hit rock bottom and can’t pretend things are okay, when we can’t keep our own secrets anymore, we can finally confess. And it saves our lives.
I bike down a long, steep drive to get to Cold Springs Road every morning. I use my brakes nearly every second of the way. When I was a kid I wasn’t so serious about being in control. Now I have a low-tolerance for being out-of-balance. As soon as my bike starts to lean or kick without me asking it to, I’m scared. At five years old I learned to ride a bike by starting at the top of our barn hill (granted, much smaller than hills than we have here). I got on my bike at the top of the hill and tried to keep it upright all the way down. I didn’t pedal, I didn’t use the brakes, I just learned to balance. And I fell down a lot, which was fine because I landed in grass and was only two feet off the ground to begin with.
As a kid I held much more loosely to the handlebars…and pretty much everything. Now I hold tight so I won’t come close to falling.
When we feel out-of-balance we usually cling tighter to any and every thing we can control. We’re afraid to let gravity work on us, we’re afraid to see if we can adjust, adapt. When we hold on so tight we’re not safer, we’re just more miserable. We still believe we have too much to lose.
How does your faith help you relax your grip on your life? On your children? On your spouse? On your coworkers? On your own longings?
We can practice relaxing our grip with confession. However we do it, confession acknowledges that we’ll never be perfect, that perfection is impossible, but that we’re still striving to be the best we can be. Confession is an expression of faith in ourselves, that we are works in progress, worthy of effort! Confession is an expression of faith in God, who created each one of us with affection, with hope, with earnest desire that we would keep striving toward wholeness.
Jesus teaches us about confession throughout the gospels. Remember the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus asks her for a drink and they start a theological conversation. Then it gets personal – turns out she’s had 5 husbands, and the man she’s with now isn’t her husband. Risqué in 2016, let alone year 30! Jesus doesn’t bat an eye. He just dwells with her at the well, discussing living water. He doesn’t judge her, he doesn’t ask her to change, he shows her that, at least in that moment, she has the freedom of having nothing left to lose—her secret is out, and he does not reject her.
And we can trust he did dwell with true respect and compassion, because she goes running back to her town to proclaim the good news that she met someone who “told her about her whole life,” and she would only do this if she had been blessed by the encounter. Jesus is present with this woman in the face of her shame, he sees her completely and does not turn away, he faces her, her secrets bared, and does not flinch.
Confession is a time to see ourselves bare. We might bare ourselves first in a room of our own, with the lights off. That’s scary already, but the risk – and the reward – really show up when, in the light of day, we bare ourselves before a witness—a stranger, a beloved, or to our church family during joys and concerns.
Psalm 51 sings to God, “You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.”
The abbess Christine Valters Paintner writes “The heart is an ancient metaphor for the seat of our whole being – to be whole-hearted means to bring our entire selves before God, our intellect, our emotional life, our dreams and intuitions, our deepest longings.
Many of us feel divided, in internal conflict between what we most desire and how we live our lives. The ancient monks described the "cave of the heart" as that inner place where we encounter God and wrestle with our inner voices. Instead of resisting these voices, and dividing ourselves, the desert mothers and fathers invite us to be fully present to them, to create a welcoming space within.
All of our "negative" feelings have something to teach us about ourselves and even about God when we stop running and create room in the cave of our hearts to tend to what is really happening in us.”
When we rush away from anything negative we’re holding too tight to control. We’re saying that we don’t trust ourselves, each other, or even God, that we don’t trust when we’re scared, when we feel out-of-balance, when we can’t see around the corner, when we’re depressed. This is when it’s hardest to trust, yet this is when we most need trust.
How does church help you practice trust? I said we risk, but have true reward, when we confess to a witness, even in joys and concerns on Sunday mornings. But it’s hard to bare ourselves in church. It’s ironic, since God already knows every single thing about us, the worst, the best. All of it. And we gather as church to ground ourselves in God. But it can be so hard to be vulnerable in church.
Most of the prayers I’ve most desperately needed were prayers I was embarrassed to ask for: help with an addiction, guidance in a messy romantic relationship, forgiveness for deceiving someone. It’s so much easier to ask for prayers for my aunt’s cancer struggle than my own challenge to care better for my health. It’s easier to pray together for reconciliation in Nigeria than for reconciliation with a friend.
And all of these prayers matter! I don’t mean to suggest we should stop praying for other people. But we’re called to bare ourselves before God. We’re not called to bare someone else’s story, but our own.
I pastored a United Church of Christ in Minnesota. They have juice, not wine for communion. In the Church of the Brethren we have juice, not wine, for communion, because historically we reject alcohol. At this congregation in Minnesota we used juice, not wine, for communion because there were recovering alcoholics in the congregation who couldn’t even have a sip of wine.
This church in Minnesota put their struggles and sins and flaws on display. Their culture had been set long before by brave leaders. We shared the most holy, spirited, robust, honest, relevant joys and concerns time. Telling the truth is cathartic and contagious, and because people’s struggles were truly welcome, people shared what mattered most, asked for the prayers they desperately needed, enjoyed the freedom of nothing left to lose – not that it was fun, not that they were happy, this was a deeper joy. A deeper freedom, to confess to one another and especially to God, so that God could gather us up.
That church taught me about AA and other 12 step programs. Theologian and pastor Frederick Buechner says of AA:
You can't help thinking that something like this is what the church is meant to be and maybe once was before it got to be big business. Sinners Anonymous….
No matter what far place alcoholics end up in, either in this country or virtually anywhere else, they know that there will be an A.A. meeting nearby to go to and that at that meeting they will find strangers who are not strangers to help and to heal, to listen to the truth and to tell it. That is what the Body of Christ is all about.
- Originally published in Whistling in the Dark
Of course some churches do look more like AA than big business – I pray that Stone Church does to you. I pray that we can each be brave leaders in our church, in our families, to help and to heal, to listen to the truth and to tell it, to be the Body of Christ.
Many of Jesus’ first followers are wholehearted, bare-naked, truly trusting as they encountered him. What do we know about Zacchaeus? (tax collector) What about Mary Magdalene? (prostitute) The men by the pools of Siloam and Bethesda? (can’t walk) Blind Bartimaeus can’t see, the ten lepers have leprosy, the man with the unclean spirits is possessed by demons, the women hemorrhaging are hemorrhaging, and we could go on and on with these stories!
Encountering Jesus was all about brokenness – Jesus healed, exorcised, forgave – Jesus’ ministry was all about tending to human brokenness. So when we come to church, when we resurrect the Body of Christ in our churches, when we gather as two and three and more in his name and Jesus is present with us – we better be baring our brokenness.
We are bringing it! We’re inevitably broken, we’re bringing it with us! Let’s bare it, so God can work through our communities on our brokenness. Which means that we better be ready to support the people in our church who bring their brokenness, and not judge or gossip or feel self-righteous, but strive to see each other with love-colored glasses, and care for one another as we journey toward wholeness.
So many congregations and denominations are struggling with membership decline, struggling with finances, struggling with exhaustion – Stone struggles with all this too, many of us struggle with the same things in our families and workplaces. How can we claim the freedom of having nothing left to lose in the midst of struggle?
We can choose to tell the truth about our experience, even when it’s negative. We can talk about the dis-ease and disappointment here.
We can turn to Psalms of lament, Psalms of confession, and practice saying what is hardest to say, as an act of faith in a God who creates us with love, imperfect yet in God’s image.
This day may we learn from the woman at the well, who lets all of her secrets hang out with Jesus. And may we be like Jesus to one another – eager to gaze at each other with not just acceptance, but with adoration, seeing each other’s beautiful imperfection. When we can hold, simultaneously, our flaws and our utter belovedness, we realize we have the freedom of nothing left to lose. And that saves us, again and again.