Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Telling the Truth

Psalm 51
Ash Wednesday
February 22, 2012
William G. Carter

Today is the 280th birthday of George Washington, first president of our country. I don’t remember very much about him, but I do remember a legend about his childhood. His father asked, “George, did you cut down that cherry tree?” Young George replied, “I cannot tell a lie…”

            It was a remarkable thing for a future president to say, even if the story was probably a fabrication. On the last two nights, I watched the PBS biography of President William Jefferson Clinton. I don’t know if he ever declared, “I cannot tell a lie,” but it seems he may have told a few. And as I watch the current electoral scramble of others who are trying to claw their way to the White House, I listen to men who are so self-assured, so self-confident, so much in need to be “right” about everything, and I wonder if anybody in the public eye is capable of telling the truth.

            The ancient scribes attributed Psalm 51 to the greatest President of Israel. Actually he was the king, King David. It does not matter if David wrote the words. It matters that he prayed them. It matters that anybody prays this psalm. It is a confession of sin, an affirmation of brokenness, a one-on-one prayer before the God who knows our secrets.

            King David certainly had his secrets. One day he spotted a pretty lady and he had to have her. It didn’t matter to him that she was married. It didn’t matter to him that he was married. In passion he reached for her, she conceded, she conceived, and David tried to cover up what they had done. Yet God was watching, and God reported the whole sordid business to one of the prophets. The prophet made an appointment with the king and reported how God knew all about the king’s secrets. Caught with blood on his hands and guilt in his heart, David stopped maneuvering his own spin on his deeds.   

            So the words of Psalm 51:

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.

            It is hard work to tell the truth. Sometimes people will not tell the truth until they are caught. Other times they will not reveal it even if somebody is hauling them to the penitentiary. Sometimes people allow themselves to become so confused that they don’t know the truth. The human heart is a devious muscle, creating a maze to circle around the things we have done and left undone. It is difficult to counter the fear and the creativity that creates every lie. It may take years for a good therapist to help people untangle all the stories they have created to cover the things they have done or endured. Or it might require a number of confessions, as one layer of deception after another is pulled away.  

Truth telling requires a certain kind of surgery. The surgeon must slice through the protective skin, breach the immune system, and perform an amputation of every pretense. It is costly surgery. It always results in the transplant of the heart. If successful, there is the cleansing of the lips. In the end, truth telling changes us. It makes us different people, with the deepening ability to trust in God.

I spent some time this morning reading the first few paragraphs of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. He begins his extraordinary description of Christian faith by talking about knowledge. “We cannot know God unless we know ourselves,” he says. “We cannot fully know ourselves until we know God.”

He’s pointing to something all of us avoid. Without God, we tend to inflate our own importance. As Calvin says, “All of us are inclined by nature to hypocrisy, a kind of empty image of righteousness in place of righteousness itself.” (Book 1, Chapter 1) We contaminate ourselves by arrogance, and convince ourselves we are better than we really are.

But honesty demands otherwise. If we really know ourselves, if we know our weaknesses as well as our strengths, if we know our fears as well as our affirmations, this truthful knowledge frees us to lean completely on God. If the bones are creaky and energy is wavering, we lean ever more on the God who is stronger than us. If we see with honesty that our lives are too short and that our efforts will never be completed, we look toward the God who will finish what we cannot.  

So the ashes offered this night represent many things. Certainly they are symbols of mortality. As such, they are tokens of loss, recalling the shortness of life and the limits that come from being Somebody else’s creature.

But I am thinking of the ashes as something else: they are the incineration of all unhealthy pride. Try as hard as we want, we cannot flourish without God. We spin a web of illusions. We try to convince ourselves how we are the center of all things. We begin thinking that our opinions are supreme, that our decisions are always justified, that we are able to manufacture our own future and write our own press releases. And God reaches down with fiery fingers and every presumption goes up in smoke. All that’s left are the ashes. If we choose to wear them, they are a sign of how much we really depend on God, and how carefully we should examine ourselves.   
            It is healthy to be honest. Eugene Peterson translates the Psalmist’s prayer this way: “Lord, what you’re after is truth from the inside out. Enter me, then; conceive a new, true life. Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean, scrub me and I’ll have a snow-white life.” (Psalm 51:6-7, The Message)

            You know, that’s something for us to reflect upon. The dirty ashes smeared on us tonight are a holy sign that God is making us clean. I am ready for that. How about you?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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