I am what’s wrong with our city (Psalm 51)

What started as an art project turned into so much more.

In 2005 Frank Warren got the idea to invite anonymous strangers to write their secrets down on postcards, and send them to his address here in Maryland.

Warren never anticipated the tidal wave of responses he’d receive.

In the decade or so since Warren began PostSecret, he has been inundated with untold numbers of postcards.  They are collected and curated in books, on websites, and even in museum displays.

Confession, as they say, is good for the soul.

For many, the word “sin” must seem an archaic throwback to a religious era fraught with sexual repression and cultural regression. But if this is true, why does shame still linger?

“UNCLEAN”

Moral psychologists such as Paul Rozin have noted that feelings of shame are largely associated with disgust.  When we do something wrong, we often feel the same way as when we touch an insect, or smell something unpleasant.

The classic example of this is the “Hitler sweater” experiment.  The experimenters asked people if they’d be willing to wear a sweater if they knew it had been previously worn by Adolf Hitler.  Naturally, they declined.  But what if the sweater were thoroughly washed?  Still no.  What if the sweater were completely unraveled, re-dyed, then re-knitted into a brand new, completely unique sweater?  The answer, repeatedly and emphatically, was no.  It was if the respondents saw the garment as possessing some sort of moral contamination.  Touch it, and you’ll dirty your hands.

The writers of the Bible understood this implicitly.  Sin was associated with being “unclean.”  If you have a background in Church, you know that King David is remembered for not only slaying Goliath, but also for his affair with his neighbor’s wife, Bathsheeba.

After being confronted with his sin, David repents, and ends up penning one of the Bible’s most famous worship songs:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!

3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.

(Psalm 51:1-9)

There’s a lot of rich theology here, to be sure, but what I’d like us to notice something quite particular.  Do you notice the repeated contrast between clean and unclean? His prayer is that God would “blot out…wash…and cleanse” his sin.  His desire is to become “clean…whiter than snow.”

I AM WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE WORLD

What do David’s words have to do with loving our city?

Everything.

See, it’s tempting to look at the problems of our city and either dismiss them or find someone to blame.  We point fingers more than we extend our hands.  And why not?  Surely I’m not the one ruining our city, no sir.

David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times pointed out the way our moral outrage emerges in response to scandal.  He writes:

“We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it…

Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: ‘How could they have let this happen?’

The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive?  But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.”[1]

Christ’s followers can hardly point toward their “inner wonderfulness,” as Brooks puts it.  We recognize that we, like David, come into the world horrifically broken, and this brokenness does profound damage to our homes, to our relationships, and yes, to our cities.

Some years ago the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton made headlines with his response to a magazine inquiry which asked: “What’s wrong with the world?”  Chesterton responded with only two words: “I am.”

I am what’s wrong with the world.

I am what’s wrong with our city.

As Christians, our prayers for the city can’t start and stop for praying for problems out there.  We must instead see our problems as flowing from within.  “Out of the abundance of the heart,” Jesus warns, “the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).

God help us all.

MADE NEW

The radical good news of the gospel is that God offers his help.  More specifically, he offers himself.

On the cross, Jesus took our uncleanness upon himself.  At the empty tomb, he pronounced God’s victory over death itself.

Forgiveness.

Transformation.

The things that God offers us personally he offers our city corporately.  But it starts by each one of us dropping to our knees in humble recognition of our fallen state, then lifting our eyes to the cross for personal forgiveness and transformation.

He blots our sins; he cleanses our sins.

And only he has the power to make our city new again.

 

[1] David Brooks, “Let’s All Feel Superior,” The New York Times, November 14, 2011.

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