February was a time to bring our awareness to Domestic and Intimate Partner Violence. As I followed the lectionary text in choosing our passages for each Sunday, I just could not make it fit, but as I studied our sacred text for today, the message hit me in the face. For the longest time, Domestic and Intimate partner violence was considered a women’s issue, but this is not a women’s issue. This is a human issue and if it is a human issue then it is something that we should talk about openly in the church. So, today is our attempt to unsilenced the voices not heard in our sacred text and to create room and space for important conversations.
We have just entered the season of Lent. We may think of Lent as a time of self-denial or a time of deepening our spiritual practice and these are all good things, but this season I want us to think about Lent as an ancient path where we find rest for our souls. The more I dug into our sacred text for today, the more I realized walking the ancient path to find rest for our souls involves some very difficult practices. Lent is a time to consider the many words found in the psalms that talk about human struggle, feelings of abandonment, remorse, cries for justice, and finding refuge in God. The Psalms are like opening the private prayer journal of a people. It is very intimate, personal and if you are feeling something and wanting to know if others have felt the same way, when you read the psalms you will find that you are not alone.
In our Psalm for today, Psalm 51, the writer of this prayer is coming to God with deep remorse for a wrong he has committed. He is asking God to re-create him. One commentator asked us to imagine the writer keeling naked, laid bare before the one who sees and knows all things. I cannot imagine a more vulnerable and intimate picture.
So who is this writer? This Psalm connects us to the story of King David, Bathsheba and her husband Uriah in 2 Samuel 11 & 12. The story goes that King David, a man of power and privilege, saw the most beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing on a roof top. King David had to have her, but he became aware that she was married to a very faithful soldier of his named Uriah. This did not stop King David from using his power and privilege to take Bathsheba to bed.
The situation only gets worse. Bathsheba sends word that she is pregnant. King David could have cried out to God at this point and repented of this evil that he committed against Bathsheba and against God, but instead he tried to cover up what happened by bringing Uriah back from the battle to spend time with his wife. Uriah was a good man though. He . would not enjoy the company of his wife while his men were sleeping out in open fields. King David even tried to get him drunk but Uriah would not sleep with his wife and so King David was unsuccessful in his cover up. King David decided to put Uriah back on the battlefield and to place him in the hardest fighting right at the forefront so that “he might be struck down and die.” And Uriah did die. As soon as her time of mourning was completed, King David took Bathsheba to be his wife and she bore him a son.
Maybe no one else was suspicious of this series of events or maybe no one else was let in on David’s secret, but God saw what David did and how David sinned in his heart and committed sins in his actions. So, God sent a man named Nathan to David to let him know that God saw what he did. Nathan tells David that one of the consequences of his actions is that “the sword shall never depart from your house.” He continues, “For you did it secretly, but I (God) will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” And the child that Bathsheba gave birth to struggled to survive and as the child suffered David fasted and wept and prayed. On the seventh day, the child died.
The words of our psalm today are from a man who is caught in his wrongdoing and pleading for the life of his son. We can imagine that David felt embarrassed, dirty, unclean, and a deep bone crushing sense of sorrow for what he did. Listen to these words with new ears, “Blot out my transgression. For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned so that you are justified in your sentence. Do not cast me away from your presence and do not take your holy spirit from me!”
Then, we hear him proclaim the character of God as the basis for his re-creation. King David knows that there is nothing he can do to make amends at this point, but that he needs God to work a miracle, so he is relying what he knows about God to be the source and strength of his re-creation. He says that God’s character is one of steadfast love. God has abundant mercy. He writes that God has the power to deliver him by giving him a clean heart and new and right spirit so that he might be restored to the joy of his salvation.
Then, David tells us in very intimate words of how God is going to restore him. He writes, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin…Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow..let the bones that you have crushed rejoice!”
This Psalm is the cry of a man who is desperate for God. This is a very vulnerable Psalm where we hear he knows that he has done wrong and yet he is putting himself out there trusting that it is not in God’s character to reject him. The picture of a naked and desperate man crying out to God is very intimate but so is the imagery of God washing and cleaning and purifying David.
This is one picture of the complex human experience…the raw feelings of a man caught in his secret wrongdoings who now sees what is happening to his child as punishment for doing evil in God’s sight. Whether we agree or not with his theology, this is how he is feeling.
He feels this so deeply that he writes in verse 5 that he was born guilty. He writes that he was a sinner in his mother’s womb.
I found this point worth some consideration. At first my mind went to the idea of original sin that we are all born sinners and must be saved. But I am not one who buys into all of the points of original sin because I believe the scriptures that say that when God created us that God created us in God’s image. Then God saw which to me means intimately knew humanity and called us good.
So, what insight might we gain from the psalmist? I think it is interesting to think about all the systems that are in place that we are born into that are unjust, immoral and not following the dream of God for our world. Think about systemic racism that I as a white women have to train myself to become aware of because it is in the water that I drink and the air that I breathe. Think about the unjust justice system that treats the guilty rich who can afford good lawyers better than the poor who are innocent.
We are born into these systems and many more and so I can agree with David’s statement that we are born guilty even though it is not our fault, we did not create the system, and sometimes we are not even knowledgeable that the system is in place and that we are participating in it.
But the good news is that God’s love is more powerful than the webs we are born into or the in David’s case the webs that we create. It is God’s love that has the power not only to clean one person’s heart but to give a heart transplant to an entire community as in Ezekiel 36.
It is God’s love that saves us from seeing ourselves as totally depraved. It is God’s love that saves us from having one incident in life color our entire lives. It is hard to feel good about King David in this moment because we have 2 other characters in this story that did not have a voice that did not have a psalm recorded in our sacred text. But today, we can begin to correct that.
Let’s hear a modern day true story of one man and one woman and as I tell the story, I will insert the way that I think her psalm might sound.
In 2016 there was a TED talk given by a woman named Thordis and a man named Tom. Watch it here or read on…
The Title of this TED Talk was Our Story of Rape and Reconciliation. Before you hear this story, know that there is no right or wrong way to heal from intimate violence. Thordis recognizes the privilege she has in being able to talk about what happened without suffering extreme consequences like some women experience around the world. This is not a formula that works for everyone for healing. This is just the story of 2 wounded people. Today, I invite you to consider the words of the Psalmist as you hear this story.
Their story begins with a teenage boy named Tom traveling from his homeland of Australia to live and study in Iceland. There he meets a teenage girl named Thordis and they begin a young romance. Tom is struggling with being homesick and Thordis seems to help him adjust to life in Iceland. Thordis is enamored with Tom and they meet for lunches just so they can hold hands. Well, one night there is a winter dance and on that night Thordis decides to try alcohol for the first time. She ends up incredible sick and her knight and shining armor, Tom, takes her home. It is there in her own bed that she wakes up to blinding pain as Tom lies on top of her. She struggles but realizes that her body is still paralyzed by the alcohol. She feels like her body is being torn in two pieces. And while this is happening, she listens to the sound of her clock and counts 7,200 seconds until her nightmare is over. Tom leaves and does not contact her again.
“Oh, Lord. How long must I wait for your deliverance? Do you not hear the cry of my heart or see me in my terror. It has been 7,200 seconds since I have felt your presence. It has been 7,200 seconds since I trusted in your deliverance. Dare I cry out one last time…Deliver me from bloodshed, O God.”
In this TED talk, Tom confesses that he felt hollow inside but did not see his deed for what it was. He saw himself as a good friend, a loved son, a surfer, and a youth worker. He saw himself as a good person and not someone who could be capable of such evil. He says that he disavowed the truth and claimed that he was just being intimate with his girlfriend and that it was not rape. The word rape seemed like a forbidden concept even to consider and so he tied a rock to the memories and they sunk in deep. He describes the next 9 years as running from his guilt and denying the pain he caused Thordis. He distracted himself with substances abuse and thrill seeking. He could not stay still or get silent. What he did not consciously know at the time was that he was running from the weight of the responsibility of owning his actions.
Thordis shares the shame she felt, the shame that our culture puts on women. She was raised to believe that girls are raped for a reason: There skirts are too short, their smile to wide and their breath smelled of alcohol. And she was guilty of all of these things. She spent years crying and 9 years later was headed for a nervous breakdown. She felt hatred and anger so intensely but not knowing where to direct her pain, she took it out on herself. One day, she went to a coffee shop and began to journal. She wrote words calling for revenge, but by the time she finished she wrote, “I want to find forgiveness.” She wanted rest for her soul.
“My tears fill the ocean and my anger like lava threatening to burst from the mountaintop. May my enemy be devoured by your flames and the life he possess be torn from him piece by piece. But no Lord. Do not let my heart reflect his selfishness. Instead, let truth ring from my inmost being and let forgiveness be the healing balm that I seek.”
So, she sent a letter to Tom not expecting a letter in return. But she received a letter from him. The letter was raw and humble confessing what he had done to her and how he felt imprisoned by his guilt. They spent the next 8 years corresponding in brutal honesty. 16 years after that painful night, Thordis invited Tom to join her in South Africa for 1 week. Tom says that the work down in South Africa around listening to the horrors experienced by the people in an effort to bring about healing and reconciliation proved to be a powerful place to work on their own healing. He describes this experience as complete vulnerability that included tears, anger, sitting in times where no words would help, and surprise in liberating laughter. Tom was surprised that he did not feel crushed by the weight of owning his sin. He says the experience offered him the opportunity to see that one action does not possess the entirety of who he is. One action does not constitute the sum of who he is.
Thordis talks about the time in South Africa as rough and raw, but that she left with a Victorious feeling that light had triumphed over darkness. Now they write and speak about their story..their story that did not allow them to dehumanize each other as victim, less than or perpetrator, monster.
Thordis might write her Psalm with these words, “We have known the truth and the truth has set us free. Rumi’s words ring true, ‘The wound is the place the light enters you.’”
Together, Tom and Thordis might end their Psalm with “How beautiful are the feet who walk the ancient path and find rest for their souls.”
Tom and Thordis spent 16+ years wrestling until they found rest for their souls. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness and King David only started down the good path in this Psalm. The ancient path that we are called to walk this season involves getting really honest, stepping out of our comfort zone into a place of vulnerability, working for reconciliation in a way that is right for you. David ends the Psalm with verse 17 which is the original ending. He writes, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
The invitation today is to shift from needing to be protective, from needing to feel like you have it all together, from running away from pain…to use your time of prayer, your time of journaling, your time reading the psalms to continue the work of the ancestors of our faith in finding your voice echoed through their words or by writing new words that speak the truth in your inmost being.
We must acknowledge that our sacred text for today is caught in the system of patriarchy. This psalm gives voice to the male in power while neglecting the voice of the powerless. But we can rewrite that story. Through Thordis, we can begin to hear glimmers of the voice of Bathsheba so that we might give her a voice in the narrative and work for justice in this first seemingly small but important step.
Domestic and Intimate partner violence affects 1 in 3 women, 1 in 4 men, and 1 in 3 teens. If you would like to learn how to care for survivors, please contact my dear friend Rev. Courtney Armento with Whole Disciples. www.thresholdsoffthesoul.org