With some regularity, I receive communications—letters, links to blogs, statements—about what is wrong with the church.
+The church is either not conservative or not liberal enough. If the church were more like the Republican Party or Democratic Party, God would be pleased with us.
+Or the church has somehow not met a need for us—the music, the youth program, the preschool, the ordination process, the assignment of a pastor, a denominational position.
+Or the writer has interpreted the Bible or the traditions of the church or the movement of history correctly and wonders why others do not.
I'm not complaining here. I want to say this clearly. I am simply noting a trend. The common thread in these communications is to externalize what is wrong.
I am asking us to shift our focus.
In the deep tradition of the church we have always known that something is wrong. In a spiritual practice that goes back for many centuries, the church has urged us to read a particular passage of scripture every Friday: Psalm 51.
Psalm 51 is a word of repentance and hope. It is a word of self-examination and hope. It is a word of transparency and joy. It is a word of honesty and trust. The Psalmist believes that God will intervene, restore, set things right. But the Psalmist also calls us to what another tradition has named as "a fearless moral inventory.” Psalm 51 has a sober realism about human nature, and a sure trust and confidence in divine grace.
It is both intensely personal and yet it moves, at the end, toward a broader vision, to Zion, the people of God.
I know, in my own life, that it is easier to see what is wrong in someone else than to acknowledge that in myself. It is almost my default way of being and seeing the world.
But what if the question "what is wrong with the church?" really begins with "what is wrong in each of our lives?" And what if a focus on the former is an avoidance of the latter? And what if the church really is the people, flawed, imperfect people, people just like you and me? And this will always be true, this side of heaven?
To examine ourselves, first, is not to ignore the analysis we need to give to our communities, or the diagnosis we undertake in our congregations, or the criticism that we make of our denomination. It is also not a way of silencing the prophetic voice. But each of these activities, apart from the spiritual practice of first submitting to God’s authority, will be distorted to some extent.
Before I externalize what is wrong, before I quote the word of God in its judgment on a brother or sister, I hear the echo of the spiritual:
“It’s me, it’s me, O Lord,
Standing in the need of prayer.”
What if the progress, the small steps, the reconciliation, the rebuilding of Zion, hinges on our being immersed, transformed and even purged by the words of an ancient text?
Psalm 51 (NRSV)
1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4Against 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. 5Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. 6You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. 7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 13Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. 14Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. 15O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. 16For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. 17The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. 18Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, 19then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.