Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
and renew a right spirit within me.
Psalm 51 is just about the most "Lenty" psalm there is. This Sunday we get the first 13 verses of it as a kind of reprise, because we read all 19 verses on Ash Wednesday as Lent began.
Psalm 51 is penitent:
Against you only have I sinned *
and done what is evil in your sight.
It is confessional:
For I know my transgressions, *
and my sin is ever before me.
It's kind of harsh:
Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
a sinner from my mother's womb.
Psalm 51 is the kind of psalm that we may not enjoy saying. Because it admits we're a mess. It doesn't let us deny that we are a mess. It admits that we are powerless to do anything about being a mess, and reminds us to put the whole hot mess that is our lives into the hands of God. It is a psalm that is all about our weakness and vulnerability and our deep, deep need for a savior.
Penitent prayers about our sin and frailty do not really match with our culture's desire for having a strong, healthy and positive self-esteem. Talking about being a sinner since our mother's womb doesn't seem to fit with that ideal. But no matter how healthy your self esteem, you still make mistakes. You still hurt others and yourself at times. You still turn your back on God. That's the way it is for us humans.
There is a difference between acknowledging our human limitations and feeling shame. As human beings, we are defined by our limitations and there is no shame in being human. Every year, Psalm 51 reminds us that we cannot be any more than human. Lent is a good time to be reminded, that despite our own inevitable limitations, that we can nonetheless be sustained by an abundant savior who is much bigger than any of our weaknesses, and can create in us a clean heart and renew a right spirit within us:
Cast me not away from your presence *
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again *
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.