It is early Sunday morning as I write. Ringing through my heart’s ear, I hear the memories of Carl F. Mueller’s arrangement of Psalm 51:10-12 (KJV). “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” sing the higher voices. “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” echo the lower ones. Again, a call-and-response pattern between the higher and lower voices: “And renew a right spirit within me.”
Together, the voices plead, “Cast me not away from thy presence and take not thy Holy Spirit from me.” The tone is initially plaintive, begging, even demanding. Then, a shift to hope, peacefulness and even assurance. Three times, the choir sings, “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation.” Finally, the choristers return to a plaintive sound once more, “And uphold me with thy free spirit.” All the while, the organ undergirds the voices as they sing prayerfully to God. “Create in me a clean heart, O God.”
Create in me. “Create” taps into the power of God’s breath speaking into being the first things of Genesis. “Let there be …” is the call. “It was Good” is the response. Both are the voice of God. But Psalm 51 is not about first things of creation. Psalm 51 is about an aching need for a new beginning.
A clean heart. In our dualistic thinking, we seek out antonyms. If the Psalmist is pleading for a “clean heart,” he or she must perceive a present reality that is “dirty” or, more likely, “immoral” or “guilty.” Psalm 51 connects deeply with concepts of confession. Consistently, it plays a role in liturgical confession among Christians across the globe. Often, this passage connects to King David and his impure interactions involving Bathsheba, or the wife of Uriah. The prophet Nathan calls David back in 2 Samuel 12.
Renew a right spirit within me. The season of Lent reverberates with overtones of renewal. Re-working, re-creating, reviving. By verse 12 of the Psalm, we will hear this reecho: renew, restore. If God created us in God’s image from our beginning, then this re-creating work is about renewing God’s original created work: our very selves. When the Psalmist speaks of a “right” spirit, he or she intends, the “correct” or “true” spirit.
Cast me not away from thy presence. For those who have difficult connections with the archaic language of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, this line becomes a little more challenging. As a child of the 1970s, my congregation used the RSV which retained the thees, thous, and thines. They wore my little brain out, as I was constantly having to translate and not translate. So, as a child, what makes the most sense here is the way I watched my mother run critters out of the garden: “Get out of here! Shew!” The Psalmist is asking not to be chased away.
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation. Here is the echo of renewal. Put me back together again with a fresh awareness of joy — joy as your creature, your child, your beloved with all of the potential I once had. Now, let me be one who is no longer tinged with the guilt and shame of having turned from you and the gift of our relationship. You saved me, O God, and I turned from it. Bring me back with joy.
Uphold me with a free spirit. Life gets tough. Stuff happens. It piles up and weighs us down. King David stepped onto a slippery slope as he watched Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop. He should have turned and left her in her modesty. His looking led to lust. His lust led him to organize assassination, even if it could be disguised. David was a man, a human being, and perhaps — without a terrible failure — he could not have truly known the fullness of joy in restoration.
Create in me a clean heart, O God. These are the last days of Lent. But every day requires an element of introspection, the awareness of our broken pieces and a restored hopefulness that we can work together with God in a new grace. It is the personal journey of which so many speak. But it is also a shared reality. We all have a need for a renewal of true and sustained joy.