Alicia Davis Porterfield: Sin, Dirt and the God-Bath

Psalm 51:1-10 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love, according to your abundant mercy.  Blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Against 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. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Amen.

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Having grown up in the church and family story I did, I’ve generally had a strong sense of my own sinfulness. I heard it every week in church (and some Wednesday and Sunday nights, too). Our preacher, whom I called a “scream-y preacher” as a preschooler, yelled about my sin regularly, every “you” and “your” translating as “me” and “my” in the concrete-thinking way children’s brains work. I wiggled down as low as I could in the pew so I couldn’t see his angry face, but I couldn’t block out the accusing voice.

If I opted for Children’s Church, I found the same message with less yelling. In every example, every funny story, every serious talk, our children’s minister expressed constant, urgent concern that we take our sin absolutely seriously. I once heard him say that if we didn’t ask forgiveness for every, single sin we committed every, single day, then we weren’t forgiven.

So I stayed up at night after prayers with Mama and Daddy, all tucked in and anxious, trying to recall all the times I’d been mean to my sisters or disobedient or angry or unkind or grumpy or felt anything negative at all. I usually fell asleep part way through my confession.

The fear that I had forgotten to confess a sin haunted me regularly, although another little girl and I once wondered if maybe God was more forgiving than our ministers.

My personal sinfulness was in the air I breathed and the water I drank. I was a wretch, a worm, a sinner, stained. Everyone was telling me it was so: my sinfulness was clearly the most important thing I needed to learn at church and in life.

So one Sunday, I went forward to get cleaned up, to profess my faith in Jesus as my Lord and Savior. It took all the courage I had to get my little legs moving down the aisle toward the “scream-y preacher,” who never learned my name.

But I had to go.  Somehow, even amidst the constant and overwhelming bad news about me, I had heard the good news about Jesus.

Sunday School teachers told me stories about how Jesus welcomed the children to him. We sang about how Jesus loved all the little children of the world. That included me somehow.

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Jesus loved me, wanted me to follow him, wanted me to be with him for eternity. If I could just get to Jesus, my sin would stop being the most important thing about me.

Now, as a minister and the mother of three young boys, I wonder how my childhood understanding of sin, forgiveness and redemption might have been different if someone had told me that sin was sort of like getting dirty. Sometimes we get dirty through a choice we make all on our own, sometimes because we didn’t see the puddle clearly or didn’t know how to get around it—and sometimes because someone pushes us in.  Other times it’s from a mess we inherited from others that becomes our own.

We all get dirty. It’s part of being alive, of engaging with the world, with each other, with ourselves. We are created to be together: in families, in schools, in our communities, in the church-—of course our messes will affect each other.

We are broken and sinful. We are also infinitely beloved.

Jesus understands all that, even if we don’t. Jesus knows why we do what we do even when we can’t untangle the rhyme or reason to our faults and foibles any more than the Apostle Paul did (Rom. 7:15-20).

That’s why Jesus is the one who can truly forgive us.

Getting dirty is part of living; being sinful is part of being human. Psalm 51:1-10 is a gift for when we discover we’ve gotten dirty, when we look and see the wrong we’ve done (intentionally or unintentionally). Your mess, your sin—our mess, our sin—is never greater than God’s forgiving love through Jesus Christ. Never.

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These ancient words of confession are like a warm, sudsy bath after we’ve fallen in the dirt. Imagine Jesus drawing you a hot bath, putting out the good towels and handing you the soap you’ve saved for the special occasion that never came.

It’s here. Take off everything that hinders, that holds you back, that covers up what you’d rather not show. Step in and soak awhile.

Let God, who loves you—just as you are and far more than you can imagine—wash you clean.

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Alicia Davis Porterfield is a minister married to a minister, the mother of three boys and a writer, teacher and preacher (www.helwys.com). She is grateful to all who have shared God’s love with her, from her earliest days to now.

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