Redemption Through Reading

Redemption Through Reading March 9, 2011

I just read a riveting article about a college teacher who had a murder suspect in her classroom for a semester.  The article, “Prime Suspect, Second Row,” can be found here (only for five days, through March 14, after that only for subscribers of The Chronicle of Higher Education website).

The young man, handsome, poised, well-dressed, was a prime suspect in the ax murder of his father and the attempted murder of his mother.  The professor knew the family and had known this young man from his youth.

It was a course in English Literature. The professor knew that many of the students were aware of the status of the murder suspect, and were struggling with having him in the classroom. She wrote,

As I considered eliminating one story after another, however, I confirmed what I had sensed would be the case: Every story on the syllabus had some degree of relevance to this crime and to these students. Each story seemed crucial for students to read and for me to teach. In fact, the course came to seem like an emergency measure, something akin to academic triage. The universal truth and central questions within the literature invariably circled around some aspect of this student and the crime. In the end, I believe the stories we read helped many of us achieve some degree of understanding of the horror that had taken place in our community.

The article touched me because it showed so clearly the power of story and our ability to understand ourselves better through literature.  I know that the stories found in Holy Scripture are there for that same transformative reason.

This morning, at our 7:00 a.m. Ash Wednesday service, I briefly told the story of King David’s life before he wrote what we now know as Psalm 51, that powerful hymn of contrition.  David’s sins were great: adultery, lying, murder.  They left him devastated, as do all breaks with holy and responsible living.  In his story, in his actions, his growing awareness of the devastation that his decisions brought on him and his people, and in his repentance, we may also find our own stories.

I suggest we pray this Psalm as we enter our time of self-reflection:

Psalm 51:1-17 (New Revised Standard)

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. 9Hide 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. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. he sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

A broken and contrite heart:  a gateway to grace, to receiving and giving forgiveness.  That’s what we are looking for during Lent.

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