Okay, we're back in the blog saddle after a few weeks of travel and other craziness.
This week's chapter begins a new section, one called "Consecration." In the chapter, Wayne makes the point that Sabbath is time for re-creation, for restoration, and that restoration involves taking stock of where you are, and acknowledging the reality of that.
His suggested exercise for this chapter is confession. It reads like a natural progression from where he's been going all chapter, in that seeing the reality of life often means seeing your faults and failures, and wanting to make those better. He tells stories of couples he knows who take time to deliberately talk on the Sabbath about the times they have wronged one another in the last week, and asking forgiveness.
The health of honesty in relationships is something that happens more often, these days, in the psychologist's office rather than the confessional booth. Either way, Muller's treading on ground that's going to be sensitive for many people. Once again, he's is playing in deep water for my faith tradition, and it's the practice of confession that I want to spend my time on this week.
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Last week, I visited one of my parishioners, and she started telling me stories (unprompted) about going to confession as a child."We used to make things up," she said with a giggle. "Well, you had to go to mass, because if you didn't your soul was in danger, and you couldn't go to mass without going to confession, and you couldn't go into the booth without having something to confess! So we'd make things up!"
I have about a hundred confessional-booth jokes in my back pocket. You've probably heard a few yourself. I think the problem has nothing to do with what Muller is reaching for--the reconciliation of people to each other and to God--and everything to do with the institutional logistics of the system. When you start making rules around the grace of God, strange things start happening. And the have-to-do-it-this-way mentality that is all too often the product of institutional church (the Roman Catholic church is only the biggest example) can actually become the hindrance to God's action in the world that it was trying to avoid by making the guidelines in the first place.
Viewed the wrong way, the system seems to put a requirement for human participation (the priest) in the way of God's forgiveness. You need a priest to pronounce you clean, or you'[re going to hell, because that's what the rules say.
And that same system is the one that can lead to great abuse. Today's legal decision to settle with victims of sexual abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles to the tune of some $60 million casts a long, dark shadow over this discussion.
Every week, my community says a prayer of confession as a part of our regular worship.
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.
This prayer is usually sufficient for most people. But some sins are just too heavy, and too hard to let go of. The Episcopal church does still retain the one-on-one sacrament of "reconciliation of a penitent," although it surprises most people to know that there's a rite in the prayer book. We tend not to do it with the old-school confessional booth, instead meeting privately in an otherwise empty church building, or in the priest's study. This is the formal prayer used in confession:
I confess to Almighty God, to his Church, and to you, that I have sinned by my own fault in thought, word, and deed, in things done and left undone; especially__________. For these and all other sins which I cannot now remember, I am truly sorry. I pray God to have mercy on me. I firmly intend amendment of life, and I humbly beg forgiveness of God and his Church, and ask you for counsel, direction, and absolution.
When I hear a confession, whether from an individual or from a congregation of Christians, I think of myself as a witness. I witness the penitent(s) confessing their sins to God, and I in turn remind them of God's forgiveness. (or, in the language of the ordination liturgy, 'declare God's forgiveness to penitent sinners') It's not that God won't extend God's grace without my participation--that's ridiculous--but I can sometimes be the needed catalyst on the receiving end.
Sacraments are just patterns; material, tangible reminders of the countless ways God reaches out to us. We are material beings, and we need some way to be touched (literally) by God. The water of baptism, or oil of anointing, or bread of communion, are ways for us to experience the presence of the living God.
For some people, they need to hear someone look them in the eyes and audibly tell them that God's grace is sufficient to cover even their sin. (As in: Yes, even you are forgiven. Yes, even for THAT. No, really, God still loves you.) To get to be that person, occasionally, by virtue of the function assigned to me by God's people, is one of the great joys of my vocation. (and one of the frightening things).