Confession

** In the wake of the marches on Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11th and 12th I have decided to write about my journey (still in progress) of divesting myself of whiteness, and some of the things I’ve learned along the way. Before getting in to discussions explicitly pertaining to race, I believe it will be helpful to begin here – with a conversation on confession. 

I am a child of the American church. I was born into a United Methodist Church. I spent midweek mornings as a young child in an Evangelical Presbyterian Church while my Mom attended Bible Study. I spent evenings during elementary and middle school attending AWANA clubs at a Southern Baptist Church. The karate class I took was housed in a Pentecostal Holiness Church. My youth group years were smattered across time in Evangelical Presbyterian, Southern Baptist and Willow Creek-inspired churches. During college I was involved in Baptist Student Union, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Campus Crusade for Christ. I have history in U.S. evangelical Christianity. It birthed me, it raised me and it gave me many gifts.

One such gift, is understanding the place for confessing sin. I heard about it every Wednesday night without fail during the Bible study portion of AWANA. Whomever was speaking would end their lesson with an “invitation” – as any good Southern Baptist would – some more jarring than others. The consistent theme in all of the invitations was the opportunity to confess ones sins to God and receive forgiveness. I did this when I was twelve. I was too embarrassed to even raise my hand, as the speaker had requested. Having established quite an excellent reputation at church throughout my elementary school years, I felt like I would be letting everyone down if they knew I had been doing this from a place of self-service rather than obedience to God. So I confessed quietly, in my heart, in my own chair and never said anything to anyone.

I shared a similar practice of confession with people on the beach in Panama City, Florida during spring break in college. Armed with a colorful packet of artistically shot photographs, I marched out on to a beach full of college students to invite them in to conversations about spiritual things over a beer. Except, they were the only ones drinking. I remember sitting cross-legged on a beach towel while debating the existence of God with a guy a few years older than me. His face pink and warm from the sunshine and alcohol. In my head, I silently judged him for his drunkenness and the profanities he wove into our conversation, and I prayed in my head he would confess his sins. He didn’t. And neither did I.

I had forgotten that sitting in a place of self-elevation and judgement of another isn’t the Way Jesus showed us to live either.

My experience of church has always been one where confession was something we talked about a lot, but practiced very little. The unspoken message beneath the weekly invitation was that if you had prayed the words of confession printed on the back of the bulletin once, then you were set for all of eternity. There was also little need for being specific about what we were confessing either. I learned to view humanity through a lens of “total depravity” which, at that point, I understood to mean that I and everyone else was completely sinful and broken and needed total forgiveness. When you believe everything about yourself is wrong and sinful and ugly, you don’t have to practice discernment or be specific when you confess. I had prayed and confessed that I was terrible and wretched without specification silently when I was twelve, so there was no need for further practice of confession as far as I knew.

Five years ago I stumbled upon the Book of Common Prayer, which records prayers and liturgies Christians have prayed and followed for hundreds of years. It gives a structure to a persons’ prayer life and guides a persons reading of Scripture. One of the prayers I discovered in the book was the prayer of confession, to be prayed – according to some – daily:

“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.”

Confession for things I have left undone? Confession as part of my daily rhythm of prayer? This was new to me.

Slowly though, I began to develop a sensitivity to the things this prayer spoke to, the ways in which my life does not line up with the example of Christ in the things I think, the words I say, the things I do and the things I fail to do. As I began to come to an awareness in myself of those things, I also began to be able to articulate them to others.

As I begin to look at the ways in which white supremacy is interwoven in to different aspects of our culture and worship in the U.S. I want us to begin here, with confession. Discussions around race and justice are challenging, and can often leave us feeling paralyzed. Confession is one of the paths out of paralysis. In Twelve Step programs, the first steps are to admit powerlessness, seek a Higher Power, turn ourselves over to God for God’s care and then to take a “searching and fearless” inventory of ourselves.

For many who, like me, grew up in evangelical Christian traditions, our faith called us to the first three steps. We realized we were powerless to sin – in such ambiguous terms – and called upon God to save us. Many of us stopped there though, because our sin often tore apart our lives in subtleties and we believed ourselves recovered because our brokenness was not as visible as some. In these tense times though, we are invited to continue working the process. To take a searching and fearless inventory, in this case of the ways in which we are complicit in the system and practice of white supremacy.

May we continue to show up fearlessly to face injustice and evil wherever it lies in wait whether in our country, our cities, or in our own hearts.

 

Photo credit: Bored_Grrl.

Brother Thomas

“Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.”
                                                                                                                       – John 20:24

I don’t know where Thomas was when Jesus first appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, but he wasn’t with the others. The disciples had all assembled, doors locked in fear of the religious leaders…and probably of Rome, too. Crucifixions were common, and often it wasn’t just the leader of a movement who went down. Rome would crucify thousands of people at a time to put down revolts. It’s no wonder they were hiding. It’s no wonder Thomas wasn’t around. We aren’t told where he was, but I can imagine.

Maybe Thomas went home. Head hung low in shame for abandoning the family and their livelihood a few years back to follow the young, upstart Rabbi from Nazareth. Others had dropped fishing nets and left tax booths, broken open priceless bottles of ointment just to sit at Jesus’ feet.

What had Thomas left behind?

Did he try going back to that place, to those people when it all fell apart with Jesus?

Maybe Thomas was hiding. We’re told that when Jesus was arrested that the disciples scattered. Maybe Thomas wandered out into the wilderness somewhere, ducking the Roman soldiers and the temple elites. Devastated. Alone. Terrified.

What now?

We aren’t told where Thomas was, but we know he wasn’t there when Mary brought the news of the unthinkable and unimaginable. We know he wasn’t there when Peter rushed to the tomb to see for himself. We know he wasn’t there on the first day of the week when Jesus appeared to the disciples assembled in the house.

He wasn’t there.

I’ve always looked down on Thomas a little bit. Why wouldn’t you be there? Why wouldn’t you trust your closest friends when they told you that the thing you couldn’t even hope for had happened?  He was painted as some sort of bumbling idiot in Sunday school, “that doubting Thomas, don’t be like him. Trust the words of Jesus, He is risen! Risen indeed!”

I’m starting to understand Thomas.

I understand declining the invitation to sit in the dark house, doors locked, praying that they don’t come and arrest you too.

No, thanks. I’ll pass.

Where was Thomas?
I don’t know, but I probably would have been with him.

I’m the type of person who has contingency plans for my contingency plans. The crucifixion didn’t catch the disciples totally off-guard. You couldn’t say the things Jesus said, do the things Jesus did, bring together the people Jesus brought together and survive the empire.  As the writing on the wall started to become clear, I probably would have made some sort of exit strategy. When Jesus gets arrested, where do I hide? Who do is safe to turn to for help? Who can I trust not to turn me over to the empire, too?

We all want to believe we would have stayed by Jesus’ side till the end, but I’m fairly certain I would have been right there with the rest of his followers fleeing the scene.

I paint myself as an idealist, but I’m really more of a cynic with an affinity for sunshine.
I understand why Thomas wasn’t there.

But then, Thomas also came back.

Maybe those who had stayed sent word to him.
Maybe Mary found him somewhere and talked to him.
Maybe there were murmurs spreading and he caught wind somehow.
Maybe they all knew where he was the whole time, and it just took him awhile to make his way back to the house.

He found his way back somehow.

And the news was unbelievable. Literally.

“Unless I see the wounds, unless I touch them myself, I won’t believe it.”

It’s not like resurrection was such an improbable reality for Thomas. He had been there when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. He had seen resurrection with his own eyes, embraced new life with his very arms. But this was closer to home. This loss was more costly. Lazarus was a friend, but he died from illness. Jesus was his teacher, his leader, and he was executed by the state.

Thomas had seen life spring up from death.

Was it worth the risk this time?

Hope is birthed from a vulnerable place, it costs us something.  Thomas had already lost a lot. He had given up home, family and livelihood. He had already done the work of reimagining his life, of letting old dreams die, of dreaming something new. And now even the new dreams were dashed.

Are you seriously asking me to hope again?

I wasn’t ready for Easter this year.
For new life, new hope, resurrection.

I’m still sitting in the unknown of Holy Saturday. The tense, aching place between the shadow of a cross and the weight of the tomb.

We don’t talk about it often, but there’s grace for this space, too. For those of us who are stuck on Saturday. Our brother, Thomas, is familiar with the place in which we find ourselves.

We like to say “You’ve just got to have faith – even the size of a mustard seed!” 
But what we neglect to say is that even mustard seeds must be covered in earth before they spring to life. Even mustard seeds must wonder as they come undone in the dark if anything good will come from their burial.

 

Taking up Space

I’ve spent the last several years of my life purging closets and emptying drawers.

Minimizing.

Trying to use less water, less energy, less resources.
Produce less garbage, and compost and recycle more.

Just this past weekend, a bookshelf and two full bags of random old things were evicted from my home.

Smaller impact.
A simpler life.

These are good things.

A more long-standing practice in my life, though, has been learning to reign in my larger-than-life, bombastic feelings and reactions to the world around me.

Smaller impact.
More managed, more acceptable, more polished.
I resonate with our family’s omnipresent Disney princess, Elsa, on this:
Conceal don’t feel, put on a show.

That’s not such a good thing.

I remember my Dad looking me in the eyes when I was twelve and he was beginning a new chapter of life by going to medical school:

“You have to be strong.” 

I’ve always been a determined, disciplined person so being told to be “strong” (even as a twelve-year-old) didn’t feel like too great of a burden.

I’m sure I had more than my fair share of outbursts and sulky attitudes as a teenager (in fact, I know I did), but I did try to follow through on my Dad’s instruction. I tried to be strong – both for my family and for my own sense of identity.

I’ve never been a particularly “girly” girl. I opted out of ballet in favor of martial arts. I hated sewing and cross stitch and knitting and all the things requiring being very still and meticulous for long periods of time. I played more with mud and rocks and sticks than I did my dolls – and when I did play with them, my Barbies were going on secret rescue missions to save orphans and lost puppies, instead of going to the mall.

Being “strong” was a way to differentiate myself. Especially in the conservative Christian community I grew up in, where girls – especially as we broached adolescence – were quite concerned with honing their homemaking skills and cultivating “gentle, quiet spirits” so they would make excellent wives one day.

“Gentle and quiet” were illusive, and I possessed none of the typical skills associated with homemaking at the time, so I sought out “strong” instead. In part at my Dad’s request, and in larger part because if I couldn’t conform to the norm, at least I could rock at being an outlier.

Somewhere along the line of trying to either conform to “gentle and quiet” or be the most bad-ass strong, solid woman ever, I found my way to “small.”

Maybe because if I shrank my feelings, my fears and my self it was easier to manage, to bind into a polished and strong exterior.

Maybe because if I shrank my strength, it was less intimidating and brazen.  It seemed more “gentle and quiet” if I bound it up and kept it for just my own purposes.

Don’t get me wrong, I can seem as big as I  want to be.
I can laugh loud and light up rooms and set more places at bigger tables and fill platters with more food. I hug tight and give obnoxious amounts of high fives. Obnoxious.
When a room is dead, I can be the helium which lifts it up.

But did you know that helium is one of the smallest elements that exists?
Helium floats because it takes up so little space of it’s own.

And I stand with my arms folded tight across my chest.
I sit with my hands tucked beneath or between my legs.
My fists are closed more often than my hands are open.

Even though my words would never betray me, my body – when I’m not conscious of it – screams “smaller, smaller, SMALLER!”

If I truly engage my feelings, then I’m emotional and weak.
If I truly display my strength, then I’m too bold and intimidating (if not downright bitchy).

So I go through life, conscious of every gesture and smile; every glance and expression.
Even when I seem to be over-the-top excited, I know exactly where I am and what I’m doing. Just ask me, at any given moment, and I can give you a detailed rationale as to why.

I don’t think I’m the only person who does this.
I know other people (especially other women) know what this feels like.
To be bound up tightly on the inside as if a corset were holding all of your reactions and feelings and emotions into the figure and form society has deemed acceptable, even though you’re actually crushing yourself to a slow death.

I don’t want to live like that anymore.

I think we’re supposed to take up space.
Which means we’re going to have to be big enough that we can’t be everything to everyone all the time.

I am going to have to big enough to be someone who isn’t always only helium, filling up ever-more balloons for non-stop parties.

I want to live life with arms wide open, instead of scrunched and tight across my chest.
Legs crossed, fists clenched.
Smaller and smaller.

I want to be open and aware and present and completely here in the moments of my life.

One time, a woman was confronted about being caught up in the moment, listening at the feet of Christ, rather than hosting and rushing and serving and being concerned with ALL THE THINGS.

To those upset with her for being there, Jesus said:

“This will not be taken away from her.” 

We are given an opportunity to be enchanted and caught up in the movement of Christ at every turn, because we carry the Image of God within us. 

Every day is an opportunity to bear witness to the Divine at work.

I’m planting myself here. Taking up my space. Fully engrossed in the whispers and words and subtle movements of God all around me.

And it feels scary to sit here with my arms open and my heart exposed, but if I listen closely I hear the assurance from the One who drew me here in the first place:

“This will not be taken away from you.”

*Image credit: Herb Real via Flickr. 

 

 

 

Searching for Sunday: Confession

My footsteps echoed loudly against the hard wood floor, stained deeply like burnt sienna. The sounds from my high heels against wooden planks bounced from the floor to the rafters to the vast painted dome above and finally back into mine and a dozen other sets of ears around me. I felt like I was invading.  I’ve never been in a Catholic church before, much less a basilica.

I made my way cautiously along the aisle by the confessional booths, equally confounded by their need for existence, ashamed of their abuses and desperately wanting to fling myself inside and break my heart open.

Bless me Father, for I have sinned. 

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Confession is unmistakably absent from much of my personal church history.  I got off pretty easy when I repeated the sinners prayer that night after AWANA. I silently repeated the words of the teacher up front. “I confess my sin” I prayed within myself.   No need to be specific about what those sins were. After all, Jesus died to take on all of my sin anyway, so why name them?

Confession lacked by omission, “I have an unspoken prayer request.”
Confession lacked by volition, “You don’t want to hurt our witness, don’t let them see you struggle.”

Confession just…lacked.

I spent many years of faith claiming a rejected, murdered Messiah who routinely welcomed those who were openly hurting and broken, all the while trying to present an polished and perfect appearance to the world around me.

Like so many others, I failed to value confession as a discipline of the faith.  Awkward and painful and time consuming as it is though, confession is vital. When we lose confession as a discipline, we immediately buy into the lie that has pulled humanity away from God since the very beginning: Do this, and you’ll be like God.

Don’t let them see you sweat, and you’ll be like God.
Save face, and you’ll be like God.
Hide your struggles, and you’ll be like God.
Overcommit your wallet…
Over work your life…
Over simplify your arguments…
Over look the faults of your ancestors…

…And you will be like God.

Except, God isn’t looking for people to hide and cover and stitch together facades of life so that they might be “like” God.

“We could not become like God, so God became like us. God showed us how to heal instead of kill, how to mend instead of destroy, how to love instead of hate, how to live instead of long for more. When we nailed God to a tree, God forgave. And when we buried God in the ground, God got up.” (Searching for Sunday)
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I had dinner with a friend last week.

Actually, I had vegan desserts in the middle of the afternoon, but we called it dinner so it was.

“What’s your story?” He asked, and I shimmied around the joys and broken bits of my life like a flamenco dancer.

“How about you?” I ended my dance with a flourish.

Shaking his head, he spun me back to the first bit I had skirted past and asked me to unpack the baggage I had tried hide amidst swirling skirts and flashing lights.

Step, ball change.

And I finally let it pour out in it’s entirety.
The pouring out of hurt and angry and broken matched by the rushing in of grace like salve on my soul.

“‘I’m a Christian,” Rachel writes, “‘because Christianity names and addresses sin. It acknowledges the reality that the evil we observe in the world is also present within ourselves. It tells the truth about the human condition—that we’re not okay.’”

We’re not okay.
I’m not okay.
And I’m even worse when I refuse to let anyone past the facade of “I’m good, how are you?”

I need to come to that place, daily, of not just walking past a monument of confession or muttering prayers written hundreds of years ago (Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you…) I need to allow those words to take root and open up in my soul.

The things I have done.
The things I have left undone.

Just because I can portray my life as perfect doesn’t mean I should.

“Imagine,” Rachel writes, “if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable.”

Everyone is safe, no one is comfortable, and maybe we all could find the bravery within ourselves to step out from behind the bushes and walk confidently with God and one another in the garden once more.