"Confession is Good for the Soul"
This morning I spent a half an hour out in my garden. The brilliant sun played off the fresh grass, and made the blue and gold primroses beam. The forget-me-nots had just started to flower, and I could see the first lily-of-the-valley bells peeking out from under the lilac tree. The lilac was beginning to bloom! I buried my nose in a blossom, breathed deeply, and smiled. Pulling back, I noticed a large, dead branch on the right side of the bush. This needs to go, I thought, so off I went to get my small handsaw. Off came the offending decay. Finished with that project, I took a closer look at some greenery that was coming up through the back of the tree. Hmm. Was this a new lilac shoot or an interloper? Definitely not a lilac. A scrub honeysuckle! Out came the saw again. Finally, a large pile of dead and unnecessary branches lay on the ground, and the lilac (and I) breathed a sigh of relief.
The practice of confession reminds me a little of this morning's care of the lilac. It requires identification of what's good and what's not good, and necessitates removal of what doesn't belong. All this is done to promote flourishing - more life, more blossoms, more fruit. However, unlike the lilac tree that has no say in whether or not it feels the cut of the saw, we humans have a choice in whether we initiate the whacking off of dead and harmful stuff, or turn a blind eye and let our lives get choked out by weeds, and burdened down by dead weight.
I don't know about you, but the there are many things that keep me from owning what I've done or thought that I know is wrong. Shame, disappointment, and fear are all emotions I have to overcome before I come to confession. As a person who tries hard to do what's right, I'm disappointed to fail. I'm ashamed that I have negative feelings or reactions after years of living a life that is empowered by the Spirit of God. I'm afraid that others will think less of me. I'm afraid God will think less of me.
In his song, "Start with the Ending," David Wilcox, a bit tongue-in-check, encourages a couple to begin their marriage imagining that it's already ended. Since the marriage is over, each person is free to say what they've been hiding in hopes of keeping the marriage alive. Ironically, getting the fear and shame and disappointment out of the way makes space for honesty and health.
So what happens if we start with the ending when it comes to confession? The part where God, in grace and infinite love, offers us forgiveness. Does knowing that our God is compassionate, and not condemning, give us the courage to say what's true, to come clean? God wants our best, our health, and that can't happen if we don't speak the truth about ourselves - or about God! It is only by identifying what's not life-giving and by allowing the Spirit to remove it from our lives, that we are able to grow and flourish.
The practice of penance, for those who grew up in the Protestant church, might be something we're vaguely aware of - perhaps it includes a fuzzy notion of Hail Mary's, or involves rosaries. Interestingly, the Eastern Orthodox church offers a practice that is called an epitemia, meant to heal or strengthen the weaknesses acknowledged in confession. We could think about an epitemia as an exercise which we undertake, much like physical therapy, to make us stronger. For example, putting oneself in situations which require patience can help patience to grow. Hebrews 11:11,12 says "No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields a peaceful harvest of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore strengthen your limp hands and weak knees."
An epitemia could also be a set of alternative options in a situation. For instance, If I find myself constantly eating sugar and sweets, it doesn't help me by saying ( as I often do at the end of the day) "I shouldn't have had that last cookie at dinner." Rather, I need to make a proactive plan (an epitemia) to have other healthy choices when I want to reach for a cookie. I need fruit , or ingredients for a yogurt smoothie easily on hand. So it is with other struggles we have. It's not enough to confess what we do wrong, we need to prayerfully ask the Spirit (or a trusted friend) for spiritual exercises or creative options to help us become stronger in doing the right things.
Taking some time to reflect on sinful patterns in our lives can be an invitation, not to despair, but to dig a little deeper, to discover the roots of those patterns. Why is it that we have trouble telling the truth? Why are we constantly angry at our workmate? Why is it so easy to pass on a salacious story we know is probably not true? Why are we so snarky on social media?
Our behavior comes from our heart, our thoughts and beliefs. As we slow down and prayerfully analyze our actions, we can discover the false beliefs that lie behind our behavior. Do we act out because we don't feel worthwhile? Do we lie because we're ashamed someone will find out that we're not what we seem to be? Do we feel helpless in the midst of our current political or economic climate? What are the truths that combat each of these lies? As we commit ourselves to replacing false beliefs with what is true, we are engaging in the process of taking on the "mind of Christ" (1 Cor 2;16). If God truly holds my time, I don't need to be anxious about delays in my day. If I am loved, just as I am, I can be more vulnerable in admitting my failings. As we renew our minds, our behavior will begin to change so that we begin more and more to imitate Christ, living lives of love.
A Second (and Third and Fourth...) Chance
Confession is a gift. Confession is a necessity; it's like a bath, or a set of pruning sheers. Or maybe it's like a microscope, or an MRI. Choose your own metaphor. Here's the main thing. Growing is a messy process. Living includes making mistakes and overcoming harmful patterns. That's what it means to be human. And God gets that. God really does. And God wants you to keep growing, to become the best version of yourself that you can become. That's why God wants us to confess our sins. God wants us to be honest with ourselves about where we're falling short. Not so that we can be called on the carpet and given a dressing down, but so that we can be forgiven, encouraged, and sent back out into the wonderful adventure of living in love. So let's embrace the gift. Let's recover the lost art of confession, and join God in creating a more loving and lively life.
Brene Brown on vulnerability
Song for Confession
Prayers of repentance
Tree with roots: Aaron Escobar
Green/Brown art work: Aletheia Schmidt "Second Chance"
all others creative commons