So we are in the season of Lent, the time of the year, when the Church calendar asks us to remember our sin, to repent of it, and to confess it.
But this raises lots of practical pastoral questions for me. How does a Protestant church, from a free tradition, do this? I know there are ways of doing confession corporately, and we will certainly do them…but the problem with doing only corporate confession is that so often sin remains abstract, and in my experience (both pastoral and personal) real sin is anything but abstract.
So how does someone confess and repent specific sins? We don’t have booths or trained priest for this, and when we do offer seasons of prayer and confession, people hesitate to engage them…no one wants to be the sinner in a sea of saints.
Recently I was listening to Richard Beck (a popular blogger, psychology professor, and a member at the church where I serve) give an interview. He was talking about his most recent book “The Slavery of Death” and trying to flesh out the bigger ideas for everyday life. At one point Richard brought up Acts 2.
It’s where the first church was born, the Holy Spirit falls on the disciples and everyone gets baptized.
But everyone there was Jewish, they had ceremonially passed through the Exodus waters already, but now they are doing it in a new way, in the name of Jesus.
In that day, baptism was an act of repentance…mostly for immoral outsiders. It was something that marked pagans becoming the People of God. It was not something for the religious, moral people.
In my experience, repentance is the one thing that doesn’t come easy to most of us.
In fact, an interesting side note, all through Luke’s gospel, Jesus is coming to find the lost. But who is lost? It’s the older brother, the lost tribes of Israel, the people of God who are much like the woman in this story last week, who don’t know that they are lost.
Largely, I think, because we don’t know what being found looks like.
One of the most inspiring passages of this chapter in Acts is when it described what the first Church looked like.
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give, and there were no needy people among them.”
Luke tells us that are no needy people among them, because they were sharing with each other and the needy people had their needs met.
Richard Beck said we have that part down. Not the selling and giving part, but the bit about not having any “needy people among us.”
We don’t have needy people in our churches today, because most of our churches are filled with people who are doing “fine.”
In his great book, “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” Peter Scazzero mentions a survey that concluded: Church members divorce their spouses as often as their secular neighbors. Church members beat their wives as often as their neighbors. Church members’ giving patterns indicated they are almost as materialistic as non-Christians. White evangelicals are the most likely people to object to neighbors of another race.
I know these surveys have become old hat. We have read the same conclusions a dozen times, but my problem is…I don’t know any of those people, all the church people I tend to meet on Sunday mornings are always doing “fine.”
This is one of the best arguments for seasons of confession like Lent. Without it, church starts becoming a place for “fine” people to get together.
We show up on the weekend with all our junk in order, and if we can’t at least look like that, chances are we just won’t go at all. We learn to stuff down this sense that all is not right in the world and all is not right with us.
Of course we want God to do His good work in us, but we work tirelessly to look like God has already finished doing it. And when no one is looking, we go to self-help books, or we go to religion, self-help with God’s name stamped on it.
You know, “The Secret of the Purpose-Driven Daniel Plan™”
But none of it really satisfies this deep hunger in our soul for the world to be different…for us to be different. And we keep going to church, unaware that the medicine for our soul might just be sitting right next to us, in a brother or sister, a priest in disguise, willing and equipped by the Holy Spirit to receive our confession.
If we would just be willing to give it.
This is the great gift of Lent, it is a season where it is okay to not be okay.