“Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you maybe healed.” – James 5:16
Bless me Father for I have sinned.
The first time I spoke these words I was in elementary school. I was making my first confession, considered a sacrament and one of many important rites of passage in a Catholic’s life. I remember standing in line behind my Sunday School peers and their parents. In front of me loomed a large, intimidating wooden confessional. Inside a priest was waiting to hear our child-sized sins — at least I assume they were child-sized. Who knows, my classmates might have been real deviants; if they were I couldn’t tell. Except for Kelly, I thought she could stand to be taken down a notch or two.
As we waited I scoured my memory for any sinful thought or action I might have committed. A few instances came to mind and I quickly sorted them into categories of greater and lesser depravity. I figured whoever was in there probably heard a fair share of wickedness and thus couldn’t be bothered by any half-hearted sinning. No, it had to be something good (in the most unfavorable sense of the term).
When my turn came I recall choosing to enter on the side with the kneeler, because I was too nervous to face the priest. The whole experience must have been daunting because I don’t remember what happened next. My Mom tells me that later I admitted to being so nervous about forgetting what I was supposed to say, that I accidentally blurted out: “Bless me Father for I have sinned… want to hear a good joke?” And I believe her, because frankly this sounds like something I’d say.
Confession hasn’t gotten any less scary for me over the years. It’s certainly not why I eventually left the Catholic Church, but it sure as heck isn’t tempting me to go back (though please don’t tell my Grandmother that. Poor women still holds out hope…). That said I see the need for this ritual, and the importance of confession in general, more now than ever before.
1. Confession teaches us how to be vulnerable.
When I was kid my Dad (an Irish Catholic from Boston) told me his mother instructed her children to “never hang your dirty laundry out to dry.” In other words, if you do something indecent, or experience any of those pesky feelings like grief or shame, be a good dear and keep it to yourself.
I can’t say I blame my grandmother for her (if somewhat misguided) parental advice. This sort of sentiment permeates the upbringing of my parent’s generation. At the same time, we now know that vulnerability — a.k.a. showing up as one’s true self — is essential to emotional well being.
In her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Dr. Brene Brown argues, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” I know it sounds counterintuitive — mostly because the times I’ve had to share my shame story it felt akin to what I imagine being skinned alive feels like—but the act of confession holds within it the promise of freedom. It is truly the only thing that has ever allowed me to forgive myself and move on. And in that way, it has been a gift.
2. Confession reveals things as they really are.
In today’s world of branding and carefully curated Facebook profiles, it’s difficult to accept life as it is. But being human isn’t always a pretty picture, which is why sometimes it feels much easier to pretend we are someone else — someone who dresses well and only eats salads. We think I can’t be honest about my flaws when they don’t seem to have any. But as popular blogger Glennon Doyle Melton likes to say, “People who need help sometimes look a lot like people who don’t need help.”
The truth is that all of us screw up on a regular basis; we are brash and self-righteous and stingy tippers who complain about their coworkers. What’s true of us as individuals is also true of the Church. It’s painful (and frankly unpopular) to focus on sin or self-righteousness or doubt or the cross, so instead we go from strength to strength to the tune of 90s Christian Rock where Jesus is my Boyfriend and God won’t give us more than we can handle. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
“Perfectionism is a self destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.” – Dr. Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
In Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans tells a story of being surprised by her answer when a radio host asks why she is still a Christian. “I am Christian,” she says, “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…. At it’s best, the church functions like a recovery group, a safe space where a bunch of struggling, imperfect people, speak difficult truths to one another ” (67).
The regular practice of confession ends our frenetic struggle for perfection and channels our energies towards reconciliation. And this is a good thing because grace is always better than what we could come up with.
3. Confession reveals we are not alone.
Writer Anne Lamott says the most powerful sermon in the world has only two words, me too. I would argue with her but I don’t have her contact information, and she looks like she might fight dirty, so I’ll take it easy on her this time.
I don’t know if “me too” is the most powerful sermon, but I do know it is powerful. In the early part of the 2000s a guy from Maryland had the unique idea of asking strangers to send him anonymous postcards revealing their deepest darkest secrets. Today we call this project Post Secret, and over the years millions of people have sent in postcards with funny, horrifying, and sometimes heartbreaking revelations. Post Secret posts new confessions on their website daily and collates them into a book every few years.
Post Secret has been wildly successful, both in terms of participation and followers. Why? Well, you might say it’s because we enjoy emotional voyeurism, but I suspect it has something to do with solidarity. One person’s willingness to practice confession inspires another and then another and then another. Suddenly we aren’t the only one with a secret. And for those of us who’ve been hiding in our isolated closets for year, praying that no one will try the knob or turn on the light, this is good news indeed.
Show me a community that embraces the reality of sin and the need for confession and I will show you a community where authenticity, empathy, and solidarity thrive.
Wild Goose 2015
About this time last summer, I was invited to lead the spirituality tent design team for the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina. Our team was responsible for crafting the aesthetics of three tents, including signage and stage decorations. I was honored but frankly surprised by the invitation, as I make no claim to artistic competency and the most creative project I had done to date was painting a bookshelf. In spite of this, I gladly accepted the challenge and quickly surrounded myself with talented people.
Going into this project I knew we had to create a piece of art people could interact with. Spirituality, after all, is the sense that we are connected to something larger than ourselves; it’s a hunch, a feeling, and a practice. There are no armchair mystics. Spirituality is experiential so there had to be a way for people to connect with one another, and hopefully, with God.
Inspired by Post Secret, we created an Anonymous Confession Board where festivalgoers could confess their fears and flaws, their doubts about Christianity and concerns for the Church, their anger, pain, and humiliation, their hope. Advice and platitudes were not allowed. This was a space to confess and proclaim “me too.”
Here is what festival goers from Wild Goose 2015 had to confess:
Bless me Lord for I have sinned…
“I STILL STRUGGLE with every insecurity that I write and speak to others about over coming.”
“Subversive. Radical. Jesus. (Honestly, I am getting tired of these words.)
“I can’t share my opinions because the progressive movement has become too authoritarian and certain opinions are now the wrong opinions.”
“I do not trust my family to accept me for who I truly am – and I’m sorry for my lack of courage which might keep others from being bold enough to share their truth.”
“I’ve worked hard to recognize my privilege as a white woman and to act more just to people of color, but I make mistakes ALL THE TIME.”
“I love all the people here. They are so awesome. I want to hug all of them.”
“I would not wish to maim or kill in defense of myself… but if a shooter went after my students, I would take them out. No ashamed.”
“Having a mental illness SUCKS (but I’m kind of worried that I’m not interesting without it).”
“The sin of ableism”
“I am terrified of not being #EPIC and therefore not being wanted.”
“I’m a pastor who still questions God’s existence and role in the world.”
“Sometimes I chnge myself and my values to be accepted.”
“I’m always secretly worried my nose is running and it makes me ashamed to speak to others.”
“I am tried of pretending to be happy. I am not allowed to grieve by society or by my family. I am tired of being alone – my whole family is bi-polar but no one will talk about it. Because I speak the truth others cant handle it. I’m concerned about my sons depression.”
“I am a pastor and I haven’t read the whole bible.”
“I hate camping & bugs. I live in an all white community that does not welcome ‘the other.’”
“I am afraid as a future pastor that I will not be able to talk about how I really feel about the bible without being judged.”
“I’m afraid that having a mental illness will make me the weird kid in school.”
“I admit that it is easier to go back to the life as I know it than to face all the in humanity people inflict on one another.”
“I feel most cofortable in my own company but realize I have work that requires others. How do I live my truth?”
I confess I still struggle with concealing grief and shame, but reading your post cards last summer gave me hope. I hope you felt the same.
In the name of Christ, who stands in solidarity with broken, te absolvo.