The Mercy Of Confession (2000)

Published in Again Magazine and a shorter version at

By Terry Mattingly


When I was a teen-ager, it took forever to get my hair right.There was this one place that was really bad, behind my right ear. My hair wanted to flip out. I wanted it to flip under. The longer I grew my hair out, the better, or the worse, this particular thicket would become.

It was incredibly important — almost a life-and-death matter — to have long-ish hair when you were a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid in the late 1960s.

But there was no way, given the social and theological realities of the circumstances, for me to take the plunge and grow my hair out so far that gravity would take care of the tell-tale flip, turning it into a mere wave in a shoulder-length mane. What I needed was hair that was long enough to satisfy me and my friends, yet hair that wasn’t longer than the hair on most of the heads of the sons of the deacons at the Proctor Street Baptist Church in Port Arthur, Texas. In many ways, it must have been easier to be a hippie than a Baptist.

So there I was, every morning, with a freshly-washed head of hair, trying to get the flip behind my right ear under control using one of the early forms of male hair-drying technology. The minute perfection was achieved I would try to glue it into place with one of the early forms of male hairspraying technology.

I did this over and over and over. The same number of hot-air strokes sending the hair up. The same number sending it down. Back and forth. Then lots of careful twists of the wrist to get my hair to go the opposite way from the direction it was naturally inclined to go.

I did this year after year after year. The ritual became a part of me. If the flip stuck out, people would look at me and say, “What’s wrong with your hair?” Lots of young males were doing the same thing, I am sure, but we never shared tips on these face-saving maneuvers, the way the girls did.

Three or four years ago, I noticed that it no longer took nearly as long to carry out this duty. In fact, I rarely have to curl that flip under any more. It meekly does the right thing, pretty much on its own.

For better, or for worse, I have won that battle.

I know what you are thinking. No, this sobering reality has nothing to do with the oh-so-thin to almost bald spot on the top of my aging Baby Boomer head. This is not a meditation on mortality.

The flip behind my right ear is still there. But it has been brought under control, through years of training.

I guess if you do something long enough, it changes you.

When I became an Orthodox Christian, I didn’t mention this hair ritual thing in my first confession. Perhaps I should have. I am sure that this tale says a lot about me.

But the process of preparing to stand before Christ and confess who I am made me think of many other things that I had done in my life over and over and over, as a husband, as a father, as a journalist, as a teacher. I am sure that I am still blind to legions of other faults and embarrassing rituals that shape my life. I pray that by the grace of God I will be able to confess them. As C.S. Lewis expressed this truth in his novel “Til We Have Faces,” it is best to “die before you die. There is no chance after.”

A few weeks before my family was chrismated, a cradle Orthodox Christian told me that, as far as he knew, no one in his large parish had been to confession in years. This shocked me. Now, it saddens me to think that this is true.

Out of all the beautiful gifts that I have received as a new Orthodox Christian, I think that I am most thankful for the mercy of confession. I am thankful for those moments of light that confession shines into my life and tears of thanksgiving that often follow. I am not sure that I welcome confession, but I am truly thankful for it.

There are many, many, parts of me that are not under control yet. Believe me, I know that. I need to confess that, over and over and over, year after year after year. There are parts of me that, unlike my thinning hair, are going to last for eternity. I don’t want them to stay the way that they are. Please, dear God, have mercy on me. Please don’t let me spend eternity with myself, the way that I am right now.

That flip of hair behind my right ear is a warning.

The good news is that if you do something long enough, it changes you. The bad news is that if you do something long enough, it changes you. And we are free to make our choices, over and over and over.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.


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