The Confession We Seem Reluctant to Make

The Confession We Seem Reluctant to Make

David R. Weiss, July 14, 2010

I am impatient with confession. That’s putting it too politely, but the moment I try to state the matter more clearly it just gets messy: I do not enjoy starting my worship experience by reminding myself (and everyone else) that I am sinful. Well, doesn’t that sound a little suspicious? Isn’t the whole point of confession that we ought to come before God by first acknowledging—confessing—the deepest and most vulnerable truth about ourselves? And doesn’t my discomfort with that merely prove its importance … and reveal my own rebellious nature?

No.

My brothers and sisters who have written Liberation, Feminist, Womanist, Black, and Queer Theology have made a strong case that our God-language has often been pressed into the service of power dynamics that are appalling to the God thus named. And I am persuaded that the same is true of how the Confession functions in our worship.

While I don’t know the whole history of confession in spiritual life, I have a suspicion that it has almost always served the interests of the powerful more than it has served the needs of the poor. That its place in the liturgy, however it has been theologically justified, has worked foremost to insure that the haves continue to have, and the have-nots continue to have not.

Indeed I am convinced that at present the Confession serves primarily to quietly disempower us and to alienate us from our bodies, from the goodness in which and for which God created us—and from the Spirit who longs to take on our flesh in transforming service to the world. In this sense, while claiming to position us honestly us before God, the Confession instead betrays us into a place where grace is merely a salve for broken hearts but hardly the power of God to change the world.

I grew up in the 1960’s. At my German Lutheran church in northwest Indiana we used the red Service Book and Hymnal. As a precocious child in a family that was in church (and near the front) every Sunday, I was eager to share in the liturgy as soon as I could read. So, sometime before I had even celebrated my sixth birthday, I began rehearsing my own utter sinfulness every Sunday. With fervor that probably went well beyond my parents and fellow parishioners (isn’t that why Jesus blessed the children?) I named myself a “poor sinner”; I invoked Sunday after Sunday after Sunday over my own dawning self-awareness the phrase “by nature sinful and unclean.” I was certain these words held some great power, and I wanted to inhabit them. Sadly, I succeeded all too well.

In the years since we Lutherans have chosen somewhat more merciful language, confessing that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves,” but we have remained largely steadfast that the first word we need to speak in worship names our sinfulness, our bondage, our weakness, our nothingness. (In Evangelical Lutheran Worship, released by the ELCA in 2006, the Confession can be replaced with a Thanksgiving for Baptism, an improvement of sorts, but one that still assumes everything in the unsaid confession as the context for our thanksgiving.) And while the words have softened, many of us 40 and older have the imprint of that confession of our childhood written well into our hearts quite beyond any updating of the language.

We can’t afford this anymore. We never could, as far as I’m concerned, but the evidence is fast reaching a breaking point. We have confessed ourselves into alienation from our own bodies and from the earth and we have confessed ourselves into a sense of powerlessness that leaves us unable to imagine that we have the power to challenge the systems that threaten the planet and create suffering for so many.

Yes, yes, yes, yes. We are sinners. Mostly broken in our wills as well as in our dreams. Prone to mean-spiritedness in our hurt and selfishness in our wants. Entangled in our temptations. And even more entangled in the distorted systems—the mass media, the consumer economy, the political forces, the church structures, and the dysfunctional families in which, from our birth onward, we find ourselves embedded.

I am not claiming that sin has no power over us. And I fully agree that it is a dangerous thing—a very dangerous thing even—to belittle the forces of death that are at play in the world. Although I would suggest that these forces are far more social and systemic than they are individual—and that their social and systemic reach only lengthens the more we frame them as individual choices we make.

But here is the thing: we fail to confess the ongoing resilience and the super-abundant goodness of God as Creator when we believe the Tempter’s lie that we have somehow been clean cut off from the words spoken timelessly by God over us, from the first mythic moment in the Garden to the present multiple moments of our lives today, “And God saw everything that had been made, and indeed it was very good (Gen. 1:31).

And in this failing, we choose to be too little to hold within our lungs the breath of God—although God is striving still to breathe into us. We choose to be too little to lift within our fingertips the touch of God—although God is striving still to reach out in tenderness to others through us. We choose to be too little to know within our own bodies the full joy of God—although God is longing still to feel the sheer goodness of creation in us. And we choose to be too little in our imaginations to dare the dream of a world made fresh by justice—although God is longing still to catch fire in the very synapses of our minds.

Of course, in the rest of our worship, we say that we desire all these things, but we unwittingly use the Confession at the start of worship to inoculate ourselves against the indwelling presence of God. We insist that unworthiness is the first truth to be spoken, and that only in the midst of our complete unworthiness is grace really grace. But in so doing we presume that God needs a scarcity of goodness to be God. And we feign ignorance of the power these words have to misshape us—though if we heard a parent trying to instill such a message as this in his or her children we would rightly cringe.

Well, let us talk about the perniciousness of sin during our worship services, for we need to resist it in ourselves and in our society. And let us be far more attentive in naming its social and systemic character than we have been in the past, for only so is the injustice of the world challenged and changed.

But let us begin by confessing—by naming with humble vulnerability—the grace that frames our lives from first to last, from Alpha to Omega, from long before our salvation to well into our sanctification. To do so is not to deny sin, but to acknowledge in each and every moment that the goodness of God infects us always and even now—and is just waiting to burst into flame. This is what I confess:

I confess that each one of us is a shimmering echo of God’s love. I confess that we are powerful—beyond measure. Powerful both in our individual uniqueness and creativity, and especially in our united diversity. I confess that we are good—beyond measure. Gifted with an unlimited—and often untapped—potential for justice, mercy, and compassion. I confess that each of us is also twisted and distorted by forces within and without. And that these forces often thwart our power and undercut our goodness. And yet, these forces are not ultimate, not even in this life. So I confess that our challenge is less to avoid evil than to embrace good. Less to confess sin than to confess the truth of our power and our goodness—and to unleash that truth in our lives. Amen.

Confession that fails to name our potential for being imago Dei not only betrays the truth of who we are; it equally betrays the sheer, abundant, and gracious goodness of God.

***

David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace, David lives in St. Paul, Minnesota and is a self-employed speaker and writer on the intersection of sexuality & spirituality. You can reach him at drw59@comcast.net and at https://tothetune.wordpress.com.

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6 thoughts on “The Confession We Seem Reluctant to Make

  1. I’m speechless! Can this get into the next ELCA hymnal? I anticipate, not another reformation, but a Transformation.

  2. terrific! I especially loved a couple of phrases: “We have confessed ourselves into alienation from our own bodies and from the earth and we have confessed ourselves into a sense of powerlessness …” and “But in so doing we presume that God needs a scarcity of goodness to be God”.

    David, if possible, please provide a link to share this blog easier with Facebook. More people need to be exposed to these ideas.

    Blessings

  3. This essay was featured on the Pretty Good Lutherans website, where it drew a range of responses … mostly critical. You can see them here: http://www.prettygoodlutherans.com/?p=13903#more-13903

    My final reply to the PGL thread is this:

    Dear friends:

    It’s daunting to put my thoughts out there for others to scrutinize. And however helpful the internet is for posting them, it’s less helpful in discussing them. I can’t make a full response to each comment, but I appreciate them all. My reply won’t satisfy everyone, but as James Burtness argued in Consequences (his book on ethics), good conversation—if done well—can lead to genuine disagreement—actually understanding where we disagree. So I will clarify a few places of disagreement—without presuming either to prove myself right or to prove any of you wrong.

    (1) I sometimes disagree with orthodox/traditional Lutheran thought. I realize there are theological “counterpoints” to almost everything I say. I have two graduate degrees in Theology, one from a Wartburg Seminary, one from Notre Dame and I taught it for more than a decade. That does NOT make me right, but it DOES suggest I’ve studied and reflected long enough to have earned the right to respectfully differ from the tradition at some points. That’s how theology develops: not by simply repeating what’s always been taught, but by raising thoughtful challenges here and there as well. I may not seem Lutheran enough (or Lutheran at all) to some of you, but I am deeply rooted in the defining Lutheran claim that we are justified by grace through faith.

    (2) I do see the pervasiveness of human sin within me and all around me. I’ve spent my entire adult life as an activist for justice, often driven by my awareness of the devastating toll that sinful structures take on human lives. My essay never sought to diminish sin—either its power or its extent. In some ways I heighten our responsibility for sin by suggesting that we have more power to resist it (both individually and structurally) than we often acknowledge. If we are as totally broken, helpless, in bondage, (“by nature sinful and unclean”) as some suggest, then it is hard to understand how God can blame us (even condemn us!) for doing or being what we cannot help. That sounds almost sadistic on God’s part. If I were to utterly condemn any of my five children—with wrath no less—for how they were born or for choices they’d made … even as a prelude to forgiveness, it would strike almost all of you as dysfunctional or worse. But somehow it often passes for good theology. And I disagree.

    (3) I take our goodness as seriously as I take our sin. I agree, more than even Amanda does, with the idea that we are at once “saint and sinner.” We are truly creatures of free will—even while our wills are also surely tangled up with the assorted baggage of our lives. This is the human condition. Thus, I don’t say that it is only “in Christ” that we are so. I look at Gandhi and I see “saint and sinner”; I look at my dear friend Max, an agnostic whose integrity often outstrips my own, and I see “saint and sinner.” This is the birthright of our createdness: we are born into potential that is equally ripe with peril and promise. Not particularly Lutheran, I know, but it rings so deeply true to my lived experience that I would betray my own conscience if I spoke otherwise.

    (4) I do leave room for God to work in us. My whole life is prayer that invites God’s presence. Including the words I write—including my initial essay on Confession. I know few people who hunger as deeply as I do to let my every movement be a response to the breath of God. I’m not boasting; and I’m hardly claiming that this is always what I experience. But those who know me well will attest that I live with a sincerity that can be unnerving. So it’s not that I leave little room for God to work. It’s that I presume little if any room for me to work apart from God. When Paul writes, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” I know those words, sometimes in longing, sometimes in living. I resonate with John Dornheim’s comments about emptying ourselves and quieting the noise that accumulates inside us—but I think the Confession’s focus on shame, guilt, and sin is poor way to do this. It tells only the half truth of who we are—and tells it in a way that disempowers us. It overlooks—even denies—the indelible goodness in which God created us. I believe God’s work in me—and in every human person—begins long before any encounter with Jesus. I don’t leave “no room” for God to work. I leave God all the room in the world. Really.

    (5) Lastly, I take the Lutheran/Pauline claim about a God who justifies by grace through faith more seriously even than the tradition does. I believe our insistence that the death of Jesus was the driving force for our redemption/forgiveness makes “grace” something other than grace. I’m FAR from the only theologically-trained person who regards this way of viewing Jesus’ death (which is only one of many ways that Christians have viewed his death) is not theologically or spiritually on target. That’s a debate far too complicated for a series of web-postings, but it’s a fundamental disagreement with some of you, and if we can’t name it openly we’ll never really hear each other. So let me be clear—even if it ends the conversation—I believe God justifies us as grace. Pure grace. No sacrificial death required. Pure grace. Jesus’ message, proclaimed in his words and embodied in his deeds, was a message of THAT grace. Absolute. Unconditional. Individual. And communal. The community gathered by Jesus was so shaped by his proclamation of grace—he freed such a revolutionary power in the human spirit—that Jesus became a threat, most immediately to the priests (the theologians and institutional power brokers of the Temple) but also to the secular political rulers. Jesus was killed not to atone for my sins (or yours!) but because he was a threat to powers of his day that operated on a dynamic of power-over and needed that worldview kept in place to preserve their power. Sadly, this is the same sort of dynamic that we unwittingly rehearse in much of our theology, including a confession that undermines the Grace that created us, that called—and calls!—us good, and that continues to hope for hearts willing to harbor the movement of such radical Grace in the world today. I see Jesus as God’s startling revelation of Grace, not in his death, but in his life. And so I try to follow him—faithfully—in my life even when that following leads me, too, through the valley of the shadow of death. And in that following I never once “earn” Grace, but I time and again discover it flowing in me and through me, as free gift. And I know the truth of Jesus’ words, “Lo, I am with you always, even to end of the age.”

    I hope these remarks clarify the places we disagree in ways that edify us all. I’ll keep an eye on the thread, but I need to move my energy on to other projects. Thanks.

  4. David, I hear what you are saying that the confession of sin from Service Book and Hymnal was too predominant in your experience, and I believe we need to listen to our gut and that biography is at least as influential as liturgy and ritual. In my own experience of Lutheran worship, six months after I begin worhsipping as a 17 year old, I heard the promise in the absolution in that same hymnal,”To them that believe on his Name, he gives power to become the children(sons) of God and bestows on them (his) Holy Spirit. He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.” In my first semester at Concordia I walked up to Pastor Sorgen in theat little first unit mission church with metal folding chairs and said I need to be baptized can you help me, and he did . he arranged that I should wait and be baptized on christmas day back in the church where i had first come to worship.

    It is just possible that the absolution has always functioned more powerfully than the confession of sin that we had to go through getting there. I remember working with a good friend who believed that childrens messages were the scourge of good liturgy and so for a few years we stopped doing them. When he moved on to a new call we begin doing them again and the most attentive people in the place were not the children but the adults who always wanted to talk about the childrens message after church and breathed not a word about the”adult” sermon that suppossedley had the same message. I realized that liturgically that those adults were identifying with the little children and they were getting their good news that way, kind of like Kieregaard and overhearing the gospel in an indirect way.

    So we don’t always know how something is actually functioning liturgically or even subconsciously . My youngest daughter has completely rejected the idea of original sin and was greatly offended when the pastor preached about sin the first time she brought her fiance to church in Chicago. He was agnostic with no previous experience of Christian community, but six months into their marriage when he ran off with his chiropractor who seduced him on the table I think they had no way to even talk about the dishonesty that had destroyed their marriage. Today 15 years later she is still sick of “evangelical
    Christians” trying to manipulate her into church and she has discovered a dozen Christian Science ladies who she loves being with and reads anything she can find by the mystics and says why didn’t I tell her about mysticism during confirmation.

    You may recall that when were moving from Service Book and Hymnal into LBW, that the contemporary blue worship books that were being tested before 1978 had the act of confession and reconcilation just prior to the communion with the sharing of the peace being the conclusion before the meal. Gordon Lathrop argured for this position of the confession, but it did not fly with the hymnal comission. they did make the confession from a shall rubric to a may rubric, and where the red book was a very penitential posture the green book became focused on Remembrance of Baptism into the Death and Resurrection of Christ and became a celebrative posture standing, versus kneeling and introspection even in the posture of recieving communion. Kneeling for communion with private absolution and laying on of hands was still standard for red book when I was ordained in 1966.

    In seminary I wrote a paper on Teihard de Chardin and his Hymn of the Universe and his tremendous contribution as a paleontoligist who could celebrate the Eucharist with the earth as his paten and the sun as the host. He was rewarded for his contributions by being refused the opportunity to return to his home in France, his writing was not published until after his death, and he was buried outside the cemetary in Toronto until recently when the Catholic church repented. So David you see there are consequencews if the church decides that you may be soft on sin. I don’t know what they are going to do with Matthew Fox, but I know feminist theologians have loved what he is doing for a long time.

    I know that you are more comfortable with the corporate confession when we are confessing the arrogance of power, and the sin of pride, but perhaps we do have to find some way to acknowledge our own mortality even as we bear the Image of God. My most recent offense was having an agnostic woman tell me that I had ruined her friends wedding becuase I read from the green book,”Because of sin, our age old rebellion, the gladness of marriage can be overcast and the gift of the family can become a burden. But because God who established marriage, continues still to bless it with his abundant and ever present support, we can be sustained in our weariness and have our joy restored.”

    She wasn’t going to give me any chance to explain why sin and rebellion would ever be mentioned on the day of a marriage. Think how much fun we are going to have when we get all of our wedding ceremonies rewritten with inclusive language for God and same gender couples, and then invite the church to adopt this inclusive language.

    But regardless of how our gut causes us to respond to the language of worship, I have no doubt how important it is to have our liturgical language speak truthfully about God and about ourselves and our relationships to each other and the universe. So keep working at it David. glen

    • Glen,
      Thanks for your very thoughtful response. I agree wholeheartedly about “how important it is to have our liturgical language speak truthfully …” And you remind me how equally true it is that we each have ears that hear quite differently, filtering the words through our life. Thanks.
      David

  5. I was just writing up some notes from the Renewing Worship discussions that we are having at Grace and remembered this piece. Rereading it made me thankful for you and your work. I’m going to share it with our discussion group as I’m sure it will stimulate conversation.

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