Tuesday, March 07, 2006

CONFESSION--PART I: I'm Sorry and Thank You

Did you grow up with someone—a parent, an Elementary or High School teacher, a Sunday School teacher—who had unfair and unrealistic expectations of you? Did you ever feel like there was no way you could measure up or ever hope to impress them, let alone achieve the least that was assigned you?

I used to feel that way about God. Sometimes, I admit, I still do.

Among its many commandments, Christianity tells its adherents to be holy as God is holy.

No big deal. Just be prefect. Overnight.

Then it turns around and tells us that perfection is impossible and gives us Christ to blot out the sins we cannot help but commit.

It's easy to get confused. Hell, it's easy to get disillusioned, angry and defeated.

There's a bumper sticker that reads "Christians Aren't Perfect—Just Forgiven." Not a big fan of that one. Not a big fan of 99.9% of Christian bumper stickers to be honest. If they come off as trite, priggish and sanctimonious to me, how must they appear to the rest of traffic?

Still, it does bring up a good point, a point many Christians try to make with a tiny piece of sticky paper on the back of their car but then obliterate because of how they live their lives. Perfection, as God is perfect, is unattainable. But it is something for which we must always strive. Each time we come to God for forgiveness of our sins, we get that much closer to reflecting Him.

Perfection is impossible. It is also an ultimatum.

It's like another bumper sticker, “Visualize World Peace.” Personally, I don’t think such a thing is possible. But it won’t stop me from visualizing it, won't stop me from working for it. Because in doing so, I get that much closer to it and while the ultimate goal is never quite achieved, the world is that much better for my efforts.

But the truth is, you can't work toward world peace unless you admit there is bloody unrest across the planet. In the same way, you can't ask for forgiveness unless you first admit that you have sins which need to be forgiven.

I was raised in a Christian tradition that rarely focused on humankind’s sinfulness. We preferred to talk about God's supernatural power. It was almost always about the power, the razzle-dazzle, the—dare I say it—sexy side of Christianity.

Oh, sin wasn’t ignored or denied, but the thought seemed to be, “God’s work saved you. You are now empowered by God’s Holy Spirit. Go and sin no more.” To talk about humankind's sinfulness was seen as a sort of admission that Christ's power wasn't enough. To dwell on our sinfulness showed a lack of faith in God's gift of salvation.

While it might be assumed that a conservative, Pentecostal upbringing would embrace the idea of confessing your sins, it didn’t. The closest thing we had was the altar call to "rededicate your life to Christ." This was done because almost everyone, it is assumed (and rightly so), at some point and time, to one degree or another, wanders away from and abandons God, and begins to live again like their old selves. In my church, everyone went forward for the rededication altar call at least once or twice a year.

"Was I bad enough to be labeled a backslider or am I safe enough to just offer up a prayer of repentance? How can I be sure? What if I'm wrong? What if I've lost my salvation and I'm going to hell?!"

However, if you did it too often, people began to talk.

“Have you seen how often Brandon has gone forward lately? He must have really strayed from the faith. I wonder if he was ever really saved.”

One of the most striking differences between the denomination in which I was raised and the one in which I find myself as an adult is the Christian's orientation to sin and forgiveness.

The Anglican attitude is that, like it or not, Christians are sinners—saved sinners who have a constant access to forgiveness—but sinners nonetheless. Therefore, whenever we come before God corporately, we always enter into public confession and cleansing. (More on this next week.)

Put simply, the Anglican’s attitude throughout every moment of the day is, I'm sorry and thank you, I'm sorry and thank you...

Like so very much of the liturgy when I first began attending an Anglican service, this element was strange to me. Public confession, while not completely unrecognizable, was, nonetheless, not something to which I was accustomed. It felt odd, out of order. Where was the monthly altar call? Where was the offer to rededicate your life to God? Did they really do this every single week? Didn’t they trust in God?

The truth is, it's human nature to want to chart the progression of our lives in a straight line. As if our existence could be charted on a sort of industrial graph, we imagine a line ever moving forward, ever progressing, rarely dipping or bottoming out. We like to see ourselves as ever-improving.

Within Christianity, especially the denomination into which I was born, we like to think that, given enough time and work, confession becomes unnecessary, a sign of a young and immature Christian, something to be seen only in the rear view mirror of our spiritual journey.

Unfortunately, life isn’t a nice, neat arc from beginning to end. Working out our salvation doesn't follow a straight line from baptism to resurrection or from a sinner’s prayer to eternity. That's why the scriptures tell us to “work out your salvation" in the first place. It's not easy. It's not simple. It's not a slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am, now my life is perfect sort of thing.

Whether we like it or not, whether we recognize it or not, a holy and devout life is less like a line and more like a rhythm—a constant, repetitive, staccato rhythm of repentance and praise. Today, tomorrow, for as long as we live.

I'm sorry and thank you...I'm sorry and thank you...

We cannot ignore God’s work in our lives, but we cannot ignore our sinfulness either.

Some call it hypocrisy: “How can you preach about being holy and blameless and then turn around and sin yourself.”

Because one is what I was born into and the other is what I a becoming.

Hypocrisy is not failing it, hypocrisy is faking it.

The Christian has to learn to live with this dynamic tension. They must have the determination and acceptance to live, privately and publicly, with the gap between what they are and what they ought to be. Besides, the greater the gap, the greater the space for God's power and grace to fill.

It’s Esse Quam Videri in the Latin. To be, rather than to appear.

We must yearn for authenticity. We must strive for a realness in our Christian living, thinking and feeling. Though we will never be fully able to expunge the individual and corporate acts of dishonesty for which we are perpetually guilty and constantly thwarted, we can at least acknowledge, one to another, that life…that we…are ragged. That's the whole point.

Closing that gap is both impossible and essential.

And it starts with, I'm sorry and thank you...I'm sorry and thank you...

More on the idea of confession next week... My thanks to Father Theron Walker for helping me flesh out some of these ideas.


Blogger supermn said...

Well, first, I have to admit this was the first post of yours I have read in its entirety in awhile, but that's a different topic. Secondly, I struggled a bit to hear where you landed on that idea as opposed to just hashing it around in your head (and blogger). When I was living with the mindset of "I am a sinner saved by grace" I found myself sinning, yet being saved by grace. However, when my mentality switched to "I am a saint with Christ in me, who occasionally stumbles" the sinning seemed to fall by the way-side. Do I still sin? I can't say that I never have since my paradigm shift, but it is, by far, the exception now - not the rule.

12:37 PM  
Anonymous Andy said...

Some scattered thoughts:
I was raised in the same denomination as Brandon. Like Brandon, I am looking back on that and accepting, rejecting, and modifying what I was taught, and as importantly, how I approach faith and God.
I am sick of trite Christianity, especially when I see it in myself.
It is so true about the "go to the altar, but not too much" syndrome. After all I have my reputation to protect. But I thought that that was somewhat established, I have a reputation that I am a SINNER. Unlike Brandon, that was emphasized plenty to me. Yelled at me in sermons at times. While I deplore the come forward or burn style, I also deplore the attitude of our culture. Sin is excused or applied to others and God is love, so only child molesters, racists, intolerant extremists, and people who don't respect the environment are going there.
I also want to state, that much of our denomination was a reaction, as many movements are, against dead ceremonialism. I am glad that they rejected that, although I would really have liked having a stronger connection to my fellow believers, my family, from the ancient days until now.

12:39 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

It sounds, Supermn, like you've been able to reconcile the gulf better than most. Good for you. I, however, may see less big sins in my life with each passing year, but am made that much more aware of the smaller, yet just as corrosive sins that I may never have identified before because the uber-sins cast such a colossal shadow. Your “occasional” is my “constant”—it's not that I've gone looking for new sins, it's just that I am more aware of the ones that were always there. I wish I could have your optimism, I really do. But I have to admit I question its reality in yours, mine, anyone's life.

Good point about the hellfire and brimstone, Andy. How could I forget the other side of the coin where ALL we talked about was man's sinfulness and the fiery abyss licking at our toes!? “Where would you go if you died tonight?” I abhor that sort of “evangelism.”

Interesting what you said about the church's attitude vs. the culture's. I am currently reading Bonhoeffer and what you said made me think about his tirades against, what he calls, “cheep grace.”

1:07 PM  
Anonymous BP said...

Nicely said my friend.

I connect with the whole blog but I love the simple statement - "Hypocrisy is not failing it, hypocrisy is faking it." NICELY put.

Whew. Deep stuff. Thanks, I needed the continued motivation!

P.S. Nice to hear Andy and you on the same side of the coin on something! I love the debates the two of you can get into.

1:57 PM  
Anonymous DC said...

The Rector Emeritus at my church once said, we episcopalians are 90% guilt free, and we take care of the other 10% on Sunday morning during the prayer of confession. Of course, the congregation roared with laughter. As to the prayer of confession, I was accustom to that prayer from my days in the methodist church. While the prayer of confession is indeed corporate, I also feel it is so personal.

I remember as a child the awful guilt during the sermons and alter calls in the AG church. Does God intend for us to live in that constant feeling of guilt, or are we to strive for a victorius life while knowing that when we sin we can ask forgivness as many times as we need to and his grace will be there for us? (Or should it be Her grace?) Every time we says the Lord's Prayer we ask for our sins to be forgiven. Was not this prayer used to teach us how to pray?

I love your writings. You always make me think. I would give anything if you could have know my brother. The 2 of you would have spent hours talking together about these things.

1:58 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

I'm going to stray from the topic of sin for a bit and focus on another aspect of the blog: churchy upbringing.

I accepted Jesus at a vacation Bible school when I was seven. The next day the teacher told everyone to recite the same thing we all recited the day before. Before we started I raised my hand and asked why we had to do it again, didn't yesterday count. I got taken aside and talked to for that one. In some ways that's been happening ever since.

Even though I was repeating what the teachers told us to repeat, for me, it meant something. Therefore I didn't "need" to do it again. Or did I? I often respond to the rededications that happen in the pentecostal churches I attend as I think about how I and my life have strayed from what I understand as God's plan for me.

Last night I was putting my two-year-old to bed and we started praying. He's at the point where he repeats everything we say, but can only handle about 4 words at a time. I, on the other hand, at church, am up to about 7 or 8 words at a time. But the slow four-word phrases made me think about what I was saying and what Dylan was repeating. It made me want to use simple words he could understand so he could actually participate instead of just regurgitate.

Then I think, what did that mean to him, and what does it mean to him when he says, "Thank you, Jesus... Mommy, Daddy." It's sweet and it means something to me. I'm sure it means much more to Jesus, and I hope to know that innocence and purity someday.

Thanks for giving me a place to express these thoughts and observations, Brandon.


2:11 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

Very pretty piece of writing and sentiment there, Paul. Thanks.

2:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

good read, I will look forward to part II buddy

9:58 AM  
Anonymous Jason said...

Vocal confession to an individual of a "sin" committed against them is honorable and really the only way to socially deal with the issue at hand. (ex: I snap at my wife or kids and apoligize; I react incorrectly to an issue at the office and apologize to the individual for my actions). However, I don't do this out of guilt. I do it because it is right. Similarly - I pay for things that I take off the shelf at the store because that is the best way to be able to continue shopping there.

I'd have to witness the "public confession" before I knock it, but I tend to look at anything that promotes guilt as something to be avoided. If I know the good I ought to do, then I do it. Why is it I apologize for wrong-doings? Is it guilt encouraging me to do so? Not really. I feel sorry for my actions because of how they affected me or the individual(s), but more importantly I want to fix the issue at hand, and address the item that put me there in the first place.

Having been brought up in a very similar church environment I think I have similar observations of the past. I think that tradition, and society tend to drive the definition of what is and is not "sin". Is sin purely a social construct? Look at the Ten Commandments. Traditional Christians tend to look at these, but how many of them really understand them in the context they were delivered? Better yet, how many follow these in the context intended? Some of them are obvious and mainly revolve around not taking stuff that doesn't belong to you. But, for example, adultery was not "every man should have only one wife". Now, I'm not making an argument for polygamy but the society at the time very much dictated what the acceptable behavior was. What about "remembering the Sabbath". I think most people have pretty much written that one off.

I guess I'll wrap up and make my point as this is your blog and not mine [grin]. Living one's life by a set of rules thinking that by obeying those rules day in and day out will lead to perfection will only end up in dispair. Living each day better than the last, making the right decisions, and correcting when needed will lead to peace. It doesn't take a degree in theology to know when you screwed up. Deal with it as quickly as possible, and work at correcting the "cause" so that the "effect" will be more socially acceptible next time.

Maybe I'm just arguing semantics.

This post was obviously very thought provoking and I enjoyed it. Thanks!

1:32 AM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

"Living one's life by a set of rules thinking that by obeying those rules day in and day out will lead to perfection will only end up in dispair. Living each day better than the last, making the right decisions, and correcting when needed will lead to peace."

Thank you Jason, you've just made my point!

While sin obviously destroys the social construct, are you saying it is a social construct alone?

12:25 PM  
Blogger Tanya said...

Who came up with the idea of "rededication", anyway? Why don't we just call it what it is: repentance?

5:34 PM  
Anonymous Jason said...

Sin is, in some part, a social construct. Take offensive language for example. There is nothing sinful in a word. But offending someone with the use of the word could be considered a sin. 50 years from now, said word could be commonplace and not offensive at all.

Murder is wrong. I look at it as taking something that isn't rightfully yours. But, in the unsocial dynamic of war it is seemingly OK. (One could argue that point.) Sacrificing a few to save many is apparently the second wrong that makes a right.

There are obviously some sins that are never (or should never be) socially acceptable. Harming children, rape, etc... But we are dealing with the "edge" cases here. I don't have a problem with those sins -- my biggest issues are the social sins. The way I treat my family, kids, co-workers is very much the source of many apologies in my life. However, apologizing to my wife for being home late because I ended up at happy hour (purely fictitious example of course) may not have been viewed as an issue at all pre-women's lib. But, in the society I live in, she deserves more respect than that and in order to live happily and successfully I need to deal with the event, fix the issue and move on. Do I do this out of guilt? Not even... I do it because of love.

12:30 AM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

I guess what I'm asking is whether you believe it to be a social invention or not.

There is no denying that much of what we call sin is, in fact, merely human constructs. No drinking, no dancing, no rated-R movies, etc--all "sins" I break with gleeful abandon quite often--are obviously not the sort of sins given from "on high."

But are there that sort at all? Sins instituted as such from on high, or is the concept or sin nothing more than a social construct to keep people in line--a check on uncivility, if you will...

10:47 AM  

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