Monday, May 25, 2009

Confession, part 2 [disciplines of the inner life]

Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed. The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with. {James 5:16, MSG}
So I will call you Peter, which means "a rock." On this rock I will build my church, and death itself will not have any power over it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and God in heaven will allow whatever you allow on earth. But he will not allow anything that you don't allow. {Matthew 16:18, 19, CEV}
If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. {John 20:23}
We believe it. Or we don't.

We, as a people of Jesus, have a role to play in hearing and giving confession and in asking for and giving forgiveness. It's pretty mind-boggling. I mean it's already stretches me to understand the access Jesus gives us to the throne of the Creator. But to know that he has given us his authority to serve each other as priests is almost too much.

From my meditation and study on this subject, I have three quotes, two stories and one cautionary tale to share.

Three Quotations on Confession in Community

1. Confession is a discipline that functions within fellowship. In it we let trusted others know our deepest weaknesses and failures. This will nourish our faith in God's provision for our needs through his people, our sense of being loved, and our humility before our brothers and sisters. Thus we let some friends in Christ know who we really are, not holding back anything important, but, ideally, allowing complete transparency. We lay down the burden of hiding and pretending, which normally takes up such a dreadful amount of human energy. We engage and are engaged by others in the most profound depths of the soul. -- The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard (read all of his section on Confession, pp. 187 - 189)

2. We are grateful for the biblical teaching, underscored in the Reformation, that "there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (I Tim. 2:5). We are also grateful for the biblical teaching, newly appreciated in our day, to "confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another..." (James 5:16). Both are found in Scripture and neither need exclude the other....if we know that the people of God are first a fellowship of sinners, we are freed to hear the unconditional call of God's love and to confess our needs openly before our brothers and sisters. We know we are not alone in our sin. The fear and pride that cling to us like barnacles cling to others also. We are sinners together. In acts of mutual confession we release the power that heals. Our humanity is no longer denied, but transformed....The followers of Jesus Christ have been given the authority to receive the confession of sin and to forgive it in his name...What a wonderful privilege! Why do we shy away from such a life-giving ministry? If we, not out of merit but sheer grace, have been given the authority to set others free, how dare we withhold this great gift! -- Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster (read his whole chapter on the corporate discipline of confession, pp. 143 - 157)

3. In confession a man breaks through to certainty. Why is it that it is often easier for us to confess our sins to God than to a brother? God is holy and sinless, He is a just judge of evil and the enemy of all disobedience. But a brother is sinful as we are. He knows from his own experience the dark night of secret sin. Why should we not find it easier to go to a brother than to the holy God? But if we do, we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God, whether we have not rather been confession our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution. And is not the reason perhaps for our countless relapses and the feebleness of our Christian obedience to be found precisely in the fact that we are living on self-forgiveness and not a real forgiveness? Self-forgiveness can never lead to a breach with sin; this can be accomplished only by the judging and pardoning Word of God itself. Who can give us the certainty that, in the confession and the forgiveness of our sins, we are not dealing with ourselves but with the living God? God gives us this certainty through our brother. Our brother breaks the circle of self-deception. A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person. As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sins everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light. -- Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (see entire chapter "Confession and Communion", pp. 110 - 122)

Two Stories about Confession in Community

First a story from the New Testament. For several years I have participated and led in a small group at Union Center that focuses on healing for the relationally and sexually broken. When the curriculum was first introduced from the pulpit on a Sunday morning our pastor cautioned us to not assume each of us was not part of this large spectrum of the relationally and sexually broken; that the category covered about 99.8% of us. The founder of the Desert Stream ministries uses the story of Lazarus in John 11 to give us a picture of confession in community.

On the one hand, Jesus has raised us up from the dead, just as He raised up Lazarus. On the other hand, we come out of the tomb still wearing the old and familiar "grave clothes" that we wore when we were on our own. -- Cross Current study guide by Andrew Comiskey, chapter "Getting Clean: The Cross and Confession"
In essence, when we meet Jesus at the cross he calls us to life from our deadened, sinful state. He calls out our true self -- the image He originally intended when he created us. But we still have old, stinky grave clothes unravelling from our old, dead self that we need Jesus' help to identify and remove. Another word for grave clothes would be sin. And just as Jesus had to tell Lazarus' friends take off his grave clothes and let him go, we need the help of other Christians to identify and unravel the deadening effects of sin on our lives.

Next, I'd like to tell you a little bit about my first experience of intentional confession to a group of women after learning this value of confession. I was attending a pilot series of the Cross Current small group at Union Center. Because it was a pilot it was only offered to elders and pastoral staff and their spouses. It was like the first month Brian even worked at the church so we were new to this group anyway. And we were quite a bit, ummm -- younger -- than most in the group. I was put into a small group with elders' wives. I was, ummmm -- intimidated -- to be included with what I would naturally presume to be spiritual giants among women.

What's worse was that I had just come out of a season of committing one of the most painful sins against my God and my husband that I had never imagined I would have committed. I was still feeling the sting of how easily I had been led away from what I knew to be true and right. I had not been able to share the experience with anyone other than Brian and a spiritual counsellor and I was carrying the weight like it was a stony-eyed gargoyle crouched on my shoulder.

Each week I arrived to the large group worship time with hope and anticipation of what I would be able to learn and experience. And each week, about 2.5 minutes into the time I would become so angry I literally had to hold onto the seat of my chair to not get up, storm out of the room and drive away for the night. This was so unlike my normal self I was able to realize (through the fog of my general pissed-offedness) that there was some other sort of evil at work. That thought alone kept me in my seat through the large group worship and teaching time until I could get into the small group time. But it didn't get me to speak up to the group until about four weeks into the group.

Pretty quickly it had become clear to me what I needed to speak out loud, to confess, to bring into the light of truth in order to receive forgiveness and healing. But I could not speak it out because I was pretty sure this group of spiritually mature women would not want to hear what I had to say. Would not understand it. Would not accept it in it's raw and embarrassing form -- which was mostly a vague sense of wrong without a concrete confidence of what to label it. As I tried to picture what to say and how they would respond, I pictured them smiling courteously and then saying, Tamara, you need to be more sure of this before we can pray for you. But the longer I kept quiet the more miserable I became so I went for it. I took the risk of opening my mouth. I could not have been more shocked -- or more quickly healed -- when the first woman spoke up and said, Let's pray about this, Tami. Let's ask God for wisdom together. What have you got to lose?

In other words, I stood in front of them holding up several layers of smelly, rotten grave clothes and instead of them turning their heads away in disgust they gathered around me, picked up a corner of the cloth and helped me unravel and destroy it. Some of it they just took right out of my own trembling hands because I wasn't able to even look at it or touch it without them.

I'd known the verse in Romans that tells us it's God's kindness that leads us to repentance, but I'd never even imagined His kindness would be wrapped up in the eyes and prayers and hugs of a group of elders' wives. I made confession and was forgiven, cleansed and healed by the kindness of God alive in those women.

A Cautionary Tale about confession in community

I can't write the whole book of my learnings in this context, but I don't want to write only the beauty of the kind of vulnerability confession in community takes. It's the single-greatest risk I've taken in community. In the story above (and many others I don't have space to share) it has paid off with eternal reward. But I have other stories I could tell of confession in community that has killed relationships and felt like it would almost kill me. It wasn't until I had done this mediation and study of confession in my year of looking at the inner disciplines that I was able to give some context to that pain. To wrap up the painful learnings with words that will guide me in the future.

Even though I'm not at liberty to share the specifics of my own story yet, I gladly share these words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer with you:

There are two dangers that a Christian community which practices confession must guard against. The first concerns the one who hears confessions. It is not a good thing fro one person to be the confessor for all the others. All too easily this one person will be overburdened; thus confession will become for him an empty routine, and this will give rise to the disastrous misuse of the confessional for the exercise of spiritual domination of souls. In order that he may not succumb to this sinister danger of the confessional every person should refrain from listening to confession who does not himself practice it. Only the person who has so humbled himself can hear a brother's confession without harm.
The second danger concerns the confessant. For the salvation of his soul let him guard against ever making a pious work of his confession. If he does so, it will become the final, most abominable, vicious, and impure prostitution of the heart; the act becomes an idle, lustful babbling. Confession as a pious work is an invention of the devil. It is only God's offer of grace, help, and forgiveness that could make us dare to enter the abyss of confession. We can confess solely for the sake of the promise of absolution. Confession as a routine duty is spiritual death; confession in reliance upon the promise is life. The forgiveness of sins is the sole ground and goal of confession. -- Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 120
Perhaps when I am an older elders' wife myself I'll have the courage to share more specifically how perfectly on-target Bonhoeffer's words describe the painful, killing experiences I've had -- with confessor and as a confessant.

On the healing power of confession in community,though, I do have one other story I'd love to share....

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Confession, part 1 [disciplines for the inner life]

On March 28 we held special prayer service at Union Center. The purpose for the evening was for all the Good Friday volunteers (and any others from our church family who wanted to join us) to learn together and pray together before we did tons and tons of work together. Messianic Rabbi Ron Goldberg taught us about the Jewish tradition of removing every speck of yeast from the house leading up to the first day of Passover.
In the Hebrew mind leaven represented the evil impulses of the heart. And these evil impulses can not just be pushed aside or ignored, they must be destroyed. He explained why yeast is such a perfect picture for this -- even a small amount of yeast grows and spreads through the whole mound of dough.
Yeast is also a perfect picture because it is so ordinary. Baking bread is such an ordinary activity. This is not only about getting rid of the capital-E evil offenses. It's about every little ordinary speck of evil that follows us around in our everyday, ordinary lives.
In the same way that the Hebrew housekeeper -- and then the whole family -- would take extreme measures to destroy or remove all yeast from their homes before Passover (even going so far as to temporarily sell whole vineyards and foodstuffs to Gentiles until after Passover) so, too, we must be diligent to destroy all evil impulses from our own lives.
Rabbi Goldberg did the thesaurus work for us. Destroy = remove, evacuate, evict, move, oust, purge, relocate, take away. And what can be harder to destroy than microscopic specks of yeast? The evil, hidden impulses inside of us. The unspoken thoughts, attitudes and behaviors that spread throughout us like specks of yeast multiplying in a rising lump of dough.
The Hebrew tradition, searching for chometz, is a family activity. Historically, it started with the housewife, as the main keeper of the home, but as the first day of Passover grew closer the whole family became involved hunting through every nook and cranny of the house to destroy every sign of yeast. Really, it is a community activity as each family unit is doing the same activity at the same time, holding each other accountable. The local rabbi acts as a sort of clearing house for yeast -- making temporary business transactions with neighborly Gentiles who are willing to hold onto bulk food items, vineyards, shop goods until the completion of Passover.

This picture of removing sin as a community event has captured my stunted, individualistic, evangelical imagination for a couple of years. It really started when I found myself in the place to make confessions in a small group setting. I had imagined this to be painful and risky and ostracizing. I was right on two counts, but not the third. I had guessed that when I brought into public truths about me -- sins committed against me and sins I had committed -- to form into words that crossed my lips for the first time ever in my life that these words would be held against me as accusations and condemnations.

I couldn't have been more wrong....

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


250. Two-fifty. Two-hundred-fifty.
Words. A day.
Thirty. (30)
Days. In a row.

That’s the commitment I made to some friends last week. David Taylor inspired me with this challenge in his talk about being disciplined disciples. So my girlfriends are checking up on me. And I feel like I’m back in school again trying to figure out how to take up space on the white sheet in front of me. For example, by the fun little creative tool of writing out numbers in both words and numerals above I’ve already managed to crank out 94 words today.
Ninety-four. Words.
In case you’re wondering, I’m only 50/50 for the challenge. Fifty-fifty is only half-bad, right? I met the challenge two of the days out of four (I’ll spare you the numeric repetitions). That’s better than nothing, right?

As David challenged us: Something begets something; nothing begets nothing. So this challenge has begotten at least 500 (plus the 154 new ones I’ve just written in this post) words that otherwise would have been pestering me inside my head. Also making me very cranky. If I were a runner I would feel this way if I’d been locked inside an office for months on end while the weather was sixty-two degrees and zero humidity (62 and nada). I am not a runner. But if being cranky when you are deprived of an activity defines you, then I am a writer. And all kinds of beautiful and sad and funny things have been going on outside my window and I’ve been stuck inside churning out tasks instead of words.

I’m not promising you’ll see all the fruits of this discipline in this space. (Go ahead, you can breathe a sigh of relief. I can’t see you anyway.) But perhaps you’ll see one or two little gems that pop up to the top of all this word-churning. Apparently it’s a numbers game.

A few people who inspire me toward greater discipline...

David reads words churned out by poet Billy Collins.

Kevin gets up at 2:30 AM (!) every day just so he can churn out words.

Andy churns out stuff he makes with his hands instead of words. He told us that he thinks only one or two things he's ever made qualify as great. But all the churning got him there.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Lester G. Morgan, 1911 - 2009

Janice Morgan Meacham, Lester G. Morgan, Alexander Morgan Murphy
October 2008

Two years ago today I watched my husband watch his father die. It was one of the most gut-wrenching things I've ever done. (I wrote about it here.)

Today -- two years later to the day -- I will stand by Brian at his 97-year-old grandfather's funeral. Death and grief are uncanny figures, creeping up on us without invitation or welcome. But we are forced to sit with them until they choose to leave us, promising to come again soon.

Brian and I spent the afternoon together yesterday, resting, reminiscing, drinking cabernet sauvignon, watching the Yankees. I asked him if he remembered the first time I had ever seen him cry. He said yes, he did. He said it was the first time he realized how much he needed me. We were only fifteen? Sixteen? He stopped by my house unannounced one weeknight. My little sister opened the door and Brian just kind of slumped into the chair inside the doorway and started crying. My little brothers and sisters scattered and I hugged Brian. I wasn't sure what else to do. Eventually he was able to say that his grandfather had a heart attack. And that he was scared. That he loved his grandfather very much and didn't want to lose him. That his grandfather was a father to him.

But Grandpa Morgan was a hearty old soul. He recovered from that heart attack as well as a bout with cancer and other ailments throughout his tenure on this earth. Heck, the man bowled a couple of times a week until a year or so ago. I hope he passed along his genetic sturdiness to my husband and children.

So today we will remember this man, Lester Grant Morgan. We will remember him by telling stories. Some will be slightly exaggerated because that is what you do at funerals. Some will be skipping whole paragraphs of unflattering realities about the flawed man who did not speak often of his love for his family. Those will be left unspoken, set aside for each to deal with in his own private grieving space.

For sure, we will talk about Grandpa-the-Snappy-Dresser and Grandpa-the-Big-Tease and Grandpa-the-Father-Figure for the single mother of five - er, active - Murphy kids. If there is a lull I might tell the story of how we wanted to name our second-born after Lester's middle name, but the doctor guffawed at the similarity between our chosen name, Alexander Grant, and a certain historic figure. We caved and christened our screaming infant Alexander Morgan.

But I have a feeling there will not be a lull. This family likes to tell stories. Instead, I will ponder my own memoires with this man whose obituary made me cry because his life epitomizes an entire generation in this part of New York state: World War II Army veteran, Endicott-Johnson factory worker, longtime church member and deacon, father of three, grandfather of 13, great-grandfather of 26, great-great-grandfather of 2 (soon to be 3). And husband of one for seventy years. Seventy years. The obituary does not have the space to tell us how many of those years were spent watching the painful decay of his wife into Alzheimer's. Or how hard it was for him to spend his last days in the same nursing home he sent his wife to in her last years. But these are stories we will remember. And tell to our children and their children.

The last time Brian and I saw Grandpa was this past Tuesday morning. The hearty old soul was fighting a contest with his weary body. And losing. I was reminded of the first line in my essay about watching Brian's dad pass away: Death is a violent visitor.

To know that Jesus conquered death and the grave means a lot more to me when I am given a ring-side seat to this contest between life and it's arch-enemy, death. Grandpa was made to live and not die. He was designed to breathe deeply and bowl 300 games and wrestle with his grandchildren and eat bacon. Death is a violent visitor, but his stay is short-lived. And today we will tell stories about that kind of Jesus-hope that Grandpa passed on to his children and his children's children and their children, too. Yes, he passed it along quite imperfectly, but he passed it on, nonetheless. Our true Father was perfect and even on his worst days, Grandpa mirrored a tiny glimpse of that truth.

We will sit with the visitor and mourn for awhile. And then we will hope.

Friday, May 15, 2009

re:Imagine [worship & arts retreat]

The goal was soul-rest.
The surprise was how much fun we had doing it. Mostly not the rowdy, racous ha-ha sort of fun – although listening to fifty people mill around a room mooing, meowing and whatever-it-is-a-parrot-says is pretty hilarious. And there was that bit where David made a comparison between Christian fiction and porn. Maybe not hilarious so much as facetious. Mostly though we just enjoyed being together in one room. At the same time. Thinking and talking about the same things.

It occurred to me Friday night as we were doing the all-too-familiar scurry of trying to fit in all we wanted to say and do within the time we had available that almost all the time we spend together is dictated by clock-watching. Do we have the extra thirty seconds to sing the chorus one more time, can we keep that extra paragraph of dialogue without losing the audience, how can we keep our conversations brief enough to send everyone home before they are exhausted? To not sweat the minutes, to know that the childcare workers were getting paid for chasing toddlers an extra half-hour, to have a full, thought-out conversation that didn’t take place between services – ahhhhh, rest.

Not necessarily the kick-back with a tall one kind of rest so much – although the continual array of food being paraded in and out of the room by our very own personal chefs (one of whom I have the privilege of sleeping with every night) was delicious and we did manage to celebrate the official end of the retreat with shots all around at the Murphy house. Mostly though we rested by having new conversations and reimagining old ones. We got to know the names and a story or two of faces we’d previously only seen from across the sanctuary.

And the stories were good. David told stories about his lemon tree and about a homeless man he met one Sunday and about the disciplines of his artist friend Jim Jangnegt. Phaedra told stories about facing her fears in the studio, dancing angels and wistful deer with enormous ears. We confided stories in our small groups around the tables. We discovered hidden stories walking around in unknown artists. That Beau and Lael stayed at the table even though they’d rather sometimes sleep in on Sundays. That Andy isn’t sure he needs people, thinks we might as well ask him to tap dance in church every Sunday morning and that he makes art when he is in pain. That Kevin sacrifices sleep so he can write, work, go to school and still play with his kids.

Speaking of play, we did some of that too. Ping-pong, fooseball, acoustic guitar, Rachmoninoff, Flatlander and that other -- er, memorable? -- movie clip. After the official retreat (and the ensuing whiskey shots) we played farcle and Apples to Apples. Might I add, we played the latter two rather fiercely.

But mostly, mostly we talked. We talked about things that we hoped for and things we we weren't sure about. We talked about ideas and dreams and ambitions that had been long-buried under the busyness of life, jobs, ministry. We talked about art we'd like to make, forgiveness we needed to give, disciplines we planned to learn and books we wanted to read. We talked in stories, songs and prayers. We talked during small group discussions around dining room tables and over big pizza pies. We asked each other questions, set goals, gave and received blessings. We called each other up and asked our Creator God to get glory for His name.

And now I give thanks. I give thanks to our Father for answering our need for rest, reconnection and renewed imagination for the arts at Union Center Christian Church. I give thanks for my fellow artists and friends who took the risk of being challenged to think differently about art and themselves as artists. I am thankful for our church leaders who initiated the idea for this retreat and who served us and spent time with us over the weekend. And I am forever grateful to know, learn from and befriend David and Phaedra Taylor. It's one of those providential gifts of Christ's community so beyond my hopes or expectations I find myself wrestling with the desire to trap all it's goodness down into a glass-jar like a June glowbug. More than once this past weekend I had to ask my beautiful husband to pray for me to be able to know how to receive good gifts with open hands. Grateful for each moment of glittering light my Father sends my way until we are able to bask -- uninterrupted and undistracted -- in the communion of saints around the throne of His Son.
Until then may we live as fully alive men and women bringing glory to our God.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...