Thursday, August 21, 2008

Confession and Forgiveness at Christ’s Table

Here is another piece of personal, sacramental theology for my Intersections class at Columbia Theological Seminary. It's "confessional" in three ways: it's a personal account, it's about confession of sin, and it relates to the Lutheran confessions.

At St. John’s Lutheran Church we celebrate Christ’s Table every Sunday morning. Renewal of Lutheran worship within the ELCA has lead to weekly communion in many congregations whereas this sacrament had fallen into infrequent use. After the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, Lutherans have recognized Private Confession and Absolution as a third sacramental means of grace. Several weeks ago I had my first experience with this ritual. In this paper I wish to explore how private confession before pastor can open a way to the sacrament of the table. First I will describe what prompted me to this and what I experienced in the ritual itself. Then I will consider on how this connects with the worship practices at St. John’s and draw out some theological implications.

Pastor Bradley Schmeling has been mentoring me in my preparation for ministry for about two years. I hit a crisis about a year ago when I took my psychological exam for entrance to candidacy. During the interview, I was questioned on many moral issues and felt compelled to reveal several painful areas of sin and shame in my life. This was an odd mixture of “psychology” and “confession”. Dr. Snook did not presume to be a pastor, and yet the Synod had in effect authorized him to take my confession and transmit it back to the church in the language of psychopathology. This left me with a great deal of confusion. Had I confessed sin in need of God’s continued grace or did I have psychological problems that needed to be “therapeutically resolved.” Pastor and I have met for a year to sort this out. I’ve also worked with a psychologist for half a year to clarify issues the viewpoint of psychology. My sin I had long confessed not only to myself and God, but to pastor, wife, therapist and several other trusted persons. I believed that God had forgiven me all along and had given me grace not to continue in these sins, but the stain or stigma had somehow remained. At length Pastor asked me if I felt absolved of this sin, whether I had truly heard words of absolution spoken to me. I wasn’t sure what this meant. I had confessed. I had been forgiven. I had changed my ways. I had even gotten some therapy. What more could I do? Pastor proposed that in the following day we would meet in the sanctuary and go through a ritual of confession and absolution. I was willing to give it a try.

We met the next day in the sanctuary. We placed two chairs facing each other by the altar within the rails. I took a worship book out from a pew, and Pastor had his. Before we began, Pastor quipped that, while it’s still in the worship book, nobody ever really uses it. He also said somewhat cryptically that this was not so much about a sin which I had committed, but about something which had happened to me. The order is for Individual Confession and Forgiveness is brief.[1] The pastor begins an invocation with the sign of a the cross and speaks an invitation, “You are free to confess before me, a pastor of the church of Christ, sins of which you are aware and which trouble you.” The penitent then prays a prayer of confession. I confessed my sin in two categories. The first was with regard to the sin that had so shamed me, and the second was the category of spiritual pride which I had come to see as the cause of continued trouble. My prayer concluded as printed in the order, “I ask for strength to turn from sin and to serve you in newness of life.” Pastor comforted me by reading Psalm 103. The order then moved to absolution. Pastor stood to lay both hands on my head to speak words of forgiveness as words which come from God. These are more than words of assurance; they are priestly words. “James, in obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the name to f the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” I sat in dark silence. My silence was not for lack of words. Rather the Spirit allowed me to see quite clearly how the words that might appear in my mind were reflexive or defensive words of self-justification and that in silence I could allow them to pass unsaid. I was in a place of suspense where I was somehow separated from my normal sense of self and severed in particular from my spiritual pride. “As far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.”[2] We shared a greeting of peace, and he left me to remain as I wished.

How then does this relate to communion? Significant to the Lutheran tradition, the same space, the sanctuary, is used for both individual confession and communion. Individual confession is both private and public. The words shared are private, not within the hearing of anyone but the penitent and pastor, but they are shared in a public worship space. Such intimate speaking and hearing are not possible in communion liturgy. Our worship services begin with confession and forgiveness at the baptismal font, and this is good preparation for communion later in the service. But there are some inadequacies. It is possible to be simply “one of the crowd”, making a secret confession in the heart—or no confession at all—and hearing a general pardon spoken to all. This can lead to habitual or weak-hearted confession and desensitize the ears to hearing pardon. One can be reminded of being a sinner, feel sorry or inadequate and try to do better next time, but miss the whole point that it is power of the Holy Spirit that actual sanctifies us. In individual confession, the laying on of hands signals this powerfully. Where one is seriously troubled by sin whether for guilt of it or for shame of it, confession and forgiveness in worship may not suffice to open the grace to be received in communion. At St. John’s, each communicant is given the bread and wine individually and told, “This…is for you.” Likewise in private absolution one hears the words, “Your sins are forgiven you.” In either case, it is hearing for oneself that matters.

In the Lutheran tradition, private confession is not compulsory.[3] Rather one is free to seek out the grace to be found in it, the grace set free from sin. Being coerced to confess, in whatever context, leads to shame. Being free to confess with assurance of God’s absolution can lead out of both shame and guilt. We live in a culture where people make all sorts of confessions, but far too often these are confessions without the grace of absolution. Therapists have become our confessors, while our churches make too little use of Christ’s priestly gift. Jesus breathes upon us and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”[4]

A Post-Script

Since writing this paper, I have voiced an ethics complaint against the psychologist who tested me. He was not living up to his professional responsibility to give primacy to my wellbeing as a therapeutic client. He exploited my emotional vulnerability in a way that has left me damaged for over a year and a half. As a friend of mine put it, “the psych eval shouldn't be a ‘test’ to ‘trip you up’ but rather an everyday—and caring—opportunity to look at one's gifts and challenges.” Perhaps it was this abuse that made it so hard to experience a freeing sense of forgiveness apart from using the ritual of confession and absolution. Perhaps this is what made the sin sticky.

Sin is not just a problem of what we do to others, but also of what is done to us. We are all entangled in the same web of sin. Can we extend the idea and practice of absolution to include separation from sin however it entangles us? We need forgiven, but we also need to be set free from the shame of what has been done to, around and among us. God is merciful to both the abuser and the abused.

[1] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 2006, pp. 243-244.

[2] Psalm 103:12.

[3] P. H. D. Lang, “Private Confession and Absolution in the Lutheran Church: A Doctrinal, Historical, and Critical Study.” Concordia Theological Quarterly, October 1992, 56(4), p. 248.

[4] John 20:22-23.

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