We are back, and excited to get started again! This break has provided some much-needed time to think and plan for the future of the blog, and create some space for deeper thinking and better writing.
We are returning as the season of Lent begins today with Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday launches us into Lent with a time of confession and repentance. So that is our focus this week: Confession and repentance. Hopefully we can unpack some of the baggage that surrounds these words and see the beauty that lies within them.
The language of Lent carries a lot baggage. Which makes Lent an interesting time to write and speak. When I first started teaching through it, I had people react to the language of Lent and the church calendar. In fact, we occasionally have people ask questions about it on here.
Then when you get past those barriers, Lent focuses on ideas like confession and repentance, which often carry their own baggage as well. Lent is a practice which has been going on for hundreds of years, so it focuses on some of the most basic, yet most overused and misunderstood language and ideas in Christianity.
Because of this, Lent is often a good time to re-think what we mean when we use language that has become second nature to those of us who have been Christians for a long time.
This is an important discipline because often the language we use to communicate Christianity makes important words mean basically nothing, or worse, creates barriers for the full life of following Jesus. People who have been in Church for a long time carry baggage and wounds around certain ideas. Other language Christians take for granted is off-putting for people who aren’t Christians or new to following Jesus.
When we don’t take the time to explore “common” Christian language, it keeps us from seeing the beauty and life in what we are trying to communicate. Lent provides a prime opportunity for us to simply ask the question: What we do mean when we say that?
So let me begin with one of my most hated Church-speak phrases:
Ugh. I cringe when I hear this phrase.
Not because of the relationship it refers to, but because when I hear it, I have trouble thinking of any other phrase as disconnected from actual life.
Now, in fairness, I know people who have “accountability partners” and this relationship is a source of growth and needed boundaries and protection. So I actually have nothing against the concept itself. In fact, I have people in my life who serve this role. They are people I share my life and struggles with. They are people who call me out on my junk and encourage me when I am down. I have these people, and believe with all my heart everyone needs these people in their life.
But my word for these people is: “friend.”
My reaction to “accountability partner” is because it seems like a formalized phrase which doesn’t make sense in the nuts and bolts of my actual life. I do not really want “accountability partners,” I want people to do and share life with.
We do the same thing with words like “confession” and “repentance.” These are really beautiful words and concepts which have lost their beauty and meaning over time.
They seem like words which are disconnected from actual experience. Yet these words are central to growth and flourishing in the midst of real life.
Let’s focus on confession. The mental images we associate with words greatly affect how we see them, use them, and put them into practice. So what comes to mind when you see the word confession? Coming forward for an altar call? A note to a friend or pastor? A priest and a booth?
I have seen all of these forms of confession work in powerful ways, but I have also seen their connections with “confession” make people react to confession in negative ways. We assume because we do not want to come forward after a sermon or go in once a week to priest then “confession” is not something we really need.
So let’s take our cynical caps off for a minute. Why do we offer altar calls? Why do we write formal letter confessing what we have done wrong? Why is regular admission of sin to a priest such an important part of some traditions?
Because there is a need for us to admit the ways we fall short.
We need space in our life to be up front with our screw ups and baggage. And when we don’t, it builds and builds and builds. Without regular practice of being authentic about our struggles, doubts, worries, anxieties, questions, and even our hopes and desires, we can turn in on ourselves.
Human beings have an amazing capacity of convincing themselves that destructive habits are actually a good thing. We are gifted at hiding from the bad things in our lives. We don’t like to admit when we are wrong. We like to put on a brave face and pretend we have it all together. Confession is not just counter-cultural, it is often counter-human nature. So we put things like priests, altar calls, and accountability groups in place so we become disciplined to do “confession.”
But these formalized groups are not actually the point. They are means to an end. Confession is the regular practice of authentically sharing your life with other people – good and bad. That is not something only church people are required to do. That is something everyone needs to survive and even thrive in life.
Jesus didn’t come to give us churchy obligations or formalized practices to add guilt to our lives. Jesus shows us the best way to live. And because of our huge capacity for self-deception, confession is a needed activity for all people to live better lives. We need confession so we are able to see the ways we are not aligned with Jesus and then re-adjust (we call this repentance).
I think our problem with words like “confession” is we systematize them and make them shallow. Confession takes place in the midst of real life with real-life people having real-life conversations about real life. If we settle for a shallow version of confession we miss out on the full life we experience through the practice of sharing our lives and struggles with others.
Ash Wednesday is a time for us to be honest about what we need out of Lent. It is a time to reflect on all the ways we need the Resurrection to break through in our lives. Maybe for you, Lent is a time for making confession a consistent discipline. Maybe for you, Lent is about letting your guard down so people can see the real you and walk you through your joys and struggles.
Maybe your priest or accountability partner is that person for you. That is great. Keep going. Keep sharing, keeping doing life. Because those are the people who help you in real life and that discipline means you don’t slack off in that pursuit.
If you don’t have them maybe an accountability group is a place to start, but it is a means to an end. The point is not a program. The point is people. Real people who know the real you. This is what confession is all about.