Public Confession: From Shadows to Grace
Recently my friend took her 12-year-old daughter to see Taylor Swift in concert. She described the LED wristbands adorning the hands of the 60,000 tweenage girls and their moms, programmed to light up in sync with the music so that even the people in the nosebleed seats could feel like they were part of the magic.
She described the budding-feminist coaching talk from Swift, the thrill of ego boundaries falling away into the collective tumult, the incandescent joy of a stadium full of blooming womanhood. “It really was the most amazing, positive, secular, extremely professional and well-orchestrated-downto- the-second church I’ve ever experienced,” my friend said.
As she talked, I found myself getting jealous. I have a nine-year-old daughter, and I first blamed my feelings on missing a chance to win Mom points by taking her to the concert myself.
But the truth was: I was the one who wanted the transcendent moment, the priceless worship experience for the low, low cost of $145.
I’m a pastor – the pastor of a church where 75 percent of my congregation is younger than me: under 45. They have tattoos and piercings and interesting facial hair; they are full-on church nerds and nones.
We are not a megachurch. We are not a hybrid newvangelical emerging-type hipster church. We are a mainline Protestant (albeit wildly progressive) church that has had a dramatic renewal. Why do the millennials come to us? Because they’re looking for something: that same experience of transcendence that 60,000 screaming girls find at a Taylor Swift concert.
The Pew Research Center, which regularly surveys the decline of Christian institutions (why thank you!) has a curiously optimistic and easily overlooked stat buried in its last oracle of doom for the mainline church. The percentage of millennials who say a “very religious life” is important to them? Fully 30 percent. Thirty percent! That’s almost 30 million young people looking for the kind of guidance, spiritual practices, authentic community, and yes, transcendence, that our churches can offer them. Take that, naysayers.
Problem is, the millennials are more sophisticated and demanding of authenticity and beauty than previous generations. The truth is, most of our churches probably don’t have the resources or aesthetic chops of a Taylor Swift or even an emerging church. I know mine doesn’t.
But we do have something arguably even better. We have our stories, in which God is the protagonist, if we tell them right. We have our ancient scripture stories – and we have our modern personal stories, which we can see better in the light cast by those vintage stories.
And we can tell our personal stories, of failure and triumph, in a holy way, to people who know us well (or will, after we tell-all). We have a way, each week, of “putting our woundedness into the service of others,” as the late, extraordinary Henri Nouwen urged us.
Last year I wrote a book about our church’s rise from the (near) dead. People were always wanting to know the “one thing” we did to turn things around. I got tired of telling them it wasn’t one thing, it was 200 things, so I wrote them all down.
But in our short-attention-span, anxious, busy modern life, people still wanted to know the one thing, so I told them it was this: our longtime practice of weekly lay-led testimony, a confession of our sins and deepest vulnerabilities, offered in our sanctuary during Sunday morning worship.
Fifty-two weeks a year, someone in our congregation climbs the steps to the chancel, with their knees knocking and their mouth going dry. They step up to the microphone, clear their throat, and say, “Now is the time when we bring our own stories before God.”
Then they tell of a time when they broke down, broke bad, or made Jesus want to cry. They confess their sins and their vulnerabilities.
“I’ve been bulimic since I was 13 …”
“He used to come into my room at night …”
“The first time I tried crystal meth …”
“And that’s when I threw the toy truck across the room and screamed at him …”
“I thought I was one of the good white people – the ones who ‘got it’ …”
Jacques Derrida said that anything we fall silent before has become our god. When there are topics that are verboten in church, we’ve allowed them to eclipse the God who made us (every part of us, even the shady bits). And any power that worship has to help us heal and integrate is rendered useless.
That’s why, in my congregation, we make it a point to talk about everything: drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll, addiction, racism, every strain of mental health crisis, nose-diving marriages, pride, ego and ambition, as well as the biggest taboo in church, money. We talk about them not as abstract concepts but as real sins – wrongs done to us and wrongs done by us. There is nothing our people must leave outside the doors of our church – not one piece or part of ourselves that is not welcome, no matter how ugly, shameful, or stigmatized.
Confessing our sin returns us to God’s great democracy. It puts everybody on the same level, the homeless drunk and the Wall Street tycoon. It also breaks down the fourth wall when we do this, destroying the fiction that the people up here on the chancel are different or better or have it more together than the people down there in the pews.
And confessing helps us deal with the shadow side that Jung (thank you!) warned is in every one of us. By confessing, we haul everything into the light of day, where we can get a good look at what was living in the shadow so it doesn’t get the best of us.
We can see ourselves and show ourselves as we really are, and still be loved.
I’ve attended or served New England Congregational churches my whole life. I’ve met wonderful people in all of them: good-hearted, well-meaning, God-loving people. I’ve also encountered, in many of those churches, an unbelievable number of skeletons in the closet: sexual abuse, family violence, undiagnosed mental illness that led to grave trauma, all because church was a place where folks felt the need to present well. But if you’re already naked, you’ve got nothing to hide. Confessing our little sins helps us identify and name the big ones before they destroy us, our lives and families.
The Gospel of Thomas says: “if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Or as the late, great Maya Angelou put it millennia later, “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story.”
The Great Physician
It is worth remembering that the Greek word for Christ’s wounds, stigmata, is the plural for stigma. Our wounds need light and air to heal. When folks offer testimony, we get to see the Great Physician’s activity in a kind of divine montage sequence. And we believe. We believe not just for the testifier, but for ourselves: “If God did that for X, God could do it for me …”
We often weep as we tell our stories. Tears are a sign that the Holy Spirit is present. And those sitting in the pews, many of whom have taken their turn already on a Sunday previous, hold those who are speaking – with our eyes, with our callbacks, and sometimes with our arms – so they can hold it together until they get to the end and get to talk about grace.
Because we always end with grace. Nouwen said we are to share wounds that are already well on their way to healing – this is the way to minister to each other. There comes a moment, toward the end of each confession, when the tone changes. It’s usually a version of, “And that’s when the light went on.” And we tell each other how God entered the story, and wrote a different ending, and held up the mirror so we could see ourselves: beautiful and beloved, just as we are, and as we are becoming.
God in Disguise
But a regular practice of confession is more than reclaiming the ancient, biblical power of testimony in sweet, halting words that declare the power of God to transform our lives.
It’s also pastoral care, when, preparing for the next Sunday liturgy, I ask probing and pruning questions that move each testimony from first draft to final.
It’s communion and community-building, as people mentor each other into health, strength, and recovery from addiction or trauma.
It’s theological reflection, as layfolk (who would blush to hear “theological reflection” used to describe what they are doing) discern God’s movement in their lives, and ferret out the application of scriptural wisdom to their experience.
And this practice has expanded our view of the One who made us and is still exponentially active in our lives. We get to see God wearing a lot of different disguises in these stories of grace: rock-bottom, best friend or spouse, final confrontation, peace that passeth all understanding, Higher Power, deathbed conversion, chance encounter, college counseling center, pastor, fellow pew-sitter, dark night of the soul, Savior, midnight conversation, wake-up call, letter in the mail, Co-Creator and Co-Conspirator in redemption.
Every one of those knock-kneed people, age 9 to 92, and every one of those stories, becomes a finger pointing to God. It’s real good church. It’s the best church. And it’s free.
Molly Phinney Baskette ’96 M.Div. is minister of First Church Somerville MA UCC. Her new book is Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession (Pilgrim Press). This essay is adapted from the book with permission from the publisher. She is also author of Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead and Yours Can Too (Pilgrim Press, 2014).