Saturday, October 6, 2012

The power of the spoken word...

One of the by-products of the near collapse of private confession among Lutherans, its shift from regular to occasional use among Roman Catholics, and its eclipse from the rest of the Christian world is that sin has become an internal matter.  Christians have become accustomed to speaking their sins only in their minds instead of out loud.  For Lutherans this means that the closest we generally come to actually admitting sins are the words of the general confession found in the service books.  It is always easier to confess sin in general than it is to specifically name our sins and it is always easier to confess sin when our voice melts into the many voices of those who say exactly the same words we say than it is to speak into the silence the sins we have thought, said, and done.  But, I would contend, that just as only confess sin in the vague generalities of common words or in the quiet of our hearts, so we are only absolved in general and in the hidden thoughts and recesses of our hearts and minds.  It is often difficult to know this forgiveness when the sin has never been spoken out loud and the absolution has never been spoken out loud or spoken personally toward the sin.

The "I don't have to confess my sins to anybody" has come to mean "I confess my sins to nobody at all."  I believe that there is grave danger for our spiritual lives in treating sin as an internal matter.  One of the dangers is that sin is never really owned until it is spoken out loud.  I well recall the first time I went to private confession and stumbled around with words that helped me get this off my chest but did not really communicate what it is I had thought, said, or done.  In the end, my father confessor was kind enough to ask me pointed questions.  Then and only then did the sin come spilling out of me.  I am not sure whether it was primarily out of embarrassment to name these sins before someone I knew or the difficulty I had owning up to the fact that these were sins.  I tend to think the latter was harder.  It was not the first time I had confessed them.  I had prayerfully confessed them in my heart many times.  I had thought of them while confessing the general sins of thought, word, and deed, of commission and omission, on Sunday morning.  But I still carried their burden and it was not until I said them out loud and heard forgiveness for these specific wrongs that I began to feel the full measure of the freedom of the absolution.

Part of the reason that sin and forgiveness are so difficult for us to handle in our lives together is that we seldom speak the sin out loud to the person we have wronged.  We simply say "I'm sorry" as if that is all that needs to be said.  So that forgiveness may heal the personal breech on earth as God has healed it in heaven, it is most helpful to actually say what it is that we are sorry for -- to address the sin as something real and evil is to speak its name out loud.  Of course, the response is equally vague -- "It's okay."  Well, if it was okay, why in Sam Hill did you make me say my sin out loud?  If we confess that sin specifically, then the least we are owed is a real absolution.  Not "It's okay" but "I forgive you."

In the old confessional service of The Lutheran Hymnal, there were some questions and answers designed to pump and prod us a bit before simply making the general confession.  Half of those question on page 48 dealt with confession and repentance but the other half dealt with the absolution.  It was not a substitute for private confession but it was certainly a more profound act of contrition than the general words we speak on Sunday morning.  If the Exhortation was used, the individual sins were not mentioned but the effect of that sin was laid out in unmistakable terms.  It is not just that we screwed up but that we were complicit in evil.  Here I am reminded of Berhold Von Schenk's old line, "I know the devil and I have done business with him..."  By speaking our sins out loud we not only own them but we identify them as evil and wickedness.  This is seldom done much anymore.

If we do not take sin seriously, it might be, in part, because we seldom speak of our sin's out loud and we hardly ever identify them as evil or conspiracy with the devil.  If we do not take sin seriously, it might explain the way we excuse and justify what we have done while holding others to a much higher standard.  If we do not take sin seriously, it is easy to know why the cross is so quickly ditched in favor of other subjects. We treat confession and absolution are merely preliminaries to the bigger and deeper subjects of the faith instead of the very nature of the faith at work.  No, I vote in favor of speaking the sin out loud so that the absolution may be heard out loud and the matter resolved by the power of grace.

I recall an old movie about a Roman Catholic boys school in Brooklyn in the 1960s.  One youth was being honest and forthcoming as he stood in line waiting for confession.  When a hot shot came over and asked him what he was going to confess, the hot short insisted he could not say that to a priest or would spend eternity doing penance.  Instead, like a bookie keeping track of odds, the hot shot taught the kind to be less specific and more general and to admit only what seems reasonable.  In the end the kind received an absolution worth about as much as this half baked confession and it left him with no comfort before his guilty conscience.  The blessing may come through the confession but the blessing is the absolution.  Both need to be honest, forthright, and pointed or they too easily become just words.  Heaven help us, indeed!


Anonymous said...

Amen, Amen.

Chris Jones said...

the near collapse of private confession among Lutherans, its shift from regular to occasional use among Roman Catholics, and its eclipse from the rest of the Christian world

I'm sure that, in context, the phrase "the rest of the Christian world" means "Protestantism"; but the sacrament of confession has not been "eclipsed" in Eastern Orthodoxy. In all EO jurisdictions, recent confession is a requirement for being admitted to Holy Communion, where "recent" usually means "every month or six weeks" (and in some jurisdictions it means before each and every communion). Orthodox who "communicant members" go to confession several times a year.

That is the situation in this country; in the "old country" I believe that people commune much less frequently, but go to confession before each communion.