On Not Being God: Old First E-pistle 03.21.13

On Not Being God: Old First E-pistle 03.21.13

This week and next, the Lenten Devotional Services – in the Sanctuary on Thursdays from 7 to 7:25 – focus on forgiveness.

This week, it was forgiving ourselves. I remember a quote from a acupuncturist in New York City, named Starling Gooding, who said, “Forgive yourself a thousand times a day, over and over again; everyone is so good at disliking themselves.” And Simone Weil’s insight: “Compassion for oneself is humility.”

Next week, it will be forgiving others. Come and experience some exhortation, inspiration and motivation to undertake the hard, but rewarding work. Not forgiving, after all, is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.

In other words, forgiveness, to me, seems like a good thing — one of life’s win wins. Something to hope for and to welcome. What we want to be able to count on. Because it promises, at least as we Christians understand it, to lift a weight off our shoulders and offer a new beginning.

Anne Lamott’s friend’s Father Tom imagines God like the Prodigal Father… “When we die, God says: ‘I love you very much. I forgive you all your crap. Now go clean up your mess, and then come into heaven because lunch is waiting.’” As when Max in Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,”– another prodigal son — “sails back over a year, and in and out of weeks, and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found supper waiting for him, and it was still hot.

Someone asked me yesterday, “Is your congregation one of those churches that confesses every week? Do we really need that much mercy?” I responded, “Yes. And yes.” (Unless, the inquirer is doing a lot better than I am!)

There are people, it seems, who are not open to the act of confession in corporate worship. Do they experience the prayer of confession like getting caught? Or getting sent to the Principal’s office after you have gotten caught?

I’m always surprised by how many people don’t look forward to or feel the need for forgiveness. This might sound funny, but I almost hope that they have underdeveloped awarenesses of how often they mess up. That might make them socially dangerous. But, otherwise, it seems as if they sentencing themselves to drag around the burden of their own sins all the time. Maybe it’s their penance.

Fairly often over my years of ministry, someone will suggest, “Can we get rid of the prayer of confession? It’s such a downer, even a drag. We need to substitute something, maybe, a simple, upbeat prayer of inspiration.”

But I think getting a bunch of adults in the same space and make them admit that they’re not all right is one of the most radical things that happens in worship.

I think it was Carl Jung who did some interviews and investigations and discovered that the Catholic practice of actually confessing to another person, face to face, followed by some prescribed penance on the way to absolution was the best practice. In that it left its participants feeling that their sins had been lifted, forgiven.

The same research showed that for many people in Protestant worship, our corporate prayer of confession dredges up a negative sense of our guilt and that our corporate assurance of pardon often doesn’t assuage those feelings.

For me, the experience of confession is very different. I walk around a lot of the time feeling or fretting over my mistakes. So I like the prompting at least once a week to confess, even in generalities. I’m not so afraid of naming my failures as I figure that God already knows them. In the act of praying then I’m asking God to reach out and help me with the burden of holding them. And then, when I do that, almost like a surprise each time that I hear the assurance of pardon… as God actually answering me request for help by saying, “Nah, you don’t need to keep a hold of these. I’ll just take them off your hands.”

And somehow in that exchange, I’m relieved again to be reminded that forgiveness is simply allowing others and myself not to be God. God’s got that handled.

See you in church,

Michael