Shine Light on the Darkness
"If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." --1 John 3:1, NIV
Several years ago, I learned the risk and power of confession of sins. The church that I was serving at the time entered into a heated debate about the role of communal confession of sin in the liturgy of Sunday morning worship services. When the topic first came up at a worship committee meeting, I didn't think much about it.
The first time it came up during worship committee, it was addressed with generalized comments such as "it just kind of brings people down," "people should not be made to feel bad in worship" and "worship should be uplifting not negative." Yet, the conversation continued for many meetings to come. At one particular meeting, the conversation got quite intense. By the end of the night, a vote was taken. It would be recommended to the council that the confession of sin and all prayers that had a "confessing nature" be eliminated from all worship services.
In the weeks that followed before the council meeting, I received several anonymous (and not so nice) letters concerning the "inappropriate" and "harming" nature of confession of sin in worship. I was also asked by several church leaders to consider "toning" down the wording of the confession of sin. All of it was kind puzzling and left me to ponder the simple question--Why now?
After five years of serving at the church, why was this now a topic of discussion? It certainly wasn't something that I had introduced. It wasn't something that was out of line with their historical practices and theology. It wasn't like I was asking people to get up and confess their sins by naming a litany of all of their past mistakes and wrong doings. I was inviting them to join their voices in collective prayer acknowledging our deep brokenness as humans and our unending need for God's grace.
As I looked back at their orders of worship throughout the years, it seemed that a time for confession of sin was a consistent element of their communal worship life. So why was this even a discussion now? Why did it seem so threatening to those who insisted it be eliminated from our practice as a community of faith?
On the night of the council meeting, I discovered the "why." There had been a particular scandal in the community, which involved several of our church leaders. A situation caused many to question the moral leadership of these individuals. They felt publicly exposed, embarrassed, and ashamed at what had been revealed about their character when the full details of their words, actions and behaviors emerged and became public knowledge.
I honestly don't remember what was said or who said it, but it finally clicked. Many church members (including not only the church leaders that had been involved in the scandal, but their family members and friends) were uncomfortable saying aloud certain words that had been included in the prayers of confession because it hit too close to home. In the midst of the council's discussion to take action on the recommended vote of the worship committee, I asked if we could take a break for a moment and then return for a moment of prayer.
After council members had a moment to stretch their legs and then came back to the table, I began to explain the role of confession. I invited them into a conversation about what might happen if we eliminated a time and space for people to be honest, vulnerable, and remorseful. I then invited them to consider how we help people to see that confession can enable us to grow, change, and learn how to be and do better.
I believe the role of confession is to shine light on the darkness. To shine a light on the darkness that exists when we keep the truth hidden and secret. To shine a light on the darkness that exists when we do not acknowledge the destructive and harmful nature of certain words, actions, thoughts, and beliefs. To shine a light on the darkness that exists when we ignore the evil and ugliness that exists in humanity and in ourselves. To shine a light on the darkness that exists when we try to pretend that we are not flawed, imperfect, fallible, frail and in need of the assurance of grace, love, and forgiveness from others, and especially from our God.
In the end, that council voted not to eliminate communal confession of sin as part of our worship services. Instead, they voted to enter into a time of reconciliation and healing. The result was creating spaces for members to have the hard conversations they had been avoiding. Eventually, we created a series of evening worship services that led to grace and forgiveness, as well as honesty and accountability. It was not easy, as true confession never is, but it was transformative to the lives of those who were willing to participate in the process.
May we be committed to being a people who acknowledge and practice the power of confession. May we allow the light of honesty, vulnerability, and remorsefulness shine in the dark corners of our lives and spirits, so that we might grow in that light of God's truth and grace.
Blessings, Rev. Shana Johnson, Conference Minister