Sunday, October 02, 2011

Confession is Good for the Soul

[Listen to the Sermon]
Preparation for the Sermon:  I would like to introduce that Atonement is the topic for the next “Month of Sundays”. When we – all of us, the Worship Weavers started talking about this topic and preparing for the month, I thought, “what for? Atonement, really what for?” It’s a big religious word that can carry a lot of “you-are-worthless”ness because one atones for Sin.

Sin, the word and the question of its meaning reminds me of one of my first “real” encounters with Religion. I didn’t really have any interest in any religious matter until I was about twelve. When I was little, my Mom let me put my head down in her lap and go to sleep during the service. But by about the age of twelve, I started to snore. That didn’t work very well, so I had to stay awake and pay attention to the service. One of the things that I found out from paying attention, though, is that the Greek root of the word Sin is “error” – to miss the mark. We are in error, we make mistakes (some of us more frequently that others) and so we are all sinners – no one is perfect. However, instead of causing me to see the obvious need for an intermediary between myself, capable of making errors, and That Which IS Perfect: GOD; it raised, for me, this little question: If God is All-Knowing then God knew we were going make errors when he made us, so why is God so upset at our sins? (So why does God have to save us from our sins when God knew we are going to make them to begin with? Why all the hooplah over SIN?)

So, Atonement – what for? We are sinners, we are in error, we make mistakes - its natural! So why does ATONEMENT still loom so large? If Sin, as error, doesn’t really seem so serious, then why does atonement still seem to still need reverence. What really is the Spiritual Nature of our “mistakes”?

I could turn to any religious tradition for the reason. Today, since I started with my earlier Christian roots, then I will stick with them. God knew we were going to make mistakes, as God is the source of creation and creativity. “All Knowing”, brings us to the Medieval quandary over God’s Omnipotence, Omniscience, Omnipresence (the western gift to all Zen Koans in my opinion, because if you spend time in contemplation, the conundrum is both nonsensical and revealing). For reasons I can outline later (an Omnipotent God begs the question of evil/suffering and an Omniscient God means a localized/separate "knower" which counters omnipresence,), the only part of this conundrum that can possibly survive is Omnipresence – God is everywhere and in everything (which coincides with almost every mystical tradition of every major religious tradition on the planet).

If God is everywhere then God is all people. And God is our self. Our goal then is to stay open to the greatness of ourselves and the divine possibility in each person. Sin, error, is when we lose this focus, when we (I hate to use the word Fail, but when we) fail to recognize our greatness or the greatness of others. And that’s hard. We know what "perfect" looks like, but we end up doing the best we can given our time and energy. Even when we aren’t in a rush and we are feeling fresh, mistakes creep in. And the even harder goal is to always acknowledge the greatness of others. Therefore we are constantly in a state of needing to atone for where we "missed the mark", where we broke the relationship with God-within or God-within-others, where we lost our focus. The beauty is that there is no gatekeeper for atonement. Missing our mark, loosing our focus is normal. Atonement is the work to "fix" our lapse, to return to focus and really see the damage (tear?). To do the work of forgiveness is not to be given forgiveness, but to work towards, to ask for it, even if it is unacknowledged.

~ Thomas Collier

* * * * *

“Confession is good for the soul.” 

Really?  Fifth service of the new season and I’m taking on confession?

 Right now the ex-Catholics are remembering why they left the Catholic Church and the ex-Protestants are remembering why they’re not ex-Catholics.  My hunch is that few of you ever thought you’d see your Unitarian Universalist preacher heading into this minefield.  As Thomas just pointed out, how can you talk about “confession” without also talking about things like “sin,” and “absolution,” and “salvation,” and, well, “God”?  For many of us, any one of those words is an explosive packed full of jagged emotional and intellectual junk.  A person could get hurt in here.

Well I want to tell you something – I want to direct our attention to this topic this morning precisely because someone has already been hurt.  You have.  I have.  Each of us is already hurting in greater or lesser degrees – and that difference might just be dependent on the season, or the day, or the hour.  All of us are already hurting and unless we Unitarian Universalists learn how to face this fact and deal with this fact there’ll be nothing our religious tradition can offer us to help heal that hurt.  That’s why I’m willing to go here today.

Now before I say anything else I’m going to tell you what I’m not going to be talking about.  I’m not going to be talking about what a whole bunch of you are assuming that I am going to be talking about.  I’m not going to be telling you that we should institute some rites and rituals in which a lay person goes before an ordained person and delivers a list of things she’s “done wrong.”  I won’t be talking about checking off items from someone else’s laundry list of “sins” so that you can get someone else’s “absolution.”  I don’t think most of that does anyone any good.

When my dad was in the Navy, he was a Catholic.  He told me that he used to think back fondly to that time.  He once sat up in a private spot on the ship at night, looking up at the stars, and had what he came to recognize as a mystical experience of oneness with his fellow humans, the world, and God.  He once went ashore to an island in the Pacific where Mass was being celebrated in a little stone chapel with a mud floor, and he realized that the very thing he was doing was being done all around the world at that very moment, and had been, virtually unchanged for centuries.  He felt himself connecting not only through space but time.  These experiences he credited to the Catholic Church.

Yet in time he felt he had to leave that Church.  He did so over confession.  In a typically Wik Wikstrom way of thinking, he began to wrestle with the fact that one of the “sins” he was required to confess was the sin of doubt.  Yet he knew that he could never believe anything that he was not free to doubt; he didn’t see doubt as any kind of sin at all but, rather, as a great good.  And so he felt himself caught.  On the one hand, the teachings of the Church required that he confess his sins, and taught that doubt was one of those sins so he felt compelled to confess his doubt.  On the other hand, though, he himself saw doubt as a blessing, and so he felt that to confess it as a sin would be hypocrisy.  Unable to resolve this dilemma, my dad left the Catholic Church.

That’s in my bones.  It’s in my blood.  So that’s not what I’m going to be talking about this morning. 

Thomas gave us some help here when he talked a moment ago about the roots of the word “sin.”  There are actually at least seven Greek words used in the New Testament writings that are translated as our one English word, “sin.”  One means “to miss the mark.”  Another means, “falling down when you should have been standing up.”  Another means, “Shrinking.”  And then there’s “Lawlessness.” “Mishearing.”  “To intentionally cross a line.”  And, finally, “Ignorance when you should have known.” 

Please note that none of these words means “sex,” premarital or otherwise.  Not one of them has anything to do with gender expression or sexual orientation.   There’s nothing about card playing, or rock and roll music, or eating chocolate cake during Lent.

A few weeks ago I said that I understand “sin” to be whatever convinces me that you and I are not related, that there is a separation between us, that puts me into “us” and “them” thinking.  At the Conversation on Atonement a couple of weeks back we were reminded of that scene from The Kite Runner in which the father says that the only sin is theft, taking something that belongs to someone else.  (And this need not be limited to physical, material things, of course.)

Understood this way, sin is not the ridiculously punitive thing so many of us grew up thinking it was.  I say “ridiculous” because, well, when you think about it, what else could you call the idea that the Lord High God, Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, would give a fig about whether you were wearing black patent leather shoes to your school dance? 

There’s a great story that Cardinal Basil Hume, used to tell on himself.

When he was a child, his mother would take his brothers and him into the pantry where there was a cookie jar.  She would tell them that God was always watching, and would know if they ever took a cookie out of that jar between meals.  And, so, young Basil grew up thinking of God as some kind of Cosmic Cop, always on the lookout for even the smallest infringement of the rules.  Even so – or, perhaps, because of this – he went on to become a priest.

But he remembers the day when in prayer he received what he considered a tremendous grace.  He suddenly realized that if God had been watching him take one of those cookies, God would have said, “My dear boy.  Why don’t you take another?

My dear boy, why don’t you take another?

When I was a teenager, still laying down the foundations for some of the things I believe today, I had a wonderful conversation with an older friend who was an Episcopal priest.  I knew her theology.  I knew that she believed in a loving, forgiving God, and knew that she believed in the ability to have a direct, personal relationship with this God.  Why, then, did she believe so strongly in the sacrament of confession?  I’ll never forget her answer.  Father Kathleen – that’s what I used to call her – said that theologically she thought the idea of saying confession to a priest in order to obtain absolution was silly.  Psychologically¸ though, she thought it was pretty darned important.

She thought that confession was important psychologically because she understood people like me, and probably you, too.  She knew that there are things that keep me up at night, sometimes.  Things that I don’t write about on FaceBook, and didn’t bring up during my Candidating Week discussions.  Things I think that if you found out about me you probably wouldn’t like me so well anymore.  I’ve done enough work on myself that I know that a lot of these things aren’t objectively true, of course, but that doesn’t really matter.  They’re true enough for me, in that all too quiet place ‘round midnight.

You have your things too, don’t you?  Those things that make you feel not quite as good as somebody else, or as you’d like to feel?  Those things that make you feel like you’re not enough – not strong enough, or smart enough, or patient enough, or clever enough, or financially secure enough, or fun enough, or whatever enough.  You have these things, don’t you?  Oh, maybe they’re not upper most on your mind all the time, but you know what I’m talking about, don’t you? 
If you’re anything like me – and I’m going to go out on a limb here and bet that you are, since you and I are both part of this crazy human family – then we spend a fair bit of our conscious and unconscious energy trying to keep these things under wraps.  We don’t want others to see them because we, ourselves, don’t even want to see them.
But what Father Kathleen knew, and what I’d suggest that those who’ve made some sort of confession a part of every single religious tradition we humans have ever created knew, is that unless we see these things we can’t do anything about them.  If we keep them under wraps, push them away, they can grow and multiply.  They get stronger.

That’s really why – whether you knew it or not or even whether they knew it or not – the Catholic Church wanted you to go to confession.  That’s why the Presbyterian Church and the Methodist Church have prayers of communal confession at the beginning of every service.  That’s why all of the Twelve Step programs encourage a “searching and fearless moral inventory.”  It’s because these things hurt us when we keep them hidden. 

You see?  This is what I was talking about before.  This is the way we’ve all been hurt.  We’ve been hurt by the diminishment these things have caused in our sense of self.  We’ve been hurt by the distance these things have created between us and others.  Because when you look around and see a whole bunch of people who seem to have their . . . stuff . . . together a whole lot better than you do, a division is created.  And that division grows the harder you try to look like you’ve got your stuff together too, especially when you know full well how far from that ideal you really are.  That division becomes a split, and pretty soon we’re back to “us” and “them” thinking.  (Or, really, “me” and “them” thinking because I know that no one else could be as messed up and broken up as I am.  Right?)

So we’re back at sin again, aren’t we?  That which convinces me that you and I are not related, that there is a separation between us, that puts me into “us” and “them” thinking.  The good news here, though, is that when I take a serious look at this sin – especially if I do so within the context of a loving spiritual community such as the one we have here – then I discover something pretty awesome:  we’re all sinners!
Each of us feels like this sometimes.  Any one of us is not as together as the people we keep looking at as models of togetherness, some of whom (I have to tell you) are looking back at you as their model.  That’s the power of the Fourth Step when coupled with the Fifth – you take your searching and fearless moral inventory and you share it with someone else –take it out from under the wraps – and you discover that you’re not alone.  You discover that this other person has their own stuff that keeps them up.  You rediscover your connectedness.

This is what Father Kathleen knew.  Theologically, it makes no sense for someone to go to a priest – or anyone else, for that matter – to “say their confession.”  That’s between you and God, theologically.  But psychologically!  Oh the power of cleaning out the closets and showing the skeletons to someone else and experiencing their acceptance, their understanding, their forgiveness.  That’s powerful stuff.
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Sharon B said...

Thank you Erik and Tom for bringing up this question. I missed the actual sermon because I was out of town spending fun time with my daughters. I am already reflecting upon my errors -- I never actually believed I was a "sinner" who needed to be saved, since I had not, as far as I could remember, broken any of the commandments. That left me lots of time to focus on OTHERS' sins. But ERRORS -- those I have made aplenty. So to whom do UUs go to confess, it it's so good for us, psychologically?

RevWik said...

I was asked essentially the same thing in the social hall after the service yesterday, Sharon. How do we -- Unitarian Universalists -- DO this since we don't yet really have the forms? (Having rejected most of the forms currently existing.)

Some people go to talk with the ordained minister of their congregation. (I've heard quite a number of "confessions" over the years!)

Some people talk with their Twelve Step sponsor -- the fourth and fifth steps really take people through the process quite deeply.

Some people talk with their therapists.

Some people talk about this stuff within their small group ministry groups.

One of the blessings of our movements way of doing this is that there is no proscription. You can go out into the woods and talk with the trees, if that works, or talk with your minister, or sponsor, or psychiatrist. I'll bet that this is what's going on when some people are lighting candles of hope and remembrance; it could be part of the Joys and Sorrows time.

What's important to remember -- and I know this because I forget it ALL the time! -- is that it's more important to do SOMETHING than to sit around trying to figure out what should be done!