quiet, confident STRENGTH

rockI have been thinking about strength lately (which tells you I’ve been needing some 😉 ).

The word brings to mind the Strengthsfinder book I was required to read for work back in the early 2000s. Its premise was that we spend too much time focusing on and improving our weaknesses and not enough on discovering and capitalizing on our strengths. It included a test that identified a person’s top five strengths. I took it and was told to “lean into” the strengths it told me I had.

Not bad advice, though I don’t remember now what my test results were. I do remember thinking that if I really leaned into my strengths and ignored my weaknesses, it would mossprobably result in my losing my job.

That’s not the strength I need right now.

“Strength” also makes me think of the Rocky movies, which my husband introduced our younger children to during our stay-cation spring break. They were hooked by the first one and quickly watched 2, 3, and 4 on consecutive nights (he convinced them #5 was simply too cheesy). I watched bits of them with the crew but was eventually asked not to because I kept cringing at hard blows and delivering lectures about the violence of fighting sports. “Strength” in Rocky is physical, of course, but it is also human determination and grit and perseverance.

Again, not helpful right now.

Then, a couple days ago, I read the prayer “For Quiet Confidence” in the Book of Common Prayer. I’ve prayed it a lot in the past few months, but this time I noticed the theme of strength in it. It speaks of a strength that is available even when we are bone- and soul-tired, when both the Rocky and Strengthsfinder kinds of strength are simply useless, when we’ve come to the hard-but-blessed realization that we must look completely outside ourselves.

The prayer, drawn from Scripture, tells me my strength is found

in returning,

in rest,

in quietness,

in confidence in the God of the universe,

in stillness,

in the presence of the Lord,

in the might of the Spirit,

in knowing who God is and

in knowing his unfailing love for us.

O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray you, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Confession from the foot of the Cross

NOTE: For those readers who’ve read the confessional living series I wrote earlier in the year, this may feel a bit repetitive. It’s an essay I wrote for a recent contest, and it summarizes and builds on that series. 

The electrical pole in the foreground reminded me of the Cross. I took this last week during our vacation in Michigan--what a great time!

The electrical pole in the foreground reminded me of the Cross. I took this last week during our vacation in Michigan–what a great time!

“Liturgical prayer” was an oxymoron in the churches in which I grew up. I’d barely even heard of the Book of Common Prayer, much less seen one, until I was 43.

That was when, by choice, I visited a church where the bulletin was more like a small book, and the congregation recited, all together, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Lord’s Prayer…

And the Confession of Sin.

When the kneelers were pulled out, almost simultaneously, my inner cynic stood up. I thought, “This will be rote, a mere formality.” But then I spoke the words: “…we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done …and left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; …not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

I spoke them not alone, but in chorus, for my own lack of love and for the lack we all share.

From that morning forward, this prayer of confession began changing me. I gained a fuller sense of sin; I understood corporate sin in a way I never had before; I began to ask more regularly for hidden sin to be revealed in myself and in the Church so we might “delight in (God’s) will and walk in (His) ways to the glory of (His) Name.”

A year into my journey with this prayer, I went to a party. I, like everyone else there, had been invited to the hostess’s house to buy jewelry made by women rescued from sex trafficking.

Finished with shopping, I joined a group of chatting women. I knew all of them, knew the churches they attended. These women would be considered core members of churches described as “solid, Bible-believing, sound.”

One woman mentioned a Bible study she’d recently led. “We studied James, and the most surprising part of it for me was the emphasis on confession,” she shared. “We don’t do much of that as churches now. I don’t do a lot of confessing personally. I mean, I do when I’ve said something sharp to one of my kids or my husband, but other than sins like that, I’m not sure what to confess.”

I’m not sure what to confess. We don’t do much confessing in our evangelical churches now.

Why is this? Scripture lists many sins specifically, and American evangelical Christianity clearly has its finger on sexual and violent sins. Beyond this, books abound today reminding us of a wide range of ills caused by our common and individual sins. Pastor-writer Jerry Bridges pulled the rug on “respectable” sins such as gossip, selfishness, pride, and anger; Ron Sider exposed the sin of materialism in a world where devastating poverty and injustice abound, with organizations like World Vision and the IJM making that poverty and injustice very visible; and activists like Shane Claiborne, Dr. John Perkins, and Eugene Cho decry the American church’s historic and current lack of involvement in racial and social injustice.

Yet this kind of specific-sin confession, though necessary, is not enough, and often, at least for myself, I’ve found specific-sin confession alone leads to attempts at self-justification and to pride. If it’s an item on a list, then I can “work” on it till it’s crossed off, and if I whittle that list down, I’m getting “better.” This viewpoint naturally leads to a superficial view of sin. Did I make it through my day without raising my voice? Then anger’s off the list! Yes!

This is not the case when I confess my sinfulness rather than simply the sins I see, when I acknowledge that I live in violation of the greatest commandment—loving God with my entirety and my neighbor as myself. In this kind of confession I am reminded I am incapable of that kind of love, and I see God as Other, as Holy, as Good.

As my understanding of this grows, I realize anew that only at the foot of the cross is my great need met. I put down roots in the bloodstained earth, and regular, genuine confession of my sinfulness helps me stay there. Washed by the flow from above and drawing from the infinite depths beneath, my heart is softened for the Spirit’s work of conviction, for the revelation of specific sins, even those hidden from myself.

At the foot of the cross, distinctions of all kinds fade away, and I pray not as the Pharisee did in Luke 18 but as the tax collector, for I see myself on even ground, made equal with all humanity by the most-important, common sin of a lack of love for God and neighbor. This leads to my understanding the confessions of the Old Testament prophets, who often repented in the first person plural: “We have sinned; we have acted unjustly; we have not loved You.” The Holy Spirit enables me to acknowledge my complicity in sins of national and global injustice, to see how my own materialism, selfishness, and silence contribute to them.

So confession leads to a deeper understanding of our sinfulness, but its greater purpose is to lead us beyond that as well. The cross is where mercy and grace triumph over our sin, where the same Holy Spirit who convicts also compels us to share the abundant love we’ve received. The Confession of Sin ends with these words: “For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.”

I long for “(God’s) will and ways” for the churches in my area: I pray for greater racial reconciliation and harmony; less materialism; more significant roles for women in the church; deep, life-impacting passions for all kinds of injustice…

Yet efforts for these are shortsighted, selfish, and temporary unless they begin at the foot of the cross.

Authentic confession takes and keeps us there.

Living Confessionally, Part 2: Expanding our view of sin

Not long ago I listened as a group of women talked about Bible studies they’d recently been involved in. One spoke of studying First John. “What surprised me most was the emphasis on confession,” she said. “We don’t do this in my church service, and I find I don’t do it very often personally either. I mean, I do when I see I’ve lied or been unkind, but most of the time I have a hard time recognizing my sin.”

It was an honest acknowledgement, and I understood her. We can easily fall into the trap of seeing sin as a list of things to avoid. The rich young ruler did this; he checked off the Ten Commandments as complete. And even though I understand this is impossible, I sometimes fool myself into thinking that if I attack the sins listed in the Scriptures, one by one, I can be free from them. This is not sanctification; this is self-improvement, the belief that I am really okay at the core, it’s just that I have these sins stuck to my surface.

The prayer of confession deepens my view of sin far, far beyond this.

“… we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart;

We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

In this blog entry I want to look at the last two statements, for these define sin: not loving God with the whole heart; not loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

The “whole heart” includes all of our being: mind, soul, and strength (physical self), and the term “neighbor,” as explained by Christ in His parable of the Good Samaritan, does not exclude ANYONE, no matter how unlike me they happen to be.

So for me to NOT sin would mean I would need to wholly/completely love God AND every person I encounter each and every minute of my life

What would that be like?

I have no idea! I don’t even know what it would be like for a single moment because I can’t do it. I am unable to look completely away from myself, unable to focus upward and outward without one eye—at least—always gazing in. Even my “good” works are tainted with this “looking in.” I may do them with partially pure motives, but at some level I am hoping they will make me feel better about myself or exalt me in God’s or others’ sight.

I am incapable of pure love, even when the object is the pure and wonderful God, even when it is a newborn infant, as innocent and beautiful as a human can be.

The prayer of confessions helps me understand that I am not a sinner because I sin. No, I sin because I am broken at my very core.

The prayer of confession leads me to the huge depth of my need.

Note: As I was thinking about this, I listened to a Tim Keller podcast in which he said the phrase “homo curvatus in se,” and explained it was Martin Luther’s definition of sin. In researching this phrase, I discovered an article on theotherjournal.com by Matt Jenson (Associate Professor of Theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University) titled “The Shape of Our Sin.” Here’s a summary of part of his article, which is drawn from his book The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther and Barth on ‘homo incurvatus in se’:

Augustine and Martin Luther wrote about sin as “humanity curved in on itself” (homo curvatus in se). Augustine said that because of this “curvatus,” we use everything, even God, for the enjoyment or comfort of ourselves, and Luther said this sin extends throughout our entire person—there is not a single part of us that is not centered on self. Karl Barth builds upon Augustine’s and Luther’s views and says that curvatus is also seen when we believe ourselves rather than God. We exalt our own statements as “truth” and reject God’s truths as lies. And he further makes the point that while we often see our “curvatus” as pride, the opposite is also true: when we debase ourselves and are constantly focused on our shortcomings, this is but another form of the curvatus. We are still focused on ourselves.

Living confessionally

I have been praying the Confession (from the Book of Common Prayer) in church now for a little over a year. More recently, it has become a daily prayer.

The same words, over and over.

I understand that liturgy, through its sheer repetition, can become meaningless. The most wonderful prayers, though filled beginning to end with Truth, can be rote when they are said without thought.

But my experience with this prayer in particular has been quite the opposite: it gains new meaning nearly every time I pray it. Because of this, I have been thinking a great deal about confession, not just the actual prayer but the idea of living “confessionally,” individually and as the Church, the body of Christ. I’ve not given much brainpower to this idea before now, and as I’ve thought about it, it’s grown in its significance for me. I’m planning to write a short series on it. I hope this is not simply a one-way presentation but that it prompts discussion. I feel I still have a great deal to learn about confession (as I do about so very many things), and I would love to learn WITH you.

Today’s post is simply the prayer itself and the prayer/benediction that always follows it.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart;

We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us;

That we may delight in your will,

And walk in your ways,

To the glory of your Name.

Amen

Almighty God, have mercy on us,

Forgive us all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ,

Strengthen us in all goodness,

And by the power of the Holy Spirit keep us in eternal life.

Amen.