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a plain confessional box with a small window next to an arched stained glass window with a cross in the middle and light streaming through

Holy Hearing & Holy Forgetting

a plain confessional box with a small window next to an arched stained glass window with a cross in the middle and light streaming through

Lenten confession

When it comes to confession, Anglicans have historically leaned hard on the “none must” part of the traditional phrase, “all may, some should, none must.” Confession is a scary thing to contemplate. It’s too Catholic. It’s too old fashioned. It’s too …. vulnerable. Many Episcopalians and Anglicans I’ve met aren’t even aware that private confession is available to them. It’s a rare thing to see drop-in times listed on the sign outside an Episcopal church, the way there often are on Catholic ones.

While it’s true that we don’t believe sacramental, private confession is a requirement for every Christian, over my years as a priest, there has scarcely been a greater privilege than to hear the confessions of penitent sinners, and proclaim to them that their sins are forgiven. The first parish I served was pretty high up the candle, so I had heard ten confessions before I did my first baptism. Some people made appointments to come and see me before a big gnarly medical procedure that frightened them. Other people came during drop-in times, because it was routine for them. A habit. Whatever their reason, they all left with their shoulders a little lighter for the sharing of something that had burdened them.

As a semi-regular penitent myself, I’ve felt the lightening of the load that comes from receiving the good news that my sins are forgiven. No matter what I’ve done, no matter how big a mistake I’ve made, God forgives me. No matter how mad someone else might be at me, no matter how much I still might need to make amends to them, God forgives me. I’ve recently gotten into the mindfulness trend of building stillness into my day, and sitting quietly with a meditation app when I get stressed, but there is no app like hearing another human being who has heard the very worst things I have ever done respond by telling me God still loves me.

No matter your denomination, no matter your relationship with the tradition of private, sacramental confession, there is value to the ritual of making regular, intentional confession. While it’s something you could begin to practice on your own – lighting a candle, perhaps, and kneeling in the privacy of your own room – I strongly believe that having a human listener is what makes private confession so powerful. For many people, one of the benefits of therapy is being able to tell another person your worst thoughts, the worst things that ever happened to you, and to have that person tell you that so many others have experienced that same feeling. That you’re “normal.” We so often feel very alone, and it’s comforting to hear that other people are in the same boat.

So if you can, find a confessor. Some evangelical traditions have relationships called “accountability partners.” What if you found someone, not to judge you and keep you to account, but to tell you, regularly tell you, how much God loves you in the face of the worst things you’ve ever done? Someone you could trust to keep that secret? While Anglican sacramental theology would encourage that to be an ordained person, entrusted with the authority to administer God’s sacraments, there’s no reason that for Christians with different theological views it couldn’t be a trusted friend of any order of ministry. Read more

painting of a bearded man with eyes closed and calm look on face, with hands held open with fingers pointing upward, near the face

Confession: Holy Peace

John 20:19-23

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

painting of a bearded man with eyes closed and calm look on face, with hands held open with fingers pointing upward, near the face

Waiting For the Word

Anyone who knows me well has heard my story about confession. Actually, you don’t even have to know me well to have heard my story because I’ve preached on it, I lead with it in my book on confession, and I often use it to describe what it feels like to hear a confession.

As an Episcopal priest, I have the honor of occasionally hearing people’s private confessions. These are sacred moments when people get to lay down the burdens that they have been carrying – burdens of guilt, shame, and the pain that comes from knowing you have done something that has put you out of relationship with those you love. In this role, I continually run up against the need to let the weight of my own sin go as well as helping others do the same. It is an awesome responsibility. And because of my story, I know the importance and magnitude of what can happen when that option and gift is denied to someone.

My story goes something like this: When I was young I decided I would like to try private confession. As an Episcopalian, I’d only experienced corporate confession on Sundays. Since my church did not openly advertise the rite of reconciliation, I decided to go to a local Roman Catholic Church on Ash Wednesday (by skipping class with my friend – which was the first sin I was planning on confessing). They were offering private confession to those who wanted to begin Lent free from the burden of their sin.

As I took my place in the surprisingly long line up, I began to catalog my sins. My trespasses and brokenness began to weigh heavily on my soul. I thought of more and more ways that I had “wronged” God. By the time I finally took my turn in the confessional, I was not only on the verge of tears, I was incredibly elated by the idea of being able to “get rid” of the sins that had tarnished my soul.

As I stepped in the confessional, I decided that I should not add to this list of sins by lying to the priest and told him right away that I was not a Roman Catholic. I told him that if he would listen to my confession, I would feel lighter and understood if he could not offer me absolution as an Episcopalian. He replied, “No. Please leave now.” Read more

A Hammock and a Window

more-than-enoughI have a very un-humble confession to make: I adore the cover of my new book. When my publisher first sent me the image earlier this year, I’m pretty sure I squealed like a teenager who has just found the perfect dress to wear to the prom.

The drawing on the cover is inspired by the hammock in our backyard. I bought it a couple of years ago, on a trip to visit some friends in Nicaragua. In real life, it’s red and white, though after a few seasons in the sun and the rain, the colors aren’t quite as bright anymore. It hangs between two trees, and dips low to the ground; my daughter likes to read out there, her brother likes to make it swing. I watch them through the back window, and the sight of the two of them out there playing is so beautiful to me that it takes my breath away.

Our life is very good. We live in a safe place. We have healthy kids, good jobs that we like; we’re able to pay the bills and put food on the table. Sometimes, I look around at this very good life and I can hardly believe that this is the same world in which people go hungry every night. The same world in which refugees walk for months and years with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The same world in which the gap between rich and poor is growing wider all the time.

How are we supposed to live, given this reality? When every choice we make – from where we live, to what schools our kids go to, to where we buy our groceries and our clothes – has implications far beyond our own family, how do we live?

I’ve been wondering about this for awhile now, but as I went looking for some answers, most of the responses I found were inadequate or confusing.

We could live more simply, but simple living turns out to be kind of complicated. We could commit to only buying stuff that’s sustainably produced and locally sourced, but that’s not always easy to find. We could buy only organic, locally grown food…or should we buy cheaper food and have more money to give to the hungry? We could use our cars less and give the earth a break, but then how do we get to work? We could go off the grid entirely and grow all our food and make our own clothes, but what if we don’t know how to do that, or want to do that? And aren’t we, as Christians, called to live in the world?

I didn’t exactly find answers to all these questions, but I do think there are some things we can do and do better. I think there are some faithful ways to live. We can make better choices with our stuff, all those material goods that make up our lives. We can pay attention to where it comes from and who makes it, use less of it, and be grateful for it. We can give generously from what we have. We can get to know our neighbors better. We can advocate for changing systems and laws that further exacerbate the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

The Christian tradition also offers some resources that can be helpful: Confession and lament. Sabbath-keeping. Delight, and hope. These are practices that ground us in our tradition as we try to make sense of the world we live in.

Anyway: back to the hammock. Earlier this year, one of the trees that held up the hammock had to be taken out. It was diseased up at the top, and the tree guy who understands such things said that it was too dangerous to leave standing. I was sad to lose the tree but I was even sadder to lose the hammock.

It had become a touchstone for me. Just having it out there reminds me of things I need to be reminded of: It reminds me that there are people who live different sorts of lives in different parts of the world. It reminds me of the need for sabbath and play and delight, even in the middle of regular, busy life. It reminds me that we are not without responsibility for our actions and our choices, but that there are faithful ways to live in the tension between appreciating the goodness of the world and grieving for the ways the world is broken.

I missed the hammock when it was gone.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, my dad and my father-in-law happened to be in town at the same time. My father-in-law is an architect who knows how to figure things out, and my dad is a putterer who likes to have a little project to work on. Together they rigged up the hammock in a different part of the yard, between two different trees in a spot I hadn’t considered.

There’s a different view from the back window, now, but I can still see it out there, standing as a reminder for all I hold dear. I am grateful.

Read more about Lee’s hammock (and plenty of other reflections on living faithfully in an unjust world) in her new book More than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of ExcessAn accompanying discussion guide and worship planning guide is available for free download here.

Teach Me to Forgive

The author and her son

The author and her son

As many mothers do when their young ones run toward them, I scooped up my four-year-old son. Together we enact this move on a nearly daily basis, but this time, my lifting him into my arms was out of the ordinary. This time my son had wiggled out of his seat in order to make a beeline toward me as I was leading the confession and absolution of sins. My son is still learning what it means to have a mom as a pastor; I am still learning how to handle the stress of these unpredictable experiences in which my roles as mom and minister collide. We are learning together.

In the moment that my son wiggled his way down to the floor and stood beside me, I felt afraid that his actions might be interpreted as a commotion. He held my hand and mirrored my actions as I turned to face the altar and the congregation. That seemed innocent enough. But then he began offering nonsensical words as I read the official words of absolution from our hymnal. I felt as though I was dedicating an enormous amount of energy to being both a loving mother and responsible pastor, all the while hoping that none of my parishioners would sense my anxiety or grumble about having been distracted during worship.

But then I had the blessing of seeing what everyone else saw during those moments. One of our church members shared with me the photo she had taken as my son and I led worship in tandem. When I saw what had happened from my church member’s perspective, all the stress I’d felt melted away. It was replaced by joy that my son felt comfortable enough to participate in worship with me and gratitude that my congregation had welcomed a little child to lead them.

As I have taken more time to reflect on this photo, I am reminded of all the ways my son forgives me, even though he may not realize it. He has forgiven me time and time again for my mistakes: for the times I have yelled, for the times I have been too tired to follow his routine, for the times I have hidden myself in the pantry or bathroom just long enough to take a breath and a break, even if that meant leaving him outside the door crying. He offers his forgiveness every time he wraps his arms around me, every time he gives me a hug, every time he grabs my hand or brings me a book to read. Every time he hears “I love you” and responds with “I love you, too.” Every time.

My son’s words of absolution might have been gibberish, but that doesn’t mean they were any less real. My son teaches me how to forgive, and now this treasured photo reminds me to forgive myself. They both help me to remember why we say words of absolution in the first place: In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven. Thanks be to God.

All Lives Matter

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. (Psalm 51)

“For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” – bell hooks

Black History Month.

In my childhood it was a month of learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement and reading accounts about people that were hardly talked about in social studies the rest of the year: Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, and Harriet Tubman. Always, it felt like an odd break in the year and almost obligatory. Some teachers would share the information enthusiastically, while others seemed reluctant and half-hearted. While we would read biographies and laud their subjects’ heroic efforts to pursue justice and equality for all humanity, I remember sometimes shifting back and forth in my seat. It was hard to ignore the reality that we were turning our attention to the sins – the atrocities, the violence, the crimes – of the founders of this great country, our ancestors and forefathers.

And, of course, how we inherited these sins, too. There was no getting around it. Later I would come to see and acknowledge how we participate in these systems of violence, and enact antiblack racism. Even I, as a person of color, participate in these systems. I confess my ways of benefiting from a white feminist politic that privileges certain bodies and voices over others.

When it was less complicated during those early school days there was always some big report or essay due at the end of the month. The same stories. The struggles. The same speeches. And, after a while, I felt them became more than just pieces of information. They became a part of my identity in terms my desire for repentance. My desire for compassion. For forgiveness. For justice. But, it meant that listening would be different. It wouldn’t be listening for the sake of information, but for the sake of transformation.

It’s these stories that help shape the way I listen and live out God’s Word whether they be words of lament or stories of overcoming hardship and strife. They put flesh and blood onto these pleas for help. They breathe and harmonize God’s spirit into these supplications for redemption and salvation. And they make me see anew the possibilities of God’s transforming presence in the world. It’s not about upholding a particular theology or stance, but recognizing the lives that matter around us, and that yes, all lives matter, but we need to work even more to show that black lives matter now and today.