Penitence

Well, I’m no Catholic but I have sat in a confessional. The idea of a lone man listening to my sins from behind the partition reminded me of Oz and felt just a little uncomfortable. Thankfully, it was empty and I sat alone in the darkness, the scent of wood smoothed by so many sinful hands filling me with curious warmth despite my discomfort.

We attend a Celtic Christian service and my heritage is from the British Isles, smattered with bits of European continent. There’s a group there that has long intrigued me, a small sect of Scottish, Irish, Welsh and Briton believers that existed outside of the Roman church for a long time called the Celè De or Culdees. One of their practices was to seek out an anam cara or a soul friend, one with whom you shared everything — one to whom you confessed.

As I sat in that French Roman Catholic confessional and heard the whispered convictions of so many brothers and sisters I thought there was something beautiful in the act of bearing one’s soul to a man who vowed to remind you of your forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Though it might become warped and trite, a mere act by which one could go on living the way they always had, there was always the chance that hearing the sin spoken of and seeing it dragged into the light might be good, healing and restorative to the soul.

The anam cara, the soul friend might provide this glimpse of unconditional love, gentle rebuke and restoration.

Each week during our celtic services, the presiding pastor offers us a few moments of silence, to bring our grievances to God — the ways in which we have grieved him. We quietly confess, recite the Lord’s prayer and ask for help in forgiving those around us because it is we who were first forgiven.

Lent is the season of preparation and waiting as we walk with Jesus. He’s set his face to Jerusalem, signaled that nothing will be stopping him from that sacred, painful journey to the cross where the dividing wall is torn down and all nations are bless through Abraham’s seed. Lent is the season of penitence for the sins that drove him towards Jerusalem, towards the cross, the grave and the death of sin.

I need to be reminded of this often, repeatedly, even daily. I do not mean to suggest that one beat themselves over the head with their sin and their guilt and then dwell in shame. Of course not! The resurrection frees us from that. But I do think in the midst of demanding schedules, screaming children, looming workloads and the daily drudge, it is easy to forget the movement of sin, grace, repentance and forgiveness that consumes our lives. It is easy to forget that I can forgive E because I am forgiven; just as I may bless and love friends because I am loved and am being taught what that love means. It’s this never ending growth towards becoming who we already are in Christ. And it starts with penitence, repentance and constant recognition of our need for Jesus and his work on the cross. This is one thing I love about our church: that each week we are reminded to repent, to reorient towards God and to be forgiven — and then to go out and forgive others! It is a convicting moment for me each week to consider how I have sinned by what I have done, and by what I have left undone.*

This is the reason we fast in Lent: to be penitent and mindful of our sins which drove him to the cross; to prepare for the long night ahead when he is in the ground; to recover our humble position in the divine dance that like a symphony moves from grace over sin, to repentance and culminates in restoration. What a beautiful season and opportunity to relearn and experience this masterpiece of God’s every year!

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. {Martin Luther, 95 Theses, 1}

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*Penintential prayer, Anglican Common Book of Prayer

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Why: hope and lent

Last week one of my highschoolers told me that hope probably doesn’t deserve to be a stand-alone sort of word. She suggested it isn’t a distinct concept, separate from any other idea we communicate with words. It’s overused, she pointed out, and as I listened to the State of the Union last night — given by a man whom I watched campaign on hope and take office my last year of college when the economy collapsed — I had to agree. To my student, hope is simply another word we use to describe something we really want, a deep and longing desire.

We were outside, amid trees stripped to grey nakedness, with ice under foot and clouded blue sky over head, dotted by geese who’ve flocked to our wide open spaces. She’s a cynic and I’ve only just started my recovery from cynic to hopeful realist. We plodded along after she said all that, each looking to and fro across a landscape seemingly barren and devoid of hope. Between us I could feel the silence grow, soft and fearful as I wrestled for words to speak since I so vehemently disagreed with her.

But how does one explain hope?

It’s Ash Wednesday and there are people wandering the world with grey soot smudged on their faces in the form of a poorly drawn cross made by dirty fallen thumbs looking forward to redemption. But it’s a future redemption and today the ground is still hard and cold. Lent begins and we give things up: meat, sugar, drink or other things upon which we depend instead of finding rest in God. While the practice of fast is certainly formational, it’s also responsive and it’s worth considering in these winter months slowly turning to spring — what we are responding to.

There’s a thing that in seminary we like to call the “grand narrative” or a “controlling narrative” which serves as an interpretive lens for how one reads and interprets Scripture. As a good evangelical seminary, we usually consider this to be the story of Jesus Christ, the story of God coming in to save creation that has fallen down a winding rabbit hole towards greater and greater levels of chaos. We point to his words and the prophecies and the narrative of the seasons to say that Jesus will one day come again to restore and renew all things.

Lent, I think, the season of waiting and going without, is a response in recognition of this redemptive process. Recognizing that Jesus has come, and will come, and learning what it means to wait hopefully in the midst of this present age. Jesus is coming. He’s here, he has come. But I have not only been saved I am still in the process of being saved.* In a similar way, Lent reminds us that we are waiting. With creation we groan and wait and long for the renewal that comes in the end of times. We respond to the Gospel by entering into it; by acknowledging this period of waiting and hoping. Lent shows us we’re waiting, teaches us to long, and forms our hope for the future.

Hope, my friend said rightly, is an intense desire for something. I desperately long for violence to end, for wars to abate, for my family to come home. But there is more than just longing when it comes to the redemption of the world and the many things that make up that redemption. In the way that it’s used in political campaigns and  among high school lovers, hope is cheap and ill used, hardly needed as a word separated from desire and want. We want a better economy in the same way we hope for a job upon college graduation.

But this I’m learning: we don’t put our hopes in humanity and the world. We put it in the One who made those things and we put our faith in the promises handed down to us, the foundation of his faithfulness and the character that says he will fulfill what he has begun. This is what hope is, the faith and trust that God will see His promises through, the patient expectation that the earth will be renewed and the culmination of all things will include a new and distinctively different relationship with the One who is.

Hope is deep and more than simple desire. It pulls from the being of our person and rests on the foundation of previously fulfilled promises and the faith of those gone before us. Lent, the season of waiting helps us refocus that hope: away from created to Creator, towards coming redemption and fulfillment. Because in the liturgical season of waiting we are reminded that we are waiting existentially. We learn to long for renewal. We hang in suspension. This is the tension that Christians live in. Here, oh yes, here! But also not yet. We are expectant, anxiously so. We are waiting. And we know that it will come despite all our impatience! Despite persecutions, failures, and misunderstandings. We’re waiting, but not in empty desire.  We’re waiting in deep, founded, faithful hope.

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Phil 1. 6, 2.12