Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Is confession good for the soul? Lectionary thoughts - James 5: 13-20

One of the passages for this coming Sunday, if following the RCL, is found in the epistle of James 5: 13-20...
13Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. 19My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

This is a passage which seems to jump about - the author almost seeming to write in what appears to be a fast-moving stream of consciousness.  

It's a passage of 'action' and 'reaction' -
for those who suffer: pray.                                
For those who are cheerful: praise.
It's about community - those who are ill call upon church elders for prayer and anointing with oil [not sure if that's in the current CofS job description for elders?!], and all the community are to confess to one another, and to pray for each other.                                            
It's about faith: an understanding that to pray in faith can cause healing and forgiveness. 
It's about reconciliation... which, in a sense, also ties in with healing and forgiveness.
And in the midst of this passage, verse 16, concerning confession: all are to confess to each other...

Over the last couple of years [and the next couple for that matter] my research has touched upon the identity of the community of the godly as 'holy', and of rituals of confession, penitence and reconciliation: these used in order to effectcontinue the community's holiness.  Perhaps it's why reading the passage, that this particular verse sticks out.                                                                                                                            
Is confession, as the old saying goes, good for the soul? 
But what is confession?
My sense is confession falls into several types:
  • there's the traditional context of confession as the telling of offences one has done - a recounting of one's own sins;
  •  there's also the confession of telling of offences that have been done to one - a recounting of another's sin/s upon you;
  •  there's also the confession of recounting what Christ has done - the confession of belief.
At the heart of all are:
telling - speaking out - verbalising what has happened: sins done, sins perpetrated upon one, sins forgiven by One.
truth - that what is told is held to be true for the one doing the telling.
Simplistic, I know, and stating the flippin' obvious.  However, essentially then, confession is a kind of truth-telling.  Raw, honest, naming a thing for what it is kind of stuff.  So... back to the question: is confession good for the soul?

It's been fascinating to trace the patterns of confession/ dealing with sin historically.  Initially, a movement towards open confession and penitence in the gathered body... then the gradual move to private confession and acts of penance... and with the Reformations a split: the re-formation of private penance via Trent, while the Calvin-inspired [pedantic note - here insert: Bucer/ a Lasco - who are so overlooked but hugely influential on Calvin] Protestant reformers move back to public confession... and who eventually move back to the private realm with the advent of government less closely tied to the kirk....  All that a whistle-stop history that isn't necessarily answering the question.

The James text seems to imply that there's a healing context to confession - here both individually, but also and possibly more importantly, communally.  This would apply to all three types of confession outlined above... and yet, truth-telling - the whole warts 'n all, hard telling of difficult stories is something that we as humans also struggle with - not just to tell, but to truly hear.  I've been thinking a lot recently of one of the conference sessions regarding training for ministry that we had at St Andrews: the context of the confession of sins done by others to the one confessing.  And the reactions of those who hear those particular confessions... disbelief, blame of the victim, a second attack.  In this case, for the one truth-telling something that is painful beyond belief and which may have been put in a jar and placed in a cupboard and locked away for years, the sense of being punched in the gut, the sense of betrayal all over again... makes me wonder: is this confession, this truth-telling good for the soul too?

And yet... to open the cupboard and let the light and fresh air pour in... and to open the jar brings a strange release too, even in the midst of villification and scapegoating.  Scapegoating: I'm thinking about Rene Girard again - he's been a huge influence on my thinking when it comes to inclusion/ exclusion and community.
And Jesus was a truth-teller, confessing the glory and love and grace of God... and was crucified. 
Is confession good for the soul... when it can lead to scapegoating, violence and even death?   
Even in the midst of that, yes, I suspect it is:perhaps there is never a 'good time' for truth-telling/ confession.  It is inconvenient.  It requires the teller and the hearer to respond in some way.  And yet, to be rid of the heavy, heavy stuff which grinds down the life and soul is liberation, brings healing and relief... and while it might not bring about human reconciliation every time, there is a restoration of the soul that does go beyond the pain required by the act of truth-telling.

And in response: how then can I learn to be a compassionate listener to those who are confessing their offences, or confessing the offences done to them...?  And how do I confess Christ compassionately and with grace?   Because when the rubber hits the road, as someone in training for full-time ordained ministry, I am going to be listening to a lot of truth-telling: people telling me their stories.

I guess back to James - who'd say in the text - pray, pray, pray.
And so, some rambling thoughts on an overcast, windy Tuesday....


Sophia said...

Powerful stuff here, thanks. I have experienced the power of confession in all three senses in my life--and the importance of reverent and compassionate reception of all three to bring healing and transformation and not further abuse or despair.

Sophia said...

I am on the Catholic lectionary so we are a bit earlier in James this week--unfortunate perhaps as there are so many resonances with the Gospel and Numbers reading.