Editor’s note: Our June cover story, “Worship 101,” examined the “whats, whys and hows” of ELCA worship. We now continue the story as a monthly online series  further exploring what Lutheran worship is, how we Lutherans worship and why we do so.

Like many Lutherans, I go to church services for a variety of reasons, which can change depending on the day. I’m always there for the word, but also, sometimes, to sing hymns, to hear a good sermon or to be out of the house and among people after too much time alone. Sometimes, honestly, I’m just there for the way the sun seeps through the stained-glass windows. With the exception of the word, these are all things I can experience elsewhere. But I increasingly find myself at church on Sunday mornings for one particular reason: to confess.

I’ve always felt the power of standing and kneeling with others to admit together that we have done wrong. But these days, this act of confession, of admitting my flaws, feels ever more vital. We struggle so mightily with our societal ills, with our long history (and ongoing reality) of oppressing each other for the color of our skin, the people we choose to love, the size of our jeans and so on, that in attempting to restore ourselves to wholeness, we forget that to be human is to be flawed. Confession reminds me that this is true, and that we are not fixable, not by our own efforts. God knows I have tried, and failed, to fix myself.

Our leaders, too, have mostly abandoned—if they ever really embraced—admittance of sin. Apology is out of vogue these days. It’s increasingly rare that someone in power simply admits she or he was wrong and starts to make amends. As acknowledgement of sin moves out of common currency in our society, the act of confession becomes even more rare and notable, elevating church services from what could be uplifting concerts or poetry readings to times when we grapple, if only for a few moments at the beginning of worship, with our deepest flaws.

This is what I like about confession. Of course, it doesn’t feel good at first. There’s always the awkwardness of this ancient ritual coming so quickly after the cheerfulness of greeting my fellow worshipers. Then there’s the horror of realizing that, once again, I’ve not made it even an hour without doing something worth confessing. I keep in mind the warning that we “deceive ourselves” if we say we have no sin, and briefly try to remember those sins I’ve already forgotten I committed. The few seconds I’ve given to list my sins to myself are not nearly enough—and wait, is it a sin to feel frustrated with my pastor for moving on too quickly? Add that to the list.

As acknowledgement of sin moves out of common currency in our society, the act of confession becomes even more rare and notable.

Don’t worry—there’s no heavy act of violence or anger weighing down my soul. No, the sins I find myself scrolling through are more mundane. I yelled when I could have been kinder. I lied when the truth was uncomfortable. I indulged when I knew I had gone past the point of treating myself and was now just wallowing in chocolate. In general, my sins are omissions of love, those moments when I choose my pride or my anger over loving my neighbor or myself. It shocks me to realize how many sins I, a law-abiding and decidedly nonconfrontational person, can come up with.

Next there’s our communal confession, using the set words of our hymnal. The reminder that we have sinned against God “in thought, word and deed” hurts every time. Like many modern Americans, I’ve come to believe I should be in control of my thoughts, words and deeds, and that, as long as I am able to do so, there’s never a need to apologize. Yet this confession acknowledges the truth: I’m not in control and I never will fully be so. Worse, when I am in control, I still knowingly and carelessly wound. Thus do I hurt others and myself.

Finally, there’s the release of my pastor’s words, explaining that we now have “entire forgiveness.” I love that phrasing. There’s no dark corner of my heart that God can’t get to, not even the places where my forgotten sins reside or those I’ll immediately commit again will live.

Confession over, we move on, usually to the liturgy. Soon enough, I’ll return to falsely believing I can be in control. But soon enough, too, I’ll be back in the church pews to be reminded that I am not, never have been, never will be in control, but that the sins perpetuated by my broken and imperfect self can once again be washed clean. The cycle continues.

I know that some congregations have started to do away with confession, which saddens me. I understand the discomfort and the way the rote ritual can seem inert, like some mathematical equation to be solved the same way, week after week. But the intersection of God and humanity is the work of worship, I think, and we need the opportunity of confession to understand that we are “in bondage to sin”—that is, not in control.

I love the freedom to be so open about being so wholly broken. Leonard Cohen sang, “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” In confession, I remember that I am cracked. Then I wait for the light.

Shannon Reed
Shannon Reed is a professor and freelance writer. The daughter and granddaughter of ELCA clergy, she is a member of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Pittsburgh.

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