A few years ago I discovered that the author Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal was going to be published. The book was released years after her death in 1964 at the age of 39, years after lupus finally killed her. Her estate decided to publish the prayer journal.
Should we be reading this? I internalized this question for a half second, before going out to buy it from the bookstore. There’s something powerful about reading words like those O’Connor writes. They are raw and unguarded. These aren’t edited stories. They are, in parts, confessions:
“Please help me to get down under things and find where You are,” writes O’Connor, “I can feel a warmth of love heating me when I think and write this to you. Please help all the ones I love to be free from their suffering. Please forgive me.”
It’s personal, and now we see it all.
It’s a strange feeling to come across a piece of personal writing that we’re not entirely sure was meant for public consumption whether those are a published diary or a letter you find on the sidewalk. But that’s what we get today – a personal confession, one that contains the words “against you alone, o God, have sinned.”
Today we heard Psalm 51, the confession that emerges from the story read today. This psalm comes to us as the result of a series of tragic and terrible decisions that ripples through David’s life, reverberating to the lives of others, extending tentacles of death in every direction.
Called out by the prophet Nathan, now able to see the depths of his heinous crimes, he calls out to the Lord.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgement.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
David offers confession.
When I say the word “confession” I suspect many of have strong images that come to mind. We may think of a confessional booth with a curtain separating a priest in a collar from a person sitting down to whisper their sins into the folds of the cloth.
Or for those who grew up in the Mennonite church, you may hear the word confession and call to mind public confessions you have witnessed. A person who was deemed to have sinned against communal norms was expected to stand before the church and give account. The church, or at least the men of the church, then voted to decide if the person was sufficiently penitent, and what the consequences would be.
We may have anxiety about either of these form of confession – the public or the private. And we’re in an especially strange place today where those two forms meet, where a private confession meets a public one. David’s confession in Psalm 51 has been passed down to us in a public book of worship. It is preserved for us to one read together. These psalms are meant to be recited and sung aloud in our corporate worship. That connection is everything, the link that happens here between God, a person, and everyone else who hears these words in the thousands of years that follow.
I wonder if we’re drawn to the private confessions made public because they expose some truth about all of us. Over the past couple years there have been many occasions where something happened like what we read in the story of Bathsheba. Someone is taken advantage of. Someone uses his power for manipulation and terror. Someone violates someone else. It seems common place, all around us.
When these sins become public I’ve found myself, again and again, longing for a confession. I’ve wanted these people, the Davids of this world, to come clean. Instead more often than not we get denial and avoidance, reframing and justification.
I suspect that part of the problem is that we live in a world of vengeance and undoing. Talking about your mistakes isn’t done in the service of redemption, or setting boundaries so you don’t hurt someone else, or figuring out how to make a different life for yourself, or about getting right. More often than not we live in a world where people wait to pounce on one another.
Just this week I saw that the executive director of one of the major political parties in NC emailed out the 11 year old arrest warrant of a candidate he wanted to undermine. Afterwards, the man who was arrested with a DWI when he was in his 20s shared publicly how he’d had a drinking problem, had sought treatment, and was now sober. He was disappointed that his personal struggle was being used to hurt his candidacy. I think we can each imagine this fear.
Once we let our truth out, it is no longer ours. Confession makes us dependent upon another. We are placed into the hands of another, at their mercy. And in a world of cruelty and competition it’s easy to see how coming clean, how telling the truth can overwhelm us with fear. Even David doesn’t admit to doing anything wrong until the truth is dragged from him by a prophet of God.
So the question for us is this: what kind of community do we need to be that people can confess into it, where we can nurture a truth about our lives instead of pretending, instead of walking around like everything is all right?
Part of creating that kind of community means giving up on revenge. Because vengeance assumes that by blowing someone away we can get even, that we can settle the score. There is nothing that could set right the world created by David. It was destruction, lives lost, futures shattered. No revenge could make that right.
On the other side, we also have to give up on an ideology of “I’m all right, you’re all right.” Telling the truth to one another doesn’t mean that things can go back to the way they are. It may mean that we’re not able to be in the same relationships we were in before. We may be disqualified for certain jobs or have to leave some roles behind. We may end up needing to leave the place we’re at, for our good and the good of others.
Confession doesn’t make everything all right. But it changes something. Oscar Wilde once wrote “It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.” And in the Psalm we hear that echoed back – “You desire truth in the inmost parts.” That’s the line that caught my ear over and over again as I read Psalm 51 this week. “Truth in the inmost parts.” Confession is telling the truth about ourselves. And when we tell the truth about ourselves in public we change what it means to live in community, what it means to be a part of each other’s lives.
The secret is that everyone has a secret. The secret is that everyone is pretending about something. Everyone has something they are ashamed of. Everyone has something unresolved. Each of us has something they’re just not sure that if you knew it, that you would still want them. Everyone has something in their life that they think might just push you too far, something for which there is no penance, no return. Everyone believes there is something they could tell you that would lead to their isolation.
We live in a constant state cover up. We hurt each other and then we avoid it. We sweep it under the rug. We pretend that we’re doing just fine, thank you very much. We give the appearance of order, the appearance of being all right.
I wonder how long we have to tell ourselves this lie before it starts to fracture us. And that fracturing moves us away from understanding what God is like, because we are bearers of God’s image. The psalms offer us space to see that God is the one to whom we can bring the things that might cause others to reject us. What we discover as read Psalms like psalm 51 is that God isn’t like people. God, it seems, is most affected by sin and the most willing to receive us when we’ve hurt one another.
A lot of what we do here is try to figure out how to act like God acts, to love like Jesus’ loves. We’re on a long journey to figuring that out. Whatever it is, what we have here in the church, the possibility here for us, is to become a place where we can develop a life where we can tell the truth about ourselves and then do the hard work of figuring out what to do next. Because God is like that.
Most of our catastrophes won’t look like David’s. But for many of us our failures, large or small, lead us to feel what David felt, like we’ve set the world on fire, burned to the ground much that we love. The story of David is crafted in such a way that he breaks just about every one of the ten commandments. He violates every agreement that sustains the flourishing of human communities who were created by a loving God. And still, and still God’s mercy is bigger, is wider, is stronger than even the destruction wrought by David’s terror.
There’s a lot that happens after confession. There’s the work of addressing the harm, making everyone safe, figuring out what has to happen next, how the community should change as a result. But it begins with truth-telling, with saying to others “I hurt someone.” And my guess is that, as we are becoming the people we want to be, a people who bear within us the love of God even in the depths of our brokenness and pain, that when we tell the truth we will begin to hear others say, “I have hurt someone, too. I have hurt someone, too.”
That is the beginning of all things.