Is Confession Good for the Soul?

A Canvass Sunday Sermon

Jan Vickery Knost

First Parish in Norwell
April 7, 2002

Text: Carl Sandburg wrote:
The single clenched fist lifted and ready,
Or the open asking hand held out and waiting.
For we meet by one or the other.

Each year churches across the country choose various means by which to gather the necessary financial support to continue their work. Believe me, I've witnessed some pretty strange and some pretty unique plans over the years that churches have come up with to fund their programs. Significantly, too, there are some of our congregations who try to play down the necessity of raising funds. They consider it a "necessary evil". They may make blanket telephone calls or send simple postcards politely requesting the recipients "not to forget their spiritual home at canvass time" but little else. Such schemes as these have pretty generally failed.

The African American churches have a way they use that's quite effective. There is no doubt that it would not be acceptable or appropriate in most Protestant churches. The deacons of these churches decide on a Sunday that will be called "Loyalty Sunday". Everyone brings cash. As much as they can afford. When the preacher and deacons take up a collection to the singing of some song such as "When the Saints Go Marchin' In", everyone puts money into the baskets.

But wait. It's what happens next that counts. The money is unceremoniously dumped on the memorial table and there, under the symbol of the cross, the deacons and preacher carefully count it. Then the preacher will ask for quiet and the singing will cease. He will say something like, "Brothers and sisters, what a privilege it is for us to enjoy God's love here in his temple. But we need to have enough money to be able to keep this building in good shape. Other things are also necessary. And the deacons and I have just counted the dollars you have so generously given. And you know, it's not enough. We need more to reach our goal. So I'm going to send the deacons around another time and ask you to dig down deep to show how proud you and how thankful you are to be a part of this fine religious community." With that the music starts up again, the choir takes up the song and the baskets are passed again.

The entire budget for the church year is raised in this manner with the deacons going back again and again Ôtil the goal is reached. The people, too, are part of the drama. They hold back a little or a lot and as the excitement and the rhythm and the singing grows they are moved to empty their pockets to make the church live again.

Now as I said, I am rather confident that we'd not respond positively to such a process. But we do need to take the same goals and needs seriously. And I want to commend the excellent work of the Canvass Committee under John Medaugh's able leadership. They have accomplished a great deal that has made this year's campaign promise to be as successful as we all hope it will. So be ready when the teams come to you. It will be our opportunity to extend our open, asking hands for the vital financial support First Parish Church will need as Victoria Weinstein comes to work with you.

Now to the sermon. First, the title: "Is Confession Good for the Soul?" I have to confess to you that I had a motive in choosing this topic. The matter of confession as it occurs in all walks of life, whether religiously or in everyday terms, is a vital aspect of how we cope with life experiences.

Confession, however, takes many forms. Three areas come to mind: 1. Confession in traditional religious terms; 2. Confession in counseling and psychotherapy; and, 3. Confession in Teaching and Child Nurturing.

Actually, confession is expected in about every religious community. Its mandate takes various levels of intensity. In Roman Catholicism, confession is required after committing some act considered sinful, it be a venal sin or a mortal sin. The church staff had consensus on the meaning of these terms. "Venal sins" are little, picky, indiscriminate sins that harm no one but ourselves. "Mortal sins" are what might be termed "real whoppers!" that hurt not only one's own soul but others as well.

But in the Catholic tradition, confession is heard by a priest, that is, a non-secular authority figure. Forgiveness (if given by the priest) is instantaneous. There may be penalties imposed such as making penance; saying one's Rosary or attending extra masses, but one's conscience is cleared. And the frequency of making confession is up to the individual.

In Ireland one Easter week while on study leave, the Knosts attended the local country parish for Easter Mass. The men stood in a tight knit group down the hill from the church. The women, too, stood around the priest visiting. On the stroke of twelve all the men turned toward the village and walked away. The women took various routes over the hills to their cottages. I said to priest, "Father, where are the men going?" The priest replied, "Oh, they've done their "Easter Duty", - said confession and attended mass. THEY'RE GOING TO THE PUB !"

In the Jewish tradition the "highest" of the High Holy Days is Yom Kippur known as "The Day of Atonement". Again confession is made by the individual for specific wrongful acts. Apologies are offered to the person or persons wronged and it is instantly accepted. Penance, if any, is self-imposed. The conscience is again cleared and the frequency of such an act is on an annual basis. On Yom Kippur, more than other High Holy Day in the religious calendar of the Jews - Succoth, Passover, Hanukkah - the parking lots of the temples and synagogues are full to overflowing.

Christian Fundamentalists have rather a unique but familiar way of dealing with confession. They hold Revivals. It is a time of coming together to ratchet up the fervor of the faithful. There usually is a general statement made by the preacher as to the sinfulness of all in attendance. Then follows an opportunity for individuals to come forward to make a public admission of wrongdoing. And again - forgiveness is given instantly by the minister and the congregation. The sinner is lifted up; hugged and celebrated. The tears flow in the glory of liberation from evil. And no penance is asked other than to make a generous financial contribution so that the Revival can continue. The congregation decides how often and how intense it's program of Revivals will be.

These are examples of confession in the religious realm. Let us turn next to a consideration of confession as it occurs in the realm of counseling and psychotherapy. People go to counselors out of the need to get at the root of their unhappiness; their sense of inadequacy; their sense of guilt. In such instances "sin" or "wrongful behavior" takes the form of personal behavior that has fallen short of the individual's expectation of him or herself. Often these can be phrased as expectations others have or had of the individual which were ingrained during childhood or have been imposed by others.

The "high priest" in this setting becomes the therapist. He or she assists the individual into recognizing where the trouble lays and to give themselves permission to admit their failing and to apologize to themselves. The book I'm O.K. You're O.K. was a best seller in the 1970's that popularized and gave major impetus to the whole world of "self help books". The setting for such therapy may be severely private or, in a hospital or clinical setting, it can be group therapy. This can be very useful but without good management on the part of the professional therapist it can become nothing more than "letting it all hang out" with no progress made.

We come, finally, to confession as it rests in the world of child raising and teaching. A youngster's knowledge of what is right and wrong; what is polite and impolite; what is helpful and harmful; what is "good" or is "bad" are learned by lessons, by example and by experience. Confession is usually taught by those older than the child, whether it be older siblings, friends or those in the family circle around the parents.

Confession is more often than not demanded by an elder when bad or wrongful behavior is suspected or observed. Now at a later stage of development confession may be offered voluntarily by the individual. But as a child the parameters are set up by those giving love and nurture to the child in his or her best interests.

Acceptance of such confessions may or may not occur. Punishment may or may not result. We hear of "sparing the rod and spoiling the child" on the right and we hear of "permissive parenting" on the left as two examples of this. But when a child becomes aware of his wrongful behavior he may apologize and thus experience the relief that comes by unburdening the conscience.

In some closely-controlled societies the child may get assistance by means of reward or approval for confession; in others she may receive punishment for the misdeed and no approval for confessing. But during formative years, the consistency and fairness of standards and their application by the various elders either strengthens or weakens the individual's code of behavior and his or her ability to confess when appropriate.

Now we've covered confession in religion; in counseling and in child raising. I'd like to make a few closing comments regarding the implications of such an unlikely and highly "orthodox" concept as confession may impact on religious liberals.

In counseling I have often used the phrase "give ourselves permission". It may be in relation to a person being afraid to consider making a career change. It may be in reference to a young person considering the next step in their educational career. It could be when one or another of us admits that we've been the roadblock to family arguments and peace. Or it could simply be a matter of thinking differently about ourselves; of "giving ourselves permission" to think more highly of ourselves.

But you see, that old "bugaboo", guilt, is something that we dump on our selves and I have learned that the greater our resistance to forgiving ourselves, the harder it is to forgive others. I have found that those who hold petty grudges are those who harbor a lot of guilt over some perceived personal transgression.

That being said, the next step toward mental wholeness is obvious. The way to forgive one's self is to go out of one' s forgive others.

The single clenched fist lifted and ready,
or the open asking hand held out and waiting.
for we meet by one or the other."

I know it is hard for us to offer ourselves as open hands rather than to take the defensive mode and create a clenched fist. Life is hard. Life is dangerous. Life is unfair. Life is not just.

The dilemma in all this is we have been taught by good examples out of the secular and the sacred world to forgive others. What we haven't achieved is a knack for doing the other. And we're often very hard on ourselves and some even think it is impossible.

The only guilt I know about is mine. I have often had to forgive myself for something that I did that wasn't wise or failed to do when it was called for. I can own that. But you and I can only listen when someone else tell us of theirs. We cannot intuit their guilt or heavy heartedness for them. They have to "own" it themselves. It comes with spiritual and emotional maturity.

If we get in the habit of forgiving ourselves the other follows and our world changes. I hope you will bear this in mind in the days ahead, especially as it applies to your own "becoming", your efforts as parents with your children and grandchildren, and your work and commitment to this religious community.

So, then, is confession "good for the soul?" The African American author and critic, James Baldwin gives us a fitting conclusion to the matter of coping with inner guilt and the whole matter of moving on in our lives. He wrote:

"I know we often (feel we've lost) . . . I think I know how many times one has to start again and how often one feels that one cannot start again.

And yet . . . one can never remain where one is . . . It is a mighty heritage, it is the human heritage and it is all there is to trust.

This is why one must say "Yes" to life and embrace it wherever it is found – and it is found in terrible places; nevertheless, there it is; and if we can say "Yes" (to all that Life offers us) we (as children) can learn that most difficult of words,

(Baldwin: Nothing Personal)