Little Crystal was only two and a half years old when she got hopelessly stuck. And when she got stuck she did what all small children do, when they have gotten themselves into a situation that the can’t get out of, little Crystal cried for help. She went into her mother’s study, holding in one hand a family treasure and her other hand couldn’t be seen. Crystal cried out, “Mommy I’m stuck”. Her unseen hand was stuck inside her great-grandmother’s vase. The precious vase had been handed down from her great-grandmother to her grandmother, to her mother. Crystal had always been told that one day the magnificent vase would be hers.
Crystal’s mother tried to move quickly without panicking. She scooped the vase and her little girl up into her arms and carried them to the kitchen sink. She used warm soapy water to try to loosen the toddler’s hand, which was stuck all right. When soap didn’t work she reached for the butter. While greasing her child’s wrist like a cake pan, she asked the obvious “mother question.” “How in the world did you do this, child?” Crystal carefully explained that she had dropped candy down into the vase to see if she could still see it when it was at the very bottom. But she couldn’t see it, so she reached in for her candy and that’s when she got stuck and she couldn’t get her hand back out.
Well, as time passed, the situation became more and more serious. Crystal’s mother called for re-enforcements. She phoned her own mother and told her to get there as fast as she could. A neighbour suggested Vaseline. The apartment manager got out some WD40. Still no luck. It began to seem like the only way to get Crystal’s hand out was to break the family heirloom.
When Grandma finally arrived, both Crystal and her mother were almost hysterical. They were both more than a little relieved to have Grandma’s calming presence. Grandma sat little Crystal on her knee.
Crystal was very upset and still very stuck. Grandma took a good look at the vase that used to sit on her mother’s kitchen table all those years ago. She looked at the miserable look on her grand-daughter’s face, and she said, “Crystal, sweetheart. Your mommy told me that you reached into the vase for candy. Is that right?”
Crystal was a little breathless from all the crying she had been doing and all she could manage was a whimpered, “Mmm hummm.” “Honey, tell grandma the truth now. Do you still have a hold of that candy?” “Mmm humm”. Crystal sobbed. Then Grandma rubbed little Crystal’s back, held her close and gentle, but firmly said: “Let it go, child. Let it go.” Sure enough, the vase slipped off as smooth as silk. (I have searched for the source of this story, without success. I first heard it at a retreat on the West Coast a lifetime ago)
In this fast paced world of ours, I often find myself in little Crystal’s predicament. Surrounded by a treasured family heirloom, desperately clinging to a treasure. My predicament often makes it difficult for me to appreciate the beauty of the heirloom. Letting go isn’t as simple as it sounds. But sometimes letting go is the only way to preserve the integrity of the heirloom. When I think about the church’s practice of public confession, I can see how desperately I have been holding on to candies that no longer satisfy my need for forgiveness.
Many of us grew up in liturgical traditions, which included a weekly corporate confession. I suspect that many of us could recite the familiar words of the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness from the old green-Lutheran Book of Worship from memory. The Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness usually came at the very beginning of a worship service that included Holy Communion. The liturgy was designed to ensure that worshippers felt that they we were all cleaned up and ready for the meal. I must confess that for a most of my life as a worshipper, I’ve participated in the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness, grateful for the opportunity to have things between me and God set back in good order.
But these days, as I work to let go of the images of God that I clung to for so many years; images that set God up there, somewhere beyond this world, up there sitting on a throne, just waiting to review my actions, my failures, all the things I’d done and even worse the things that I had left undone; images of a cosmic judge who after shaking his finger, and tut-tuting me into the shame that I felt was more than appropriate to my sinful wicked nature, would, after a brief silence for reflection, smile, pat me on the head and tell me that, thanks to Jesus, all was well, with my soul. This piety, is so much more than an heirloom. This piety, is in my bones. I built my whole life around it. Letting go, isn’t going to be easy. And it certainly won’t happen over-night. Like the old song says:
“I will cling to the old rugged cross, cause I love that old cross, where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain. In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine, A wondrous beauty I see, For ‘twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died, To pardon and sanctify me. To the old rugged cross I will ever be true; Its shame and reproach gladly bear; Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away, Where His glory forever I’ll share. So, I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, Till my trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to the old rugged cross, And exchange it some day for a crown.”
After years and years, of worshiping particular images of God, it sure ain’t easy to let go. There’s a big part of me that just wants to be able, someday, at the end of it all, to exchange all this for a crown and be soothed by the ever-loving arms of Jesus. But as I begin to give up the images of God that I have cherished to the point of idolatry; as new images and understandings of the nature of God, begin to emerge, which challenge my carefully developed and held piety, I find myself wondering, exactly what were supposed to do with some of that stuff we used to hold so dear.
During the season of Lent, where the liturgical emphasis drives us toward our need to confess, I can’t help but wonder: how? For centuries the church has used sin as the primary metaphor to describe the human condition. The church has taught us that as humans, we are wicked, persistent sinners; we can’t help it we were born that way. From the beginning of time, we’ve been eating forbidden fruit, hiding from God, insisting that we know better than God, and constantly failing to live up to God’s very exacting standards. In fact we are such wicked sinners, that God had to send God’s only Son, as a blood sacrifice, to pay for our sins. Up there on that terrible, cross, Jesus bled and died because of you, because of me. And because Jesus paid the ultimate price, we know that God will not give us the just rewards for our sin. We will not burn in hell, no, because God is gracious and merciful we will feast in paradise. So, we’d better cherish that old rugged cross.
When the defining characteristic of our human nature is sin, the goal of our humanity is to escape our sinful nature. But what happens when our expanding knowledge of creation leads us to understand that humanity cannot be defined by sin? What happens when we trade in the notion that there was once a perfect garden in which God placed two almost perfect humans and all would have been well if only they hadn’t succumbed to temptation? What happens when you give up the doctrine of the fall, when the concept of original sin, is no longer capable of describing the human experience? What happens when we no longer see ourselves as fallen humans, but rather as incomplete evolving humans? What happens when we give up the idol of the cosmic, super-hero, god who demands a blood-sacrifice for sin?
Some people believe that in our current predicament the only thing left to do, is for us to smash the family heirloom, and escape the confines of the prison we have made for ourselves. Most of those people have long since left the church. Some of them are second or third generation in their views of humanity and so they’ve never seen the need for the old family heirloom, except maybe when all else fails them, and they’re in the mood for a little nostalgia. But some of us are just beginning to understand our humanity in a whole new way.
As we return to the Scriptures and begin to understand the teachings of Jesus in a whole new way, we are beginning to understand the image of God that Jesus revealed. As we begin to understand God as love, we are beginning to see God not up there in the sky, but right here as the ground of our being, the one in whom we live and move, and have our being. And we are also beginning to understand ourselves not as fallen beings, but as evolving beings. As evolving beings, we are incomplete, capable of great things. We are able to create both great beauty and horrendous destruction. Sin remains a part of our reality: overt sin as well as the sin of omission, private individual sin and corporate systemic sin. Left to our own devices many of us simply couldn’t cope with this horrendous part of our evolution.
The good news is that we are not left to our own devices. God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. God who is love is the driving force behind all life. When we open ourselves to the Love that is God we can begin to see the creatures that God is calling us to be. So we breathe deeply of the Spirit that dwells in with and through us to become more fully human, the image of the divine.
Letting go of the images that we have been clinging to for generations, will not shatter the family heirloom. Letting go of the images that we have been clinging to, releases us from the prison that we have allowed that beautiful family heirloom to become. Letting go of our carefully held beliefs, of our long treasured pieties and the idols we have made of our God, frees us from the constraints that threaten to cut off our circulation. Letting go of the fear of loosing the familiar comforts and nostalgic dreams, frees us to stand back and look at the beauty that exists in that old family heirloom. Standing back, gazing at the beauty of the heirloom we are also free to look around us and see that the beauty that exists beyond the heirloom.
It’s okay to cherish the old rugged cross, as long as we don’t cling so tightly too it, that we end up worshiping an idol. God is alive and well and living in, the world. If we learn nothing else from Jesus, we ought to learn that God is love. As love, God lives and breathes in with and through us. As we love, God loves with us. And yes as we love, we also get it wrong.
If we understand sin as that which separates us from God and from one another, then we can begin to see the need for us to examine our sin. Confession is good for the soul. But we do not confess in order to receive absolution from a god located in the faraway reaches; a god who is there to convict us, pass judgment, and then grant us a reprieve, so that we can be about our business, and no doubt sin some more. We confess our sin, precisely because it separates us from God and from one another. We confess our sin, so as to broach the divide that exists between us. We confess to let go of that which divides us. We confess to heal the wounds and make relationships whole.
Confession is just the beginning. We begin by letting go, and in letting go we can examine the very thing we have been clinging to, and we can see beyond that which divides us to see that which holds us together. Confession is not an end in and of itself. Confession is just the beginning of healing. Confession is part of this amazing process of evolution that we are all a part of.
We confess in the midst of God, trusting that in the midst of God, the power of Love that is God, will live and breathe in with and through us to effect healing among us. Confession is a powerful tool that helps us to grow more fully into the humans that we were created to become. Absolution is the assurance that God is intimately involved in this process. Letting go is not easy. We all need one another, if we are going to seriously engage in this amazing process.
When we begin to see God as the One in whom we live and move and have our being, we are able to see God as the one who dwells in with and through us. As we open ourselves to a broader understanding of God we can begin to see that the power to forgive resides in us? For it is in with and through us that our God finds expression. By letting go of our carefully held piety, perhaps we can begin to see the magnitude of the power of confession to absolve us as we evolve into all that we are created to be.
LETTING GO – A New Corporate CONFESSION
P: God, creatively active for billions of years in this emerging universe, comes to expression in us. In God we live and move and have our being. In, with and through us God can be generous, loving, creative, happy, delighted, sad, and disappointed.
C: God loves in us; God cares through us; God laughs in us; God cries in us.
P: As we open ourselves to the power of God in and around us, we often cling to our desire for control, our self-centered nature, and our fears.
C: Together in the presence of God and to one another, we confess that our failures have all too often defined us.
P: By the power of the Spirit who lives and breathes in with and through us we can let go of all that separates us from God and from one another.
C: Together, we confess our sorrow for the limits we have put on God’s Spirit at work in us. We confess that we often fail to live in ways that foster our relationship with God and with one another.
P: In Jesus we have met the One whose life teaches us to act justly, walk humbly, love selflessly, expand our notions of neighbour, love our enemies, care for creation, and forgive as we are forgiven.
C: In Christ, we freely let go of our fear and open ourselves to the Spirit’s power to heal our relationships.
silence for reflection
P: In Christ we have learned the healing power of compassion.
C: In Christ, we freely let go of our own arrogance, our tightly held grudges, our temptation to seek revenge and our desire for victory.
P: In Christ we have seen the power of grace.
C: In Christ we open ourselves to the powers of mercy as we begin the work of forgiving ourselves, our neighbours, and our enemies.
silence for reflection
P: In Christ, God’s power to forgive is realized. May God continue to find generous and courageous expression in, with and through us as we forgive ourselves, our neighbours and our enemies. Breathe deeply of the Spirit, as you continue Love’s reconciling work! Let the Reign of God evolve in, with and through us!
C: Let us give life to: the love of God, the peace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, now and always. Amen.