On a cold February night some years ago in Chicago, I sat down with my mentor in his office, opened my journal, took a deep breath, and started to name aloud the sins of my life. Not only to name them but to describe them in detail – the stuff I’d done that I shouldn’t have done, the stuff I should have done but hadn’t, the stuff that had been done to me.
This face-to-face confession is a crucial step in the process of transformation suggested by the recovery community that I am a part of. In the weeks leading up to it, I’d spent many hours working privately on a list of all of my shit. A friend who knew what I was up to told me that I wasn’t looking so good. It turns out that writing down all of your shit can make you feel pretty shitty. It’s painful, after all, to stare honestly at the secrets that you’ve been ignoring or denying for years. And, for me at least, it was even more profoundly painful to acknowledge those hidden things to another living human being.
To admit them to a forgiving God in my prayer closet? No problem.
To whisper them into the night wind under a new moon? Poetic.
To divulge them to a scrap of paper destined for a meaningful fireside ritual? Burn, baby, burn.
But to reveal them to someone sitting across from me?
Faced with this kind of spiritual challenge, if you’re like me, your mind will try to convince you that such drastic measures are absolutely not required for healing. Depending on your personality, your ego will search for Bible verses or Buzzfeed lists or TED Talks in order to rationalize an easier course of treatment. A self-care spa day, maybe, or a punishing new workout regimen at the gym, or dusting off that Tony Robbins book you bought last New Year’s.
Telling the Truth Is Not a Carnival Ride
A friend of mine is a Catholic priest. He says that the confessional booths in his church stay dusty most of the year, until Holy Week, when there’s a bit of a pick-up before Easter. I’m not dissing on Catholics. Once-a-year-in-earnest seems more significant than the lackluster practice of my own Protestant tribe, which generally relegates truth telling about our condition to a tidy little unison prayer tucked in at the beginning of worship.
I get it. Real confession is not a carnival ride.
My mentor said, Are you ready to do this?
I said, Absolutely not.
He said, Let’s push in.
And so, with a metallic taste in my mouth from the adrenaline, I started with the tiniest of things, the stuff in my list that was true but didn’t affect me existentially all that much:
I littered occasionally as a child, I said.
I haven’t recycled properly.
I have an unpaid parking ticket from 1997 that the city can’t pin on me.
(We tend to stay on the surface of things when we know that deep down there’s a Ponzi scheme-level enterprise that we’ve been internally defending even as it kills us.)
My mentor listened to those little bits for a while, and then he said, Trey, why don’t you look through your list and tell me the 3 things that you are scared to death to tell me, the things you thought you would carry to your grave, but you’re going to tell me now?
And so, by some gracious courage that did not come from me, I did tell him those things, and everything else that I was aware of at the time. He heard it all and held it all. I remember him saying with such compassion, Yeah, that’s what happens sometimes. Welcome to being human. Wow, you’ve been guarding that for all these years. Now you can begin to let it go.
So Much More Is On Offer
That night was without a doubt the holiest encounter of my entire life. Coming clean about my shit in the presence of someone who didn’t look away, who didn’t collude with my ego’s desire to cover it over or point the finger at someone else, and who didn’t judge me – that experience began to unlock the armies of locks and to unclog the colonies of clogs that had been holding me captive and slowly cutting off my oxygen supply.
The freedom that I began to feel that night has expanded over the years as, fueled by that selfsame freedom, I began to make amends to those I had harmed, to forgive those who had harmed me, and to slowly – and I mean slowly – recover and rebuild a life built less on secrets and more on truth. The apostle Paul writes of undergoing Christ, It is for freedom that we have been set free, and that is the long-term offer: not just a one-time “cleanse” but a being-freed life powered by honesty, humility, and the unpretentious courage that comes from divine assurance.
A Politics of Confession
I started thinking of all of this afresh early last week when I took part in a conversation at a theology school about what’s needed for meaningful Christian mission and evangelism in the 21st century. Much of the time these conversations center on new techniques for changing psychographics, but we found ourselves talking about the importance, for anyone charged with carrying the Gospel to others, not just of knowing yourself as someone with a message to offer but also – perhaps before anything else – knowing yourself as someone in need of help. In traditional terms: as someone who sins and falls gloriously short.
My social media feed this week is filled with news of police brutality, Prime Ministerial and Presidential candidates, and – in my own particular United Methodist tribe – the election of Bishops.
I see some White people, many of whom are people of Christian faith, reacting to “Black Lives Matter” with equivocation, denial, and defensiveness. Not me! Not us! All Lives Matter! (I can see them because I recognize myself). And I wonder about the correlation between the absence of thorough, ongoing confession in our religious practice and the intensity of our racist or racialized self-justification. It takes practice to admit that you are a sinner and even more practice to allow that truth to be not a statement of paralyzing defeat but a potential acclamation of hope. As many have said in some form or fashion, the healing is in the revealing. We will only be able to chip away at the satanic power and principality of racism by confessing in detail how it has formed / is forming us – blinding us and lifting us up if we are White or silencing us and oppressing us if we are People of Color. Only by true confession can we be joyously freed for larger-scale truth telling and justice seeking into the future.
The Stump Speech I Would Love to Hear
In the spin of the battle for the Bishop’s Office or the White House or 10 Downing Street, I grow tired of the endless tallies of victories won and awards received and bits of vague or ersatz wisdom dispensed. That’s all fine and good, I guess. I get it. It’s all part of the political/PR process in both the government and the church.
But I just long for a candidate or current leader to stand up and tell the deeper truth. Can you imagine someone starting their speech or sermon not with their shiny c.v. but instead with their list of shit?
Let me tell you about a time that I really fucked up. Let me tell you how I am guilty of sin now and how that drives me again and again into a dependence on Someone-Who-Is-Not-Me. Let me confess some of my failures to you as a testimony that I am indeed someone like you, someone in need, someone who continues to undergo transformation and therefore can join you in the transformation of everything.
I would trust a leader like that.
I want to be a sinner like that.