C is for Confession (an alphabet for penitents)

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. James 5:16

Confession is one of those things we think about doing when we get to Lent and try not to think of the rest of the year. Most of us do not do it well.  We either choose to ignore unhealthy and sinful patterns in our lives or we are debilitated by shame and self-loathing. Mostly we vacillate between these two poles. We minimize our sin (or simply don’t acknowledge it) or we obsess over it and are destroyed by it. We see this in religious communities. Some churches never get around to naming evil. Other churches obsess over their total depravity, making God’s grace opaque. Confession steers us between the extremes of minimizing sin’s seriousness or feeling disqualified by it.

Our sin is not that serious!

In the primaries, president Trump famously asserted that he doesn’t think he’s ever asked God for forgiveness. He later stated that he think’s “repenting is terrific,” that he goes to communion which is a form of confession and that he tries to live his life so that he doesn’t have to ask for forgiveness. His famous public apology for his 2005 lewd remarks, “I said it, I was wrong and I apologize” may be one of the few examples we see from him of confession. Unfortunately, he followed up that confession with political doublespeak designed to minimize his wrongdoing:

“I never said I was a perfect person,”

“These words don’t reflect who I am,

“I’ve said some foolish things, but there’s a big difference between the words and actions of other people. Bill Clinton has actually abused women and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims.”

Trump gives us the anatomy of a poor confession: (1)minimizing the seriousness of sin ( ‘I am not perfect,’ (2) separating his actions from his character (‘these words don’t reflect who I am’), (3) misdirection (pointing to someone else’s sins). There was an apology, yet this was not repenting with sackcloth and ashes.

We shouldn’t make this about Trump. We are also bad at confession and we try to minimize the seriousness of our own Sin. If a tape of our past indiscretions surfaced, we may also seek to downplay its significance.  More often we distract ourselves so we don’t have to take an honest look at ourselves.

Our sin disqualifies us!

The other side of the coin is that we may carry the weight of past wrongs, wishing we had acted differently. We beat ourselves up  asking “If I only didn’t . . .” We are ashamed of friendships that fell apart because we acted selfishly, and opportunities missed. We regret rash actions, unkind words, angry flare-ups, and untruths. Sometimes the past holds us in paralysis. We are ashamed of what we have done and what we have not done. We keep all this hidden.  This was the first reaction of Adam and Eve in the garden before their excuses (Genesis 3:6-7).

These two poles are not mutually exclusive. We can outwardly act like we have it together or that our sin is insignificant. Inwardly, we may carry the shame of personal failings. I do. I can be gregarious and charming, quick-witted and fun, while privately I may be a mess—full of self-doubt, insecurity, shame for ways I fail and have failed. Publically present, but isolated from others.

Why confession is good for us

Confession is good for the soul precisely because it cuts through our tendency toward both excuse making and self-loathing. When we name sin for what it is, we break its stronghold in our lives. We hear words of abolution—that in Christ we are free and fully forgiven. We are accepted by God and restored to fellowship with others. There is no morbid self-loathing here. We are set free from Sin’s death grip on our soul and set free to live life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:

The sinner surrenders. giving up all evil, giving the sinner’s heart to God and finding forgiveness of all one’s sin in the community of Jesus Christ and other Christians. Sin that has been spoken and congessed has lost all of its power. It has been revealed and judged as sin. It can no longer tear apart the community (Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015, 88).

The fruit of confession is that we act differently in the wake of Christ’s forgiveness. We are forgiven when face-up to the seriousness and consequences of our actions. When we do, we live differently. We repair broken relationships (where they can be repaired), we live and act from a new center. We own up to our missteps and begin the journey back to the right path.

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Lessons from Bad Religion (Hosea 9)

Marriage vows presume that both spouses know, with all that biblical innuendo, and love the other; however Hosea described God as a jilted lover—unloved by the people He covenanted to be with, Israel. There was no knowledge of God in the land (cf. Hosea 4:1c). Hosea named the people’s wanton abandonment of God as the root of their problems, though clearly Israel had other sins (e.g. violence, injustice). Derek Kidner observes”Sin can be against oneself (1 Cor. 6:18) and against one’s neighbour; but the flouting of God is always the length and breadth of it.”1 The big sin of Israel was their bad religion: the worship of idols.

Politics and religion weren’t easily divided in the Ancient world. Kings were masters of coopting religious language to effect their imperial aims (not much changed there). Priests—purveyors of religious devotion—called afternoon showers signs of God’s blessing instead of speaking truth-to-power and naming where things went amiss. But kings and priests were not alone in rejecting their covenant God. The people of Israel likewise rejected YAHWEH and chased after the gods of the nations.

N.T. Wright writes, “You become like what you worship. When you gaze in awe, admiration, and wonder at something or someone, you begin to take on something of the character of the object of your worship.”2 One of the problems with idolatry is that we become bad versions of ourselves. Bad religion makes us bad people. We are as in danger of spiritual malformation as Israel was. Hosea 9 begins with this snapshot of religion gone bad:

Do not rejoice, O Israel!
Do not exult as other nations do;
for you have played the whore, departing from your God.
You have loved a prostitute’s pay
on all threshing floors. (Hosea 9:1)
Threshing floors were large communal properties, flat ground, where the farmers gathered to thresh and winnow the grain. Because of the economic importance of agriculture, these threshing floors doubled as open-air facilities for religious rituals, business transactions, and public gatherings. The Ancient Near East worship of the surrounding neighbors took the shape of fertility cults. Temple prostitutes were employed for their services—drunken orgies of delight were meant to appease Baal and ensure the fertility  and prosperity of the land.
Israel was simultaneously obsessed with sex and their own economic security. Imitating the nations, their worship employed sex with prostitutes as a technique to ensure a good harvest and prosperity for the nation. But economic security was meant to be a byproduct of faithfulness to Yahweh, and not a result of religious technique and ritual. False worship led to using people (in this case, prostitutes) to achieve economic growth. The unhappy result for Israel was crop failure and famine (9:2), military defeat and exile (9:3-7, 15-17). Hosea warned of the coming judgment but Israel decried this prophet as a mad fool (9:7).
We may cringe at the particulars of ANE religion, but are we really that far removed?  Are we not, as a nation, likewise obsessed with sex and economic security? We just elected a president who promises to fix our economy and bragged on video about sexually assaulting women. But Trump’s presidency is merely symptomatic of our American idolatry.   One curious feature of our democracy is that our government of the people, by the people and for people elects a leader every four years, which reflects the soul of the nation. We may decry Trump’s orange glow, petulance and his tiny hands forming a Vitarka Mudra, but he is a mirror to us of our own inner life. Like our president, we are fearful and angry at the world, worried about the economy, distrusting both the media and the establishment, and we prefer our own alternative facts to the true truthiness of truth.
If Wright is right and we are becoming like what we worship, what does this say about us? Israel’s worship of idols caused them to forgot their God which also caused them to forget the image of God in their women. They used them for sexual pleasure (and to procure financial gain). What is the god envisioned in America’s cultural landscape? Is it the god of the prosperity gospel, promises riches to those where to sow the right seeds? Is it the hedonist god of celebrities—narcissistic and decadent? Does the god of our nation value the dignity of all human persons as co-bearers of God’s image? Or are some humans viewed as less worthy than others? Does our god thwart justice for women, orphans and aliens dwelling in our land?
It is not enough for us to assert we are a Christian nation. In the years leading up to Israel’s exile, when they were an Assyrian vassal state, Yahweh was still nominally Israel’s God.3 In reality the people (and their leaders) were worshipping at a different altar. If the God who is revealed to us in Scripture was at the center of our national life, our priorities (political or otherwise) would look vastly different. Like Israel of old, bad religion has poisoned the well and there will be reckoning.

God break down our idols that we who are made in your image, can represent you and be your Presence on the earth. In our hearts and in our land, let us make You great again.


1. Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 15, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 208
2. N.T. Wright, Simply Christian (New York: Harper Collins, 2006), 148.
3. Interesting to note that the oracle of Hosea 9, never mentions Baal worship, just bad religion.

Beyond Partisan Politics

I want to begin by saying something that should be uncontroversial: Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat. Jesus is a radical departure from politics as usual. He doesn’t endorse a candidate. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Fact-check it. And if Jesus is king, it calls into question every power, principality, party, political platform, or ideology. All of them fall short of the glory of God.

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image source: Wikimedia Commons

In the first century, Jesus had several political options available to him, but he didn’t join the party politics of his day. He came onto his own, but didn’t side with the elites (the Sadducees), the middle-class (the Pharisees), the purists (Essenes) or the radicals (the zealots). He challenged the legitimacy of Herod and he tacitly critiqued the politics of empire (in N.T. Wright’s happy phrase, “If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not”). He didn’t choose the lesser of two evils (or six evils?), he announced the game had been rigged and inaugurated a whole new way of being in the world (John 18:36-37, Mark 10:42-45 ). If we call Jesus our king, we need to follow his example in our own political engagement. Continue reading Beyond Partisan Politics