BY REV. KARL K. WHITEMAN
SR. PASTOR -- UNION MEMORIAL CHURCH
"The final breakthrough to fellowship does not occur because,
though they have fellowship with one another as believers and devout people,
they do not have fellowship as the un-devout, as sinners."
- Brennan Manning, "The Ragamuffin Gospel"
Throughout my life, some of the greatest worship services or retreat experiences I have ever been a part of occurred when we were challenged by the pastor/retreat leader to write down a sin that we were dealing with and nail it to the cross. Often there was a hammer and nails available or sometimes tacks to literally do this on a big wooden cross. You may never have done this, but it is an exercise of faith that is risky and it is also extremely liberating. To honestly nail our sin to the cross of Jesus is such a literal act that for many, it seems beyond the realm of reality (or willingness). To some, this is unheard of -- being open about our failures and/or admitting fault or sin -- but open confession is often a giant step in developing true community.
Raw honesty is a hard-core discipline within community, but most of us are scared to death of open honesty. It's natural to hide our struggles so we don't have to face them or, heaven forbid, allow others to see our weaknesses. Sometimes, we think that we're the only ones who struggle with certain sins, so we keep them to ourselves. For some, it's further than that -- We hide our sin from ourselves, in denial, thinking that we don't even have a problem, often to the point of self-destruction or the destruction of others.
And then there's the worst killer to confession: Sometimes, we believe that God overlooks our sin. Or we don't deal with our shortcomings the best we can because we feel like we have to be perfectly put together to come to God.
When I read the Scriptures, I see people everywhere being incredibly honest with God, so much that our "rational" way of thinking is: "How can they approach God so honestly?"
It seems that they're insulting God's integrity by asking these things and by demanding things from Him. Moses, David, Paul and countless others had some real issues that they didn't hold back from God. (These were far from perfect people but they were brutally honest before God and therefore God was able to shape and use them for His glory.) There was a sense of authenticity mixed with reverence in the way they approached God.
This kind of relationship with God seems so out-of-reach for most of us. It's a natural reaction to hide our sin from others, from ourselves and from God -- believing that we can never be honest and open with anyone. Because, heaven forbid, someone may see us for who we really are. And because of this, community is lost and complacency settles in.
God wants us to ask hard questions, to deal with our heart issues directly with Him. He'd prefer us to be real and insult Him instead of fake -- which is actually more insulting -- and ignore the reality that we have shortcomings and sin in our lives.
Confessing to others is another struggle in the journey of vulnerability and trust. It really only seems to happen in small groups and even that takes time before we can "bare all." But when it comes to church, all of our sins are hidden. We smile, shake hands, practice "helloship" instead of fellowship, worship God and then leave -- often not looking over our shoulder for seven more days.
If you talk to regular church attenders it quite often seems like it's a perfect world at church. When they gather, it seems they enter a new world, not of this world. And so, as I've heard many times before, the church becomes a museum, or a cemetery/tomb, rather than an outpost for God's mission and a distribution station for God's love.
Do you view church this way? Is it a place where only "good people" are welcomed? Is it a place where goodness and glory and honor are maintained? The status quo upheld? Or is it a place to be real, to worship in raw intimacy and to speak the truth, even when it's painful to say -- or hear?
Why do we keep secrets from one another? Why do we feel compelled to present ourselves as pure, "we've got it all together," when of course, we don't have it all together? The truth is we're lost, broken, hurting, falling apart people who need repair and healing, and God has chosen community to be the context of healing and growth.
It is like the old slogan that stated this so eloquently: "The Church is NOT a palace for saints ... but rather a hospital for sinners!"
So, what would happen if we left the paper unfolded when we nailed it to the cross? What would happen if you had to say aloud what you were about to nail to the greatest symbol of renewal and regeneration? Would this result in brokenness? Would we see honesty? Could You Do It? I do believe we would see what God intends for His church, if we really got that honest.
The real question is if this is even possible? Can this happen in churches in this society and culture or any Church? Can we learn to acknowledge our struggles publicly? I don't know. I can't even fathom the brokenness that regular confession like this would bring; when our masks are removed. But I do know that we would begin to see the Church that we (who call ourselves Christian) were called to be because confession drives us to be authentic, transparent people -- with God and with each other. Only when we learn this will we be, as the late Brennan Manning put it so brilliantly, "the fellowship of un-devout sinners."
Hebrews 12:1-3 -- "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress. And let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from start to finish. He was willing to die a shameful death on the cross because of the joy he knew would be his afterward. Now he is seated in the place of highest honor beside God's throne in heaven. Think about all he endured when sinful people did such terrible things to him, so that you don't become weary and give up."