We Become What We Pray: Final Thoughts On Confession

In this concluding post discussing gleanings through the practice of daily confession, I will note four areas of focus:

  1. We become what we pray
  2. Prayer sanctifies us
  3. The epiphany of grace that happens within confession
  4. Confession creates awareness that leads to proper witness.

Firstly, the practice of daily Confession gives fresh meaning to the ancient phrase lex orandi, lex credenda: the rule of prayer leads to the rule of faith/belief.  In other words, we become our prayers. We become what we pray and our prayers shape our orientation to the world.

When I was a child, around the age of 9-17, there was a well-known traveling evangelist that had a profound impact on my life. His revival was one my local church routinely scheduled. During one of his sermons, he said something that has stuck with me all these years. Back then, it had a much different impact on me than it does today, but the words continue to resonate. He proclaimed with divine authority, “to live right, you have to believe right,” words that were followed with a string of loud “amens” back then.

As I repeat that statement, I cringe with all that is wrong with it, not to mention its deep sense of pride. While that statement can be parsed multiple ways, the crux of the matter is that he presumed that right belief produced a rightly formed life. That conception is really, and quite profoundly, a very modern way to construe Christian faith. The irony is it’s quite a liberal theology to ground faith in our right belief, epistemology preceding all else (liberalism is something he would have adamantly denied). So much for revelation. I digress.

Notably, he left out one crucial thing that leads to right living: prayer. In order to live right, one must not simply believe right, since the category of “right belief” is largely subjective. Rather, to believe right one must first pray right. Right prayer leads to right belief, which then leads to right action. Prayer precedes all else in the life of the church because the church prays its theology well before the church commends its doctrines. Long before there was Christian theology, there was prayer. Prayer informed theology and, in turn, theology would then shape prayer. Quite simply, prayer shapes belief.

When we use prayers given to us by the church, the church and its prayers shape us. When our intellect, convictions, or even personal concerns are all that shape our prayers (because they will shape our prayers to an extent), it is not the church that shapes us but our “right belief” and our faith surprisingly looks a lot like us. No wonder so many people live narcissistic or stunted lives of faith.

If you want to know what a church values, listen to its prayers. If you want to know what a church believes, pray its prayers. And unless you personally want to be changed, then never ever pray the prayers of the church. It’s dangerous to your current state of being and threatens to turn you into something you could never make yourself.

In other words, lex orandi, lex credendi: we become what we pray, the rule of prayer leads to the rule of faith. It is a dialectic held in perfect tension within the practices of the church. The daily Confession of Sin teaches us to live into a life of repentance and penance. For the first time in my life, in all my sordid interactions and decisions, the prayer of Confession comes to mind throughout my day, reminding me of the confession and the One to whom my actions testify. My daily journey is thus constantly integrated with a biblical one.

Secondly, in addition to direct prayers of Confession, the Daily Office itself saturates my comings and goings as I am constantly reminded that my life is one sanctified through daily prayer and confessions, which are made perpetually present in my interactions because they are made perpetual in my sayings.

In a way never comprehended, I have begun to understand the importance of praying the hours in the ancient church or what the Apostle Paul may have meant by “praying without ceasing”: when we keep holy time through constant prayer we are constantly acknowledging that time is holy and our lives are sanctified by God. Indeed, we are bought with a price and we are not our own.

I am here reminded of a quote by the 4th century hymnist and saint, Ephraim of Syria, who wrote on prayer, “Virtues are formed by prayer. Prayer preserves temperance. Prayer suppresses anger. Prayer prevents emotions of pride and envy. Prayer draws into the soul the Holy Spirit, and raises man to Heaven.”

In other words, confessional prayer sanctifies us, ridding us of vices, and creating a new heart within us shaped by the church and the resurrected Christ.

Thirdly, while bringing to the fore my own ineptitude and incapacity for anything good, Confession also reminds me of the gracious act of God that is meritoriously extended to me without my having earned any of it. I would that I was a good person. Alas, I am not. I am here reminded of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “We have all become like the one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (64.6).

Because Confession makes me mindful of my daily shortcomings, my past indiscretions, and my future failings, I am more concertedly aware that God’s grace is far deeper and greater than anything I can imagine. The boundlessness of God’s love and concern for me, for you, for creation, is unfathomable. I stand at the altar completely speechless in my attempts to understand a grace so deep and wide. I stare at the portraiture of Christ, in stained glass, above the altar, in absolute awe of a love that evades every word, every symbol, every definition.

We come to the moment in the Great Thanksgiving that reminds us He “delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.” (Book of Common Prayer, 368). This love and unmerited grace bends down in the incarnation of God, Jesus Christ, and forgives us because he has always already forgiven us on Calvary. Hence, what the Daily Confession of Sin allows is a deep awareness, and rest, in God’s grace.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is remembered to have said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11.28-29). In daily confessing our sins, we do not stand as people condemned and burdened with guilt; rather, we kneel as ones who are honest and resting fully in the necessity of God’s grace to be whatever we are only through the grace extended to us in Jesus Christ. I confess my sins, how I have missed the mark, not in an attempt to avoid hell, but as an awareness that I need Christ even more, the Christ who desires that no one will be lost but that all will be saved (II Peter 3. 8-10).

Finally, the concluding prayer of the Daily Office is rehearsed with the full awareness that we have confessed ours sins and stand as people enshrouded by the robe of God’s grace.  This final prayer gives thanks to God for his mercies and gifts. One line especially stands out to me that directs us back to the Confession of Sin, “And, we pray, gives us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise.” BCP, 101.

This phrase is a concluding portion of a final office prayer called “The General Thanksgiving.” It is preceded by reference to God’s creation, redemption, and preservation. It’s tone and tenor are one of thanksgiving for all the things God has done. However, during the giving of thanks, the above phrase in this final prayer is one more reminder of our dependence on the meritorious grace of God. The verb in the phrase is passive in tense, “give us such an awareness of your mercies.” Only God can make us fully aware of the mercies, chances, opportunities, and gifts we have received. It is our default setting to forget those things throughout the busyness of life. Unless God shake from out of us the narcissism of our culture and ego-centricity of our worldviews, there is no other means whereby we can be made aware of gifts given to us.

One of the reasons we can, possibly, possess a fully repentant heart yet be stuck between the dialectical tension of what we should and should not do, is because we neglect this portion of prayer.

Our voices and lives must echo repentance because in so doing that vehicle of confession is the vehicle whereby God can continually “make us aware” of those said mercies.

In fact, perhaps more so than moving God to forgive anything in particular, our confessions of sins committed, or omitted, actually serve to bring those mercies top of mind so that we might attain thankful hearts and show forth the praise of God in our lives. We need not always imagine that we confess our sins out of some fear that anything left unconfessed make the trek to heaven harder. Just as we are fallible humans in our doing, we are also fallible in our memory or recollection. The act of confession, rather, binds us to the action of forgiveness given and brings those mercies front and center, God’s very means of providing the awareness we need when we encounter the others that could benefit from pulling up a chair to the table of Christ.

For when we are aware, we a less likely to judge and more likely to empathize. We are less like to be filled with fear, and more likely to be filled with hope. When we are aware, we are less likely to consider our own holy walk with God and more likely to consider the eternally present act of God in Christ that makes even walking itself possible. Just as the Daily Office early on directs us toward our contrite hearts, it redirects us back to that reception of mercy prior to sending us into the world, thereby bookending our beginning and endings of holy time with Confession.

Only as we first realize we are the ones who are forgiven, are we humble enough to go into the world and be symbols of forgiveness to others, ambassadors of reconciliation. Thus, Daily Confession of Sin precedes our ability to be faithful ministers of Christ, for only those who have taken up their own Cross, and spoken their sins into its wood, can heed the call to go into the world, follow Him, and make disciples.

My Confession: God Made Me Do It! Or why I am in a DMin Program

mcafee

It takes very little for many of us to become enamored with intellectualism and knowledge.  This shouldn’t surprise us.  Knowledge is power and when suddenly one acquires knowledge that seems to give you leverage over others…well, not only do you acquire said knowledge but one begins to sense the power associated therewith.  It feels good to know things.  It feels good to be able to articulate ideas, think through dilemmas and forge pathways toward answers.  Knowledge “unsticks” a person and it feels good to get unstuck, even if one is not terribly sure what this new unstuck place is.

Unstuck is awesome because suddenly the world is larger, your mind is open, things are bigger, meanings are deeper and the things you were raised with don’t seem as constricting.  Very literally, knowledge opens the world in a way that was previously closed. It’s remarkable and its impact inestimable on the psyche.

For many of us, this epiphany and shiny new knowledge happens in college.

This is that college kid swagger that T.I. refers to when he raps and the pretentiousness that is often associated with kids who go off to school as student.  Somewhere during the process of learning the student becomes a self-promoting expert (usually before graduation).  It is amazing how naïve we can be as people who think we know more than we do at the ripe old age of 20, our opinions presumably forged in the dark night of our infantile experiences.

I’ll never forget sitting in one of my professor’s office as a junior in college.  I had just been home for the holidays and I was complaining to him about how “closed minded my parents were,” how they “didn’t get it” and how if they were only as smart as me then they’d see the light on a certain issue.

The prof sat there, hands folded across his lap, leaned back, listening.  He grinned, nodded and there were not a few “uh huhs.”  After I was done, he leaned over and said, “well, did you communicate your concerns as a loving son who has a passion for the church and wants to see them grow spiritually or did you communicate as a smart ass?”

Whelp.  He pegged me.  The Holy Spirit used my prof to get real.  After I got over the fact that my prof had just pulled some Pauline vulgarity on me, I realized he was right.  It didn’t quite settle in at that point, but he was right.

The hubris I exhibited in those early years, and in smaller measures through seminary as I began to relax a bit more, set me on a path I was sure ordained by God.  My original intent was to take this knowledge, my unstuckness, and be a preacher, but at this point I knew my life would take on an academic trajectory; I wanted to be a religion professor. All the signs seemed to be pointing in that direction.

I had done well in college and seminary.  I had earned awards for my work.  I had been published during seminary and post-seminary.  I had presented papers, contributed to journals and taught some classes.  I enjoyed reading and writing; I enjoyed teaching, presenting and challenging others to think deeply about God, world and one another.  That is what I wanted to do and more than a few people told me I was right.

To save everyone the details, events had happened in my life that made it clear to me the Spirit had opened these doors and it was my job to walk through them.  I could not have written the script of the actors, institutions and friendships that had been pivotal for my academic journey.

My journey as an academic, however, came to a screeching halt February 2014.  From 2008-2014 material realities that were seemingly carrying me to the land of academic promise (which doesn’t quite seem to be promised land anymore) ended in a cul de sac.

For a while, I mourned the PhD.  I mourned that I did not have the liberty to pursue it at any cost.  It was a distant homeland I would never enter.  It made sense for me.  It made sense for how I thought, the world I liked to engage, and what animated me as a person.  In a very strong sense, it felt like a calling.

Have you ever heard your calling only to be wrong? 

The PhD would have been one the most arduous journeys I could submit myself to, and in the end, prove to myself who I really was.  In my mind, (beginning from the time of my early twenties to just a few years ago) it was the pinnacle of intellectual rigor and I wanted that badge.

Now, that badge would never arrive.

However, I knew what I would never do; I would never take the easy route and get a doctorate as a Doctor of Ministry.  I would rather have nothing than have THAT degree.

Early in my college years I began to look with disdain on Doctor of Ministry degrees…thinking that most holders of the degree were complete jokes.

Dmin’s were practical degrees and I hated my practical classes, except preaching class…I always loved that one.

In fact, many of us undergraduates would make fun of the classes we had in praxis, how shallow they were, how useless, how much they wasted our time.  The reading was boring, obvious and not challenging in the slightest.  We were stuck thinking about Christian education and global missions when we could have been pondering things that really mattered like Barth’s Theology, a proper exegesis of sanctification within a canonical context or the distinctions of Pauline theology between Luther and Calvin.

Why would I want a degree dependent on praxis when there were real degrees worth earning?

Practical classes sucked and seemed too subjective and “touchy feely” for my taste.  I even rid myself of most of my library that was praxis driven as if to purge myself of such useless material and make room for things that really mattered like Lacan and Raymond Brown.

The Dmin was something any village idiot could get online via Liberty University.  Even places like Vanderbilt quit offering them because the degree had been watered down.  One need only pay your money and write a ludicrous thesis to attain such lowly doctoral status.  I had heard folks with DMins speak and preach.  I was unimpressed.  I wanted to create as much distance between myself and them as possible.

These were degrees pursued by pastors not smart enough to do a PhD, so they took the easy way out to get a Doctorate to get the infamous DR. in front of their names.

If I was going to pursue a doctorate it would be the granddaddy of them all, the PhD, or it would be nothing at all.  My MDiv would do just fine.

This was my opinion regarding the Doctorate of Ministry Degree for quite a while. Even while in seminary, many of the DMin. thesis written for graduation hadn’t done much to change my opinion.

But life has a funny way of happening.  Since the life of King David God has been one who often employs irony.

Who am I if I am not going to be a teacher?  What should I do if I cannot do a PhD?  Is this my calling or is my calling different?  How can I be so good at something yet not have opportunity to pursue it?  Am I to be a pastor with an academic tilt or an academic that does church ministry frequently?

These questions animated my thoughts.  The thing is though, I was neither going to be a pastor now, or a teacher, both of those occupations never coming to fruition.  It seemed my life had become totally disconnected from my calling.  Sure, I had done some part time ministry and wore the label “pastor” but I never felt like that was it.  Even after 5-6 years of such I never felt like that was “my place.”  I had been working toward something and now I’d never get there.

“Here I am, Send me”…and yet all that was happening was me standing still…a simple “here I am.”

The few times I needed a church to want me, they didn’t…and when I needed the Academy to take me, it wouldn’t.  Seems I had missed this “calling” thing all along…either as an external voice crying out to Moses or as Parker Palmer would encourage one to “listen within.”  I was tone deaf both directions.

About a year and a half after my PhD dreams had been dashed against the rocky ledges of life and the Church I wanted to serve found service from another, a series of texts messages put me back on the path.  For about 16 months I had been stalled, sitting on the side of the road, making pizza.  It’s ok, it’s a first world problem and I happen to like making pizza.

Into the silence of going nowhere, I hear a voice, “Hey, I am involved with the DMin program here at Mercer.  You should apply…we can do some really cool things in ethnography, wedding together theory and praxis.”

It’s wasn’t God text messaging me but it might as well have been.

Have you heard my opinion of a Dmin?

Asking me if I wanted to apply for a DMin was like asking Moses to lead the people out of Egypt: there’s a million reasons why I shouldn’t.  For starters, how do I reconcile considering this degree with my opinion of it and will I “fit” with the group of folks pursuing its ends?  Is this a “cop out”  to earn a doctorate or is this another moving of the Spirit…moving in others and now toward me?  I’m not even doing traditional ministry…why would a DMin program want something as unconventional as I have to offer?

As I investigated the program and what type of work I’d be capable of doing within it, I knew within 2 weeks it was something I needed to do.  Like all programs this degree would be what I made of it.  If I wanted to take the easy road, go lightweight, and just earn a piece of paper by paying for it, then I could of course do that.  But that’s not me.

This degree opened a window of opportunity to wed theory and praxis in a way I had never done.  It could make me the complete scholar and minister I had never been.

My undergraduate and masters work was all theory.  Yeah, I did ministry, but the work never took strong consideration of developing praxis from within, and out of, a rigorous theoretical apparatus.

Anyone can read a Missions book and follow the Roman Road, or preach a deductive salvation sermon that takes 15 minutes and a lot of shallow opinion to write.  These are not the questions that inspired me…and if they don’t inspire me I’m sure God must be bored with them.

The questions this degree set my mind upon were deep and wide, like how might the work of anthropology inform our theology and help us traverse culture in order to communicate Christ in meaningful ways?  What might Peter Berger have to do with Bible and what might Charles Taylor’s God have to do with the pagans Paul encounters on Mars Hill?  Might there be a connection between missiology and Pierre Bourdieu…and how might fieldwork inform our theology?  How does the incarnation as contextual theology inform the development of our own contextual missiology…and what potentials have yet to be explored?

These are the sorts of questions I am after and the sorts of questions this degree has invited me to ask.  We are not content with letting theology and bible be singular topics that only inform only one another.  If we can say that God is sovereign in any capacity then we must also say it is our duty to engage our work within the full realm of theoretical and practical contributions, and across the full spectrum of theological and secular voices.

This pursuit, the engagement of gospel and culture, is where the Spirit has me at this moment.  Being here at this moment then precludes me being elsewhere and may explain why I am here and not there.  I have wondered many times, and even heard people ask me in church, “surely God hasn’t given you all that knowledge to just sit here.”

Touché friendly lay person, touché. 

Since I graduated seminary some interesting things have happened inside of me.

First, I no longer care if people think I am smart.  I have nothing to prove to anyone.

Second, I have grown to disdain idle debate, metaphysical queries to which no one can possibly know the answer and in which we are simply theological naval gazers.  I simply do not care if God can make a rock that even God cannot pick up.  Don’t ask me if God knows the future because I don’t care.  I commend Augustine for thinking the Greeks were cray cray with all this perichoresis business.

Third, doctrine has lost most of its importance to me.  It is often idle and does nothing to enhance a relationship with God in Christ.  It is simply a dividing line that demarcates who is in and out…something the Gospel seems antithetical towards.  I am interested in real life, real life with God and real life with others.  I will not die on any doctrinal hill.

Fourth, my gift isn’t one that requires me to be stuck in an ivory tower.  Why do I know what I know?  Why have I learned what I have learned?  I believe it is so I can engage the changing demographics of our country, most noticeably having the ability to engage with those who have a strong antipathy toward anything having to do with faith, religion or God.

Fifth, I see a strong need for thoughtful people of faith to be bridges to culture.  There are many negative opinions about the church and it is often because many people never meet a thoughtful follower of Jesus.

Sixth, the role of pastor is not singular.  I am the only bivocational minister with a secular job, that I know of, pursuing advanced ministerial studies in the DMin program I attend.  There is room for a myriad of characters when it comes to living in the new creation.  In a real way, I am living out Wesley’s proclamation, “the world is my parish.”  That is my case…as I have no parish.

Seventh, I want to be involved in an authentic ministry that, to use the words of Miroslav Volf, is characterized by “inclusion and embrace.”  If following Jesus means anything to me nowadays, it means creating a community out of a people who are not supposed to have any place of belonging…or out of people who have been excluded.

Eighth, faith and belief are to be grounded in common human experience and are not things we can ascend to in our understanding.  One cannot attain God by an act of the mind, but rather only through the movement of the heart.

Ninth, I am open to creating a community of faith for those who have no home anywhere but would like a home somewhere.  There can still be church even when one cannot bring themselves to go to church.

Tenth, I believe that God is at work in the secular, present and at work in people even though God is never a conscious reality to any of them.  The vestiges of transcendence are to be disclosed not foreclosed.

Eleventh, for missions to mean anything moving forward, it will mean recreating, reforming and reshaping the institutional church to look less like itself and more like Jesus.

Since finishing seminary my work in the church, academic pursuits and secular job have all persuaded me of these realities.  My heart and mind have changed.  I am no longer drunk on my own intellectual abilities nor am I fascinated by the ability of others.  Life is about more than looking smart and beating into submission all the supposed “ignorant” people around us.  When this is our approach we become nothing but asses even as we think we are being prophets.  Balaam comes to mind.  If my participation in ministry is not more than being right, and more than being knowledgeable, than my ministry is nothing more than nothing.

I once thought large portions of my intellect and ability would be poured into creating a new doctrine of God or creating newer postmodern hermeneutics used to interpret biblical texts.  I now believe large portions of my time will be used in a theo-anthropological endeavor as one that seeks to discover the divine that never left instead of convince others of a divine they have never seen.  I hope to map the stories of others in the hope that I’ll be mapping nothing less than the incarnation.

Thus, in an ultimate twist of irony I now find myself doing a degree I had once foresworn and thinking about practical things, like missiology, that had at one time been the subject of my scorn.

And God laughs.

I never imagined I could bridge faith, praxis and theory in a way that would deepen myself while also deepening the church and serving others.  I never considered I’d be investing into the potential of bridging Gospel and culture.  I had never thought I would feel compelled to be a part of the monumental shift that is taking place regarding faith and religion in the West.  It is scary but it is full of excitement and opportunity.  No one knows what will happen as we continue to lift the veil off Constantinian Christianity but I am exhilarated by the possibilities that lie ahead for followers of Jesus.  I am thankful for the possibilities faith and belief can have in a world where these ideas do not represent power or big churches, but rather embody love and salvation for us all.

I had imagined I would stand on the boundary between church and university, but in a world in which both of those institutions are being questioned (and more irrelevant) it seems the boundary I am called toward is the one between faith and culture, institutions and post-institutionalism, ethics and eros.  This the boundary for which my education has, and is, preparing me, and its one in which I am comfortable finding myself even as those on either side may continue to wonder why.

Thus, I do this Dmin, a degree I once hated, thinking topics I once loathed, and discovering in it all why God has me here.