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Confessing Communities

By Robin Tanner

An adult stoops down so that a child can whisper in her ear.

“Why is it that it is often easier for us to confess our sins to God than to a [sibling]? God is holy... But a [sibling]…knows from... experience.... Who can give us the certainty that, in the confession and the forgiveness of our sins, we are not dealing with ourselves but with the living God?.... Our [sibling] breaks the circle of self-deception. A human who confesses... in the presence of a [sibling]...experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person.”
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer

"Uh, where’s the booth?”

Having been raised by a Christian-on-the-periphery, New Age mom and a Buddhist-leaning dad, I was a little perplexed at my first confession. I was eight years old, attending a Catholic school. That’s a whole different story, but let’s stay with the confessional “booth” for now.

It was a room, sunlight pouring in through a window with two softly-padded chairs. I sat down beginning with the words we memorized. Funny, the things that stick.

“Forgive me Father—“

The priest smiled and interrupted me. “What have you done that you wish you hadn’t done?" This wasn’t in the script!

“Uh.” We sat together in silence for a while. Then, it began like a few drops when you're not certain it will rain but suddenly the clouds open.

I shared mistakes, some intentional, some unintentional. I nervously waited for the penance. How many Hail Marys?

Instead, he asked in a kind tone: “What could you do to make it better?”

I’ve learned since that this is not everyone’s experience of confession, but it's why I became an early advocate for confession. You see, I also grew up with a Granny who reviewed her day every evening. If she found she caused pain, she would call the person to apologize. Even as a young child, I got a few phone calls.

The Confessing Church was a movement begun among German Protestants during the Nazi regime. After the government attempted to unite all German Christian churches into one pro-Nazi church, the Confessing Church resisted the takeover. Among their founders was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The confessing church was not entirely successful, in part because many of its members were not all in.

I long for progressive religious communities that are confessing communities—places where we admit our wrongdoings, are held accountable, and called back into covenant.

More and more, I dream about a community where a liberating love insists on justice and power redistribution — on right relationship; a community where truth flows freely amongst her people.

I know it is possible. I once lived in its grace and challenge. I believe it can be, but we are going to have to be all in.

Prayer: Beloved, may I know the beauty that can be the full confession unfiltered, one that shatters the shame where I share my sin openly with all siblings. Grant a love that heals to those I harm; free my heart of hatred denial. Call my being to openness, covenant and accountability. Help me to be a faithful member of the confessing congregation. Amen.

About the Author

Robin Tanner

Robin Tanner is a Unitarian Universalist minister, poet, and activist who serves as the Minister of Worship and Outreach at Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit, New Jersey.


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