Confession and Confusion

The Rev. Andrea Greenwood

November 9, 2014

The First Parish of Watertown



Opening Words:  adapted from Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Stephen Batchelor

I began searching for a guide and a personal code of conduct because I was perplexed by the failure of teachers at school to address what seemed the most urgent matter of all: the bewildering, stomach-churning insecurity of being alive. The standard subjects seemed perversely designed to ignore the questions that really mattered….  I did not want to be insincere, or pious, or aloof, or just bumblingly good-natured.  I wanted to be awake, and in the world. (p. 10)

Reading:  from an unattributed newspaper clipping, 2013

The lifelong relationship we have with ourselves called out for reflection.  It got me from a wee paragraph in a brief interview.  Richard Linklater is a film director who has given us a trilogy of films that peeks in on a couple at nine year intervals. The third of these is about to be released. “He said, I’m fascinated with that relationship… we … have with our previous selves. We all have that, that’s all we have, our whole life – who you were as a kid, who you were at 20  — the great thing about getting older is you can reference yourself. But I’m equally sure that if we really could meet ourselves, we’d be surprised. Because we’ve re-characterized ourselves so many times to fit our current needs: ‘Oh, I was an idiot then, but now I’m smart.’ Not giving yourself enough credit, or giving yourself too much. It’s a fascinating relationship.

“If we could really meet ourselves we’d be surprised.”

So last week, I handed my friend Kevin a five-page letter that he’d written to me in 1982. It was written on old school notebook paper … back and front. Kevin was as intrepid as he was curious. But when he encountered his 23 year old self from the privileged vantage point that is 31years later he was really surprised – just as Linklater suggests.

I asked Kevin what he would say to his 23 year old self.

The next day he emailed me his response.  This is what he said:

My older self would tell my younger self that you did just fine. I expected to be embarrassed a little while reading but wasn’t, not even for an instant. It was me writing that letter and I liked that person.


Allow me to confess something.  I have never liked confessional sermons.  I think of them as a strange blend of ego and embarrassment, and a tool of manipulative ministers, who use their mistakes to connect with others, but the mistakes are always safely in the past.  That way you get a perfect person who is somehow vulnerable, but also completely in control.  Like Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister who is, in a couple of ways, complicit in having Hester Prynne walk around with the big scarlet A on her chest.  Towards the end of that book, Dimmesdale keeps confessing, sort of, his role in Hester’s situation, but all that happens is that his parishioners love him even more.  He seems so INVESTED, so emotional, it must be meaningful.

Well, thankfully I don’t have anything nearly as dramatic as a Hawthorne story to reveal, but I do have something to get off my chest.  I love the New Yorker, and sometimes feel as though the weekly magazine could be my religion.  It’s funny and informative, occasionally inspiring and often contains good reminders about issues of justice. It can feel like a little community, when people write in and I think about an article in a new way.   The only thing missing is music, and sometimes I can read about that and kind of hear it in my head anyway.  But then I feel guilty.  Shouldn’t I have more to draw on than this?

This pops up as an issue for me every now and then, when I worry about what exactly our religion is, and how I am supposed to transmit it to you.  This is the kind of problem that is best not thought about too much.  It really is better to just live your religion.  Saying a final goodbye to Mayor Menino made me think of this, and how years ago, I gave advice to a church member that she and I repeat now and then: “We’ll just muddle through.”  Not exactly an inspiring vision.  But it is pretty much how it works for me.  If Menino was the urban mechanic, maybe I can be the spiritual mechanic.  Given that my father ran a service station, it fits.  Just keep working on whatever it is that is in front of us.  And, for respite and everything else, there is the New Yorker.

But one day two years ago, Michael Collins – a loyal and faithful member here — told me how much he hates the New Yorker.  How snobby and self satisfied he finds it.  Like Dimmesdale, I tried to confess – Jill Lepore, I said?  Atul Gawande?  Emily Nussbaum?   Although I wanted him to like what I like – affirm my choice! –I do know what Michael means.  There can be a tone in the New Yorker that is unattractive.  Some of you may have heard that I am, theoretically, working on a biography of Elizabeth Enright, who wrote children’s books.  She also wrote many adult short stories, and was published in The New Yorker. In the 1960s.  A couple of years ago, I was talking to Enright’s son, and he told me how unimpressed his mother had been with the men at the New Yorker.  They had no manners.  Apparently Enright tried to greet Wallace Shawn at some party and he was dismissive and rude, waving her away with his hand and saying, “we’re happily engaged here, and don’t need the likes of you joining.”  It reminded me of what a friend said when a well-known professor sat on his dissertation committee:  “Never have I received so little from so great a man.”  So I am not blind to what Michael says.

But it feels like having different Bibles or something.  Can we be the same religion if what I am relying on for weekly inspiration is off-putting to another?  Last year, when the minister in Olympia, Washington, was retiring, the congregation threw him a farewell party.  Apparently the Rev. Art Vaeni had a ritual he kept faithfully: Sharing New Yorker cartoons to illustrate his sermons.  In order to properly recognize their minister, the head of the party committee decided she wanted the cartoonist to participate in the surprise party.  She said, “I wrote to them as a long shot, knowing they must receive hundreds of emails per week, and one crack-pot from far outside New York City may not register on their radar. I was also a little worried that Arthur would receive a ‘cease and desist order’ as a result of my inquiry, but I decided the risk was worth it. I wanted the New Yorker staff to know how much we have appreciated their participation in our services, that we will miss them almost as much as we will miss Arthur, and what a great ambassador Arthur has been for the New Yorker. I think Arthur believes in the restorative powers of the New Yorker as much as he believes in the restorative powers of meditation! So I explained the situation and provided a couple links to podcasts of Arthur’s sermons and a link to our website.”

I loved this sentence:  I think Arthur believes in the restorative powers of the New Yorker as much as he believes in meditation.  It seemed to me that there were complicated feelings being communicated here, but my first response was a happy relief of knowing I am not alone.  I also like this story because someone from the cartoon department actually did write back, which inspires faith.

The letter writer tells us that he receives several hundred packages and emails every week, but that this one stood out because it was so heartwarming.  It is quite nice, but of course the real story lies underneath this public exchange – with the parishioner, Wendy Brenner.  She took what might have been seen as a foible; an annoying quirk, and let Art know they loved him for it.  It defined him.  And of course, that’s what all of this is really about, isn’t it?  We want to be known, and accepted; we want some place where we are reflected truly, but also with love.  It certainly would have been easy enough to portray a cartoon-loving minister honestly, and yet with a lot less charm.  But Brenner found a way to honor Art for who he is, and for his intentions. She could see into his heart.

In August I read an interview with a man who worked registering voters during Freedom Summer fifty years ago, and he was asked what he was most proud of.  His answer intrigued me, because he said that he worked at not feeling pride; pointed it out that it was one of the deadly sins, and then said, whenever you feel pride, you know someone else is feeling the opposite, which is shame, and nothing good happens when people are shamed.  I found this fascinating, but am not sure I agree with it.  I think there are times when pride can carry us because there is no one and nothing else holding us up, and that having a parent state “I am proud of you” can change a child’s life.  And shame can be a corrective.  But I don’t disagree, either.  It seems like what this man was aiming at is to live without condemnation, or triumphalism; to be aware of how complicated and imperfect we all are; to not judge.  That is essentially the practice of mindfulness.

I think this is also the aim of confession as a religious practice; to wipe the slate clean and let mistakes go, so that the past doesn’t weigh us down; and also to prevent arrogance, by not letting us bury our mistakes without at least looking at them.  However, confession does ask us to judge – otherwise, there would be nothing to confess – and it also separates time.  We put flaws in the past, and perfection in the future, rather than living with both, in this moment.  Last month, there was an incredible example of this.  A minister in Alabama planned a three part sermon series, in which he confessed to drug addiction, multiple affairs with parishioners, and stealing money from the church. Also, he was HIV positive, but did not tell any of his partners this status.  His plan was to continue the series with sermons on divine healing and forgiveness, but he didn’t get the chance. The congregation fired him after the second sermon, but he came the next week and delivered the third part of his confession anyway.  By the time the minister came to teach them all about forgiveness, the board had changed the locks.  It is hard to imagine any scenario in which this was going to go well, but just in terms of narrative structure, he didn’t plan right.  Confession sermons do not work unless you are speaking as your future self, changed, looking back on distant flaws that have been remedied.  You can’t leave the reconciliation and the glorious future for week number four.  They really have to be on the table before the whole sordid past is made clear.

Historically, confession as a kind of personal chronicle of one’s inner life comes to us from Augustine of Hippo.  About 1600 years ago, in North Africa, as a forty-five year old looking back on his teenaged self, Augustine examined not just what he did – like pinch fruit from the neighbor’s tree for no reason other than the fact that he could – but how he felt about it, which was guilty.  In the process, he invented the whole genre of autobiography, and he profoundly influenced the development of our culture.  Before Augustine, the study of anyone’s life was going to be about external facts – accomplishments in war, or in public service.  So biographies were naturally of leaders, and heroes; of exceptional people.  Augustine radically democratized this, because his story was not based on what he did; it was about how he felt; and above all, how much he was always trying to be better.  His journey was incredibly personal, but it was also completely universal.  Everyone has an inner life, and his autobiography, called Confession, created the idea that we all have a story to tell; no matter who we are.  It also hinted at the idea of greatness being invisible; hidden to others unless we expose our inner lives.

For me, personally, this year marked a milestone, and I appreciate your recognition of that last week.  I find it easy to get lost in all of it – the memories, the stories, the feelings.  I could spend a long time thinking about how I got to this place.  There is a lot of looking backward, and it dovetails with the larger world, in this year full of major anniversaries.  It is the centennial of the start of World War One; the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Tuesday in Tuscaloosa, and the subsequent federal civil rights act; the fortieth anniversary of Boston’s forced school desegregation; the 25th of the fall of the Berlin wall.  Newspapers and magazines are filled with articles examining these events, and helping us to see through the eyes of people who were there, and who perhaps did not have a voice at the time.  But I don’t think simply listening – or simply talking – is really what we are here for.

Although I am wary of using the now unemployed minister as an example of anything, I do think he illustrates something that is true for all of us: the longing to be known; to have our inner reality and our outer worlds match up with one another.  His drive to expose himself as a method of healing is not really foreign to our culture.  It is unbearably lonely to feel that no one knows who you really are or what you have lived through,  and that can mean terrible secrets and behavior that harms, like cutting, or drinking; addictions you hide, or conditions like depression and anxiety that govern your days. But revealing your troubles, or your past, or your pain, without any real understanding, is pointless.  A few years ago, a long article about memoirs in the New Yorker pointed out the role reality tv and personal exposure had in creating a culture with no understanding of public and private, or real and manufactured. We now think it is brave and even inspiring for people to reveal themselves.  We can be liberated by someone else’s confession.  But I think the article also was pointing to a lack of understanding of who we are socially.  Corporate identity is not just about who is bankrolling our candidates. It is an issue for us as a body of people.  Even if every soul in America turns himself inside out with personal revelations, we still will be disconnected, because the point of confession is not exposure.  It is reflection that allows us to find continuity, a narrative thread that incorporates our pasts into a shared future.  When Augustine wrote, it was as someone who was becoming a new member of a church.  He was joining a community with shared moral values.  He wanted to uphold, and be upheld by, others.

Confession is not just telling tales in order to clear the soul; it really has to be about inner work; accepting both what has happened to us, and what we have done.  We grow in empathy and compassion, as we accept ideals despite our failure to reach them.  We all want to be better than we are; we all have done things we wish we hadn’t; we all have dreams, and, generally speaking, the things we wrestle with are nobody’s fault.  They just are.

When the movie Boyhood came out, an article in the New Yorker revealed that  the film maker, Richard Linklater, was hoping to make a movie about the Transcendentalists, and is in fact so into it that he can’t understand why no one has done it yet.  Well, that’s weird, I thought, and started digging.  Did you know he grew up Unitarian Universalist?  His parents were divorced, and he lived in Austin with his mom, but on the weekends he was with his dad in Houston, where they went to the Emerson Unitarian church.  Boyhood is fiction, and the characters are actors, but it feels real – the opposite of reality tv.  Yet it has a more authentic confessional quality than anything strictly autobiographical could have.  Linklater’s understanding of the relationship each of us has with our own evolving and enduring self is an essential part of how he tells us his own story.  The clay he was given to mold took him out of a specific city and home and family constellation, and left him learning to attach to much larger ones; accepting chaos and evil without simply becoming a passive observer.  He has made it his job to find, in the midst of all this, the holy moments of incarnation, and record them, so that we, too, can be filled with the spirit of life.  “My idea,” he said, “is to remain in a state of constant departure, while always arriving.”

Closing Words:  from Richard Linklater, Before Sunrise

I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer has to be in the attempt.