Speaking into the dark

May 4th, 2015

Don’t get too close

It’s dark inside

It’s where my demons hide

It’s where my demons hide

Every time I hear these words from Imagine Dragons’ 2012 hit “Demons,” I want to ask the band: Where did you learn to talk like that? Given their origins in some of Las Vegas’s crummy and poorly-lit casinos, these lyrics shouldn’t be too surprising. But the ease with which the artists name darkness, the demonic and the sinner is profound. 

It’s profound because of how easily this language found a way into the pop culture vernacular and yet is so often absent from its proper place in the church. To put it differently, we might wonder why these words are so easily sung in the car and yet so rarely heard aloud in the church. At our best, Christians will use words like these when we are gathered together in worship, in our public work of confession and repentance. But the way in which these artists name the struggle with the force Christians know as “sin” is beautiful and condemning for those of us within the church. 

So often, Christians are asked at one point or another for an account of sin. Whether at a youth group gathering, a Bible study, or in those weighty moments when a congregants wanders into a pastoral office, Christians largely struggle to explain sin.

I would argue that this struggle is for two significant and interrelated reasons. Sin is not something to be explained. Like the evil with which it is so closely related, sin is properly a no-thing, a privation of the good, and therefore beyond understanding or comprehension. Our only way to respond to sin is confession, a gift we receive in our baptismal liturgies and which we practice gathered together in worship. Confession names our bondage to sin while acknowledging the freedom we have from it in Christ, the one who has broken sin’s parasitic power. 

And yet the larger struggle remains. Apart from that corporate confession, many Christians continue to wrestle with demons and remain unable to unmask them confessionally. As I look to my own tradition as a United Methodist, I realize how shortchanged Methodists are compared even with some of our own Protestant siblings. Particularly in the Anglican tradition from which Methodism arose, one can find the rite for the Reconciliation of the Penitent, where the 1979 Book of Common Prayer says, "The ministry of reconciliation, which has been committed by Christ to his Church, is exercised through the care each Christian has for others, through the common prayer of Christians assembled for public worship, and through the priesthood of the Church and its ministers declaring absolution."

A local Episcopal priest recently lectured on how central this rite is for his ministry. He had only recently come to be rector of a parish, and he commented that this was one of the first things he brought into practice there. He made it known to the congregation that he was available for sharing in this rite, both at set times throughout the week and by appointment. You could feel the Protestant angst surrounding anything that smells like private confession and penance as he said this, but he continued to press on for how vital this has been for his work. 

He argued that the gift of this ministry is not the exercising of some priestly power over the people, but the offering of a space where individuals who are deeply hurting, who have broken their relationship with God and with their communities, can find a way to name that brokenness. What they need most at that time is not some diluted counseling or half-hearted reassurance. At that moment, perhaps more than any other time, the pastor needs to wrap the church’s tradition around herself and take up the work of confession, pardon and assurance. 

What a gift it would be for ministry, when so many in our congregations are struggling and hurting inside the power sin has in the dark corners of their lives, to have such a confessional space. The rite follows a simple and recognizable form: the priest and the penitent share in a confession together, and the penitent is invited to name aloud the demon that has chased him in the door. Keeping with our opening words, the penitent names where those demons hide. The priest then speaks those great words of absolution and ends by asking the penitent to pray for her, a sinner. 

Now, something should be said about that Protestant angst I mentioned earlier. There have certainly been perversions of this work of penitence and reconciliation, but that is not to say there is something inherently wrong with the practice itself. Reading with the rite, we see that the priest is perceived as a witness of repentance, not a collector of secrets. Our responsibility is not to become a power-wielding dispenser of divine grace. Just as our role in the Eucharist is a gift of Spirit on behalf of the church, our work of receiving confession is Spirit’s gift to the church in repair. If authority exists, it is Spirit’s and not ours. 

Thinking with this liturgy, we might work to bring such a new space for healing and wholeness into our ministries, and I can only imagine how different the conversations might be in our churches around the nature and reality of sin. Congregants may be able to find a way through their misdeeds and a restoration to their place in Christ’s body. They might receive that beautiful moment where the pastor’s voice breaks in with, “Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” Indeed, through this sort of practice Christ’s light might shine just a bit brighter, chasing the demons and their darkness away. 

comments powered by Disqus