There’s a church in Columbia with a sizable staff (I’m not talking about my own church, I promise!) who retreats together at least twice a year. During their first afternoon, before they pray or worship or eat together, they do something rather remarkable:
“Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Matthew 5:23-24 (NKJV)
“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.” Matthew 18:15 (NKJV)
Before they engage in prayer and worship, before they dig deep into church planning and discernment, they attend to their own interpersonal “stuff.” If anyone on staff has wronged another, or feels wronged by another, he or she is expected to use that four hours to go to the person and work it out, to admit fault and seek reconciliation before further community work is done.
I have a close friend on the staff, who says they’re his least-favorite eight hours of the year. He says his stomach is always tight and he can’t breathe well, always wondering if and when someone will approach him with some wrong he’s committed, maybe even something that he did without thinking.
When was the last time any of us were expected to actually talk with the person against whom we held a grudge? Since being compelled by your parents in elementary school, when was the last time you asked a friend’s (or enemy’s) forgiveness for your behavior?
I’m here to tell you this Ash Wednesday that I have sinned against you and against God. I have not loved the people given into my care as I ought, I have not loved the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. I have failed to ask forgiveness when I have trespassed on others’ dignity, humanity, and God-given worth.
Manipulating the culture of niceness here in the South, I have tried to cover over wrongs I’ve done by drowning my victims in baked goods, good deeds, flattering words, devoted behavior–all the while I avoid bringing into the light the wrongs I’ve perpetrated against him or her.
In preparation for leading worship, priests pray with their fellow ministers before entering the church; for centuries, they’ve said: “I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my own fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I ask you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.” (new translation of the Catholic Mass, amended by me)
As Lent is oriented toward Easter, toward God’s triumph over sin and death, may we dare to join in God’s work by dragging into the light our own sins against God and others, that we may be freed from sin and cleansed from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:7-9).
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God’s holy Word (from the Book of Common Prayer’s Ash Wednesday liturgy).