Our Confession is Good for Their Souls

sorry skywritingLike many people who would not consider themselves Christian, I as a Christian have grown to dislike much of what passes as Christianity. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Talk-radio clichés parroted by the Christian right; the ideological liberalism of the Christian left – both seem to me as different from a gospel-shaped wisdom as night is from day. And far too much privatized pietism and the Hellenistic dualism remain to be swept from our minds.

Inside various kinds of church leadership for decades, I have seen churches run more like business enterprises, psychology sessions, entertainment centers, or political enclaves rather than as sacrificial, life-giving biblical communities working for justice. I have worked in the Christian publishing industry for thirty years and been burned more than once by publishers increasingly organized around the gods of gold and silver more than the God implied in their founding principles. Like churches that follow a similar path, staying committed to “staying in business at all costs” is costing them dearly: the fear of the Lord.

People who are not Christians are not stupid. They pick up on this stuff that we try to pass off as Christian, and they see through it. All sorts of bad rumors about Christianity – many are deserved – have lodged in people’s minds as obstacles to seeking a gospel-shaped wisdom for the ills of the world. When nonChristians see us as hypocritical, irrelevant, simplistic, offensive, or even comic, we have stripped ourselves of our prophetic calling in the realities of contemporary life and end up with little public relevance.

Rather then being voices and samples of biblical truth, healing, and justice to a nation of drifting sinners, exhausted ideologies, and failing structures we too easily take our cues from the world system (already judged by our Lord). What is a transforming vision organized around the principle of a sacrificial life to us? We Christians thus deprive our communities and nations of true insights into their problems. Are we not, then, “wretched, pitiful, poor, and blind”?

Alternatives will have to arise, and many are, but the extent of what needs to take place often seems like a pipe dream to some of us. However, I have been talking in broad categories and abstractions here, but those are not what one meets in real life. There, it is people we meet. People with wounds from Christians. I believe that before we will ever be able to get a fair hearing from such people for whatever truly Christian alternatives we have on offer, we ought to start apologizing publicly for doing so badly. And I think that those of us who are public Christians have a special responsibility here. I have personally seen such wounds healed through a public apology.

Some years ago while traveling and teaching about a Christian view of the New Age Movement, I met two “readers,” as the women called themselves, who turned up at a Davis-Kidd bookstore where I was signing my recent book, a Christian criticism of a New Age subject. They were professional psychics and we had an interesting conversation. It became clear to me that the two women represented the class of non-Christian spiritual seekers who saw through Christian dopiness about the New Age. “A friend said you might be different,” they told me. “So we’ve come to see.”

Their honesty was refreshing, and they were not being petty or cynical or ever bitter as they described some Christian failings they had encountered. They just wanted to think out loud with me about why some Christians don’t seem to know any better. Even though I’m a professional gasbag I really didn’t know what to say to them. But as I listened I began to sense that, as a Christian minister, I ought to offer some sort of apology for the church’s failing of them. But what to say?

Then the penny dropped and I swallowed my pride and said, “I’m also disillusioned about much of the current state of Christianity. In fact, I feel so strongly about this that I wrote about it in my new book. May I read a couple paragraphs to you?” They were good with that, so I picked up one of my books from the table and read from it.

What I read wasn’t a formal apology, but it showed them a public face of Christianity that they had not encountered before. It acknowledged their concerns and commiserated with them, instead of fobbing off their legitimate criticisms and going for the juggler and, say, rebuking them for being psychics.

I don’t know what happened to those two ladies afterward, but we continued to talk and eventually they left. But not before they bought two of the books. Now I had some tough love in that book about the New Age. Did my “apology” lay the groundwork for that to speak to them later? I don’t know. But I do know that they wanted some honest conversation.

on air radioElsewhere during those same years, but now in Nottingham, England, near the legendary Sherwood Forest, I participated in a live, radio debate with a popular spirit medium (I’ll call her Sheila). Just minutes into the gave-and-take it was obvious to both me and the presenter that Sheila was being unjustifiably antagonistic toward me. You could feel the tension in the air of that quiet radio studio. Of course the presenter saw the makings of a real dustup, but I wanted to reach the woman’s heart. And something was definitely in the way. I had a hunch, looked to Heaven, and took a risk.

 

“This is off the subject,” I said gently, ignoring the presenter’s next question to me. “You seem upset with me. Have I offended you in some way?” When she said no, I asked if she had been hurt by other Christians. “Yes,” she said. “I’ve had some pretty bad experiences. I wasn’t even going come here today when they told me that a Christian would also be here. I’ve learned to stay away from Christians.”

Now what? I was acutely aware that this was going out live – who knows how many were listening – and that the presenter wanted to control what took place. And he wasn’t expecting Sheila to suddenly be talking about some of the wounds she had received from Christians. I was getting nervous and wondered where this was headed. Who ever heard of a debate like this?

I looked to Heaven and took another  risk. “I don’t know if this will make sense,” I said, “but as a representative of Christianity, I want to apologize to you on behalf of those Christians.”
In the air and on the air things changed dramatically. It was one of those golden moments. Her animosity melted away. I remember her brightening and saying how nice it was finally to be talking “to a Christian who understands.”

The presenter, bless him, after sidelining himself for a few minutes, reentered the conversation and we improvised for the remaining few minutes. Outside the studio afterward, Kris astonished me. “What are you doing this afternoon?” she asked. “If you’re not busy, how would you like to see some of the historic sights around Nottingham? My daughter and I could show you Sherwood Forest or take you to see the cathedral.” Or take you to see the cathedral? My. What had happened? Unfortunately, I had another commitment, but I probably would have taken her up on the offer otherwise.

An appropriately sincere apology to a nonChristian by one Christian on behalf of Christian failures can be an intercession that warms an offended heart and closes the gap between that person and Jesus. Confession is good for the soul. It may be good for others’ souls too.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Butupa and Radio Caravane respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)

14 thoughts on “Our Confession is Good for Their Souls

    • Good remembering, John! Wasn’t that the weekend Pam and I did some tag-team teaching on worldview and education? Thx for taking time to remind me of those fond memories. Keep up your good work.

      By the way, speaking of teachers, I highly recommend to readers of this blog John’s new book “Bible-Shaped Teaching.” John is a gracious and wise statesman in the field. See this link for info about the book: http://www.johnshortt.org/

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      • Thanks, Charles. You are very kind to mention my scribblings. We are having a launch event for the book here at Liverpool Hope University tomorrow. I was surprised and delighted when the Dean of the Faculty of Education suggested that we should!

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  1. These last two posts feel like they could be headed in the direction of a new book project… excited to read more, Charles!

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    • Hmm, a new book project. Hadn’t thought of it that way, but for those two posts, as well as for this other recent one >> https://wagingwisdom.com/2015/02/09/2239/ << I did draw from things that are deeply ingrained. And there's a whole lot more of it! Maybe some publisher will twig to this someday. I'd be open to that.

      I'm glad it's speaking to you, James, and that you're excited to read more of it. I remember the lunches we had talking about this kind of stuff. Very helpful. It's been good for me to post about it, if only to give my mind a kind of sabbath recently from all the thinking and writing I've been doing on this blog about the Middle East. I do have more to say about that, but you, and several others, have encouraged me to think more about posting on some of this other stuff, and I don't see any reason why that should not be. (I'd be interested to hear what others think about this, too.) Thx for taking time to send this note, James.

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  2. Great post. Reminds me of Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz. He wrote about hosting a confession booth on a college campus. If I remember correctly he used it as an opportunity to apologize to people for their bad interactions with Christianity.

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    • Bill, hi. Thx for stopping by. I love that idea of hosting a “confession booth,” as long as it could be kept discreet, not become gimmicky. Years ago, Greenbelt >> http://www.greenbelt.org.uk/ << had a place every year on-site where serious questioners about Christianity who were at the festival could go to talk quietly. It steered clear of becoming gimmicky because it wasn't advertised. But, oh, the people who turned up at that tent, the stories that were heard, the changes that occurred! (I haven't been to the festival for many years; hopefully they still make it available.)

      Love the new look for the Trinity House Theatre mailings, by the way. Cleverly done. Readers who are in or around southeast Michigan need to check out the intimate, live music every weekend at THT: http://www.trinityhousetheatre.org/

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  3. Beautiful. Thank you, Charlie, once again. Reminds me a bit of some recent reading I’ve been doing on Ho’oponopono, a Hawiian ritual of reconciliation which has helped in the healing of many. The power of humility….

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  4. Well. Blast from the past there from John Shortt – remembering you John when we (Christian Schools Trust) used to use that building for Trustees meetings (but not sure if you remember me too!? :)) Anyway, good to see your name here.

    And to Charles, I spend quite a lot of time now not only finding I have to discuss (when given opportunity) with non-believers but also with Christians about how the ‘church’ (whatever they mean by that in the conversation) has hurt/wounded/damaged them… Sometimes I challenge but often we get to a place where as a representative, I apologise. Usually God is gracious and I end up smoothing ruffled feelings somewhere but I don’t always manage it. Will check out the website above though. Very sad. #recognisingempireperhaps? Jane Almond

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