The Discipline of Living a Confessional Life
I'm sitting here in the McDonalds in the small town of Republic, Missouri, population 8,438. It's the only place that has free wi-fi. And I can drink all the Diet Dr. Pepper I want. But Phaedra and I are having a great time hanging out with her maternal grandparents. Many stories to tell from our travels through Arkansas. But for now I'm simply depositing here the second part of my talk at the arts conference in Nashville (part one is here). If you'd like to hear it live, anecdotes and vocal inflections included, you can go here.
The photo above is of Brother Andrew of the Little Portion Hermitage in northwest Arkansas. I'd swear he was the re-embodiment of the gnarly fourth century desert monk Saint Anthony. John Michael Talbot is be the "abbot" of the Hermitage order, and we got ourselves a fanstastic albeit all-too-brief taste of life amonst the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, but again that story will have to wait for another entry.
“In the spiritual life, the word discipline means ‘the effort to create some space in which God can act.’ Discipline means to prevent everything in your life from being filled up. Discipline means that somewhere you're not occupied, and certainly not preoccupied. In the spiritual life, discipline means to create that space in which something can happen that you hadn't planned or counted on.” --Henri Nouwen
The discipline of living a confessional life.
In tonight’s talk I would like to explore two disciplines in greater depth: a spiritual and an artistic. We remember that strength in one part of life directly benefits the rest of our life. There are other disciplines, to be sure: spiritual (fasting), emotional (taking responsibility for our choices), physical (good sleep), artistic (drills & scales). But these two, I submit, are among the fundamentals:
1) The discipline of living a confessional life
2) The discipline of reading the classics outside your tradition.
Let's begin with the first.
I’ve been an arts pastor for 12 years. In all these years I have seen the manifold ways we artists choose to hide. So many of us go down for the count because we’ve got un-dealt with stuff buried deep down, festering away, slowly but surely enfeebling our moral muscle. And anything we keep hidden is a breeding ground for Satan-manipulating, flesh-arousing dysfunction: self-pity, self-aggrandizement, self-protectiveness, self-indulging, self-destructiveness, the very stuff that fights against all our best artistic efforts. Susan Howatch’s novel Glittering Images brightly gives flesh to this idea through the troubled life of her 1930s English clergyman protagonist, Charles Ashworth.
What we need, then, is a mechanism to get us un-hidden. We need to get ourselves out of darkness as quickly as possible and back into the light. That is a Christian definition of sanity. That is also often the most difficult thing for us to do. Yet it is in the light that God does his best work of freeing us from the sin that entangles and distorts.
My assertion tonight is: An artist who lives a confessional life is healed and unafraid.
The discipline explained
What does it mean to live a confessional life? It means that we live in a way that trusted others are always being invited to know our deepest weaknesses and failures. Dallas Willard puts it this way: in the discipline of confession “we lay down the burden of hiding and pretending, which normally takes up such a dreadful amount of human energy” (Spirit of the Disciplines, 188).
Two Scriptures are particularly helpful to us.
1st John 1:5-9, “This is the message which we have heard from him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. . . if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. . . . If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
James 5:6, “Confess your sins one to another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
What these texts remind us is that a confessional life is a profoundly relational one, and it is a habit that can be cultivated regularly before God and before trusted others.
What kinds of things are good to confess before God and others?
The discipline illustrated
1. Confess before God. Such as what? A: All the things you don’t like about yourself. B: All the ways you think God is screwing up the world.
STORY: One artist friend’s anger re. her body, health, money, grad school, struggle to trust God. “David, I want to confess my sins in your presence,” she said to me once.
It’s important for us not to push this stuff down. We need to give ourselves permission to feel it and to invite God into it. Confess it out loud. Make our peace with Him.
When you feel as an artist feelings of inadequacy, failure, jealousy, pride, fear, insecurity, a need to be perfect, wrongly judged, distracted, depressed, what kind of prayers can we be praying?
Pray the Lord’s Prayer—every day.
Pray the Kyrie: Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.
Or you can pray one of my friend Laura Jennings’ favorite prayers: “I can’t, but you can.”
The important thing is to pray these every day and out loud. In doing so we will begin to see real change take place in our heart and mind and we will begin to live with a sense of expansive spaciousness inside.
2. Confess before others.
J. I. Packer once said: “The quality of our relationship with others is an index of the quality of our relationship with God.” We have a pretty good idea of our relationship with God, he means, by looking at the clarity and depth of relationship we keep with our friends. All we need really is three honest-to-God friends.
STORY: Dad’s story via Chuck Swindoll: “Have you lied to us?”
STORY: My friend Mike Akel: “David, how’s your heart?”
STORY: My friend Jefe: “I feel like a fraud.”
No good comes to me when I hide myself from God and others. But the discipline of a confessional life ensures that my heart is getting a regular cleaning out under the gracious light of God. It keeps sin from taking root. The discipline is like an emergency cord. When I feel myself sinking down, I pull it. I pull it before God, before trusted friends and elders. And when I do so I begin to know in my bones, even if sometimes only faintly, that God truly is the Good Shepherd of my heart who ever and always has my best interests in mind, the well-being of my soul.