There are many dates from which I can trace my Christian journey. My baptism and confirmation, the first time I heard God and the first Sunday I attended church as an adult would all be on the list. Yet while these have been powerful moments, shaping who I am as a person, the most healing moment in my life was none of these. Rather I understand who I am as a Christian because of a little talked about rite, the rite of reconciliation. Because it has been such a transforming force in my life, I’d like to invite you to step with me beyond the curtain to see how confession can be a powerful resource in surviving oppression.
It was Epiphany 2012, and after stumbling into the Episcopal Church I was finally starting to get a grip on all the odd things that I was surrounded by. Then we began to prepare for the changing seasons. After asking what Lent was I was confronted with an interesting opportunity. The priest invited anyone to schedule a time to meet for confession. This invitation threw me into confusion. My curiosity, strengthen by a desire to do the “right” things to continue to fit in this church fought with my fear of opening up, my terror of being rejected. In the end I somehow managed to spit the request out at a time the priest and I were alone. He suggested that we meet after the early service on Ash Wednesday, and my path was set.
I remember sitting in the chapel after the service, nervous and fidgety. A friend from school had come to church that morning and I can’t even remember what I said to explain why I stayed. It might even have been the truth. All I knew at that moment was that I was terrified about what was coming, and a large part of me felt that this had to be a mistake. With my soul and mind in a mess of knots the priest returned and explained the process. Slowly I found the right page in the still foreign book of common prayer and tried to clear my mind to sink into the silence.
We began together, ancient words falling from our tongues in a desperate prayer: “Have mercy on me, O God.” I kept my eyes locked on the black and white text, unable to bear looking at the human being sitting just behind the altar rail. All too soon the comfortable words faded, it was my turn to speak. So I began, my voice uncertain as I focused on the page:
“Holy God, heavenly Father, you formed me from the dust in your image and likeness, and redeemed me from sin and death by the cross of your Son Jesus Christ”.
Instantly I was struck by how reassuring the text was. In this moment, as I prepared to be rejected for all of the most horrible things I had done, here was a reminder that I had been made for something greater than the life I had been living. It was shocking, even though I’d read through the rite before I came, hearing the words aloud in that sacred space led me to wonder if perhaps they might even be true.
The service continued, “…wandered far in a land that is waste. Especially I confess to you and to the Church…”. This was the part that I had most dreaded. How could I compress six and half years of anti-Christian beliefs into language. What words were there to tell another of the hate I had believed, the scars from self-injury, and a mind exhausted by regular suicidal ideation. How could I tell this person, who I still wanted to like me, about my transgender identity, the reason I had once been called demon possessed, or how I had once been the fundamentalist who had bullied others into corrupted faith.
Yet when the time came I simply spoke, words tumbled from my mouth, all of my fears and my doubts, my scars and the lies that I had believed. Then after I returned, tears streaming down my face, to the text of the page, I was given the greatest gift I had ever received. The priest told me that being transgender wasn’t a sin, and that all of the things I had turned to for relief when I had believed that message could be put aside. He told me that I was loved, for who I was and for who I was becoming. For the first time I dared to believe that this could be true. I had let another person see that which I had always kept hidden, and in return he offered me the absolute assurance of God’s love.
I’ve come a long way from that first confession, and the rite has continued to play a huge role in helping me to navigate a challenging life. Because of my gender I am constantly bombarded with messages that tell me to be less then who God made me to be. Surrounded by them for my entire life I often submit to the temptation to believe them, or to invert them and make myself the center of a narrative that ignores my neighbor. It is only by returning to confession that I have found the strength to disregard those narratives of the world. It has only been by confessing the times I slip in patterns that reinforce the choice between suicide or idolatry of myself, that I have even a temporary relief from the internalized transphobia that still ravages my life. Yet even as the battle for my soul rages on, by entering into this ritual I am given a life-line that can anchor me in my true worth. I am a child of God, and because of my sin, I need to be reminded of that. Through the rite of reconciliation I am reminded that nothing I do, nothing I have done, can keep me from returning to the miraculous life I have been given. That truth is a powerful resource we have to share with all who are seeking to know the true value, the complete worth, of their life.