Archive for the ‘Luther’s First Thesis’ Category

Not long ago someone offered to “edit me.” In context it obviously meant “edit my writing,” but still it aroused a wild thought about something that would be quite a superpower: the ability to edit a person. I wanted to start with myself. Bad choices from 1997? Erased or amended. Faults? Smoothed over, like yesterday. Almost as quickly as the thought came forth, though, another thought arose and destroyed it, quietly but utterly. Everything on the record will stand; I am content in this, and regret nothing. Not because I’m “real,” or “raw,” or “I gotta be me,” but because the kindness of God moves me to repent and to be satisfied with His mercy. That satisfaction leaves no room for self-editing.


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ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. (1)

The General Confession opens with a sweet address: to our Father in heaven, the Almighty One with absolute authority to pronounce judgments that silence the judgments of the lesser, stingier, nearsighted judges who surround us daily — including the one we see in the mirror. And the high and mighty One who dwells in the heavens and does as he pleases is “most merciful.” It is his good pleasure to give us the Kingdom (2). He gives a full day’s wage to the workers hired at the eleventh hour (3). He welcomes the prodigal son home. He kindly holds out his hands to the prodigal’s bitter older brother (4). Indeed, outbreaks of his generosity are liable to happen anywhere. He sends Elijah to a bereaved widow in Sidon — a hotbed of Baal worship, where the people assumed the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel had no business meddling (5). Much later he sends his Son to the same region to heal the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman (6). He sends Jonah, kicking and screaming, over five hundred miles of wilderness to call Nineveh to repent (7). He takes Ruth the Moabite and makes her mother to the kings of God’s covenant people, and part of the Christ’s family tree (8). He draws Naaman the leprous Syrian to the prophet Elisha for cleansing (9). The walls of the Kingdom are porous. Its agents go out to the ends of the earth, and its doors are open to all who would enter.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (10). Or, as Simon and Garfunkel have it:

Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on . . .
Blessed are the meth drinkers, pot sellers, illusion dwellers . . .
Blessed are the penny rookers, cheap hookers, groovy lookers (11)

And it’s a good thing, too. For after the glorious opening address, the General Confession turns sharply to the sordid truth about ourselves: “We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.”

There are, I confess, few phrases in the Prayer Book that I enjoy more than “devices and desires of our our hearts.” Had P. D. James not beaten me to it I think I would have taken a wicked delight in writing a novel with the title Devices and Desires (Miserable Offenders would pack a similar punch, but lacks the intrigue). “Devices and desires . . .” If anyone frets over the supposed inability of words to convey meaning with weight and clarity, please step out of the fog of postmodern deconstruction for two seconds and listen to that phrase: “devices and desires.” Can its meaning really be doubted or mistaken? Does it not land heavy as a sledgehammer, and cut sharp as a scalpel?

But for all my delight in Thomas Cranmer’s brilliant wordsmithing, there are also few phrases that inflict greater pain. For, sadly, I have been following the devices and desires of my own heart too much since . . . well, conception (12). “I want. I need. Pay attention to me.” These are the thoughts that govern far too much of my interaction with the world. I want the universe to be all about me. I scream like an unweaned child when I don’t get my way. I preen like a self-satisfied toddler on the toilet when it looks like I’ve succeeded in my potty-training. Granted, advancing age and years of education have lent these things a mask of sophistication, which enables me frequently to deceive the watching world and — almost as frequently — myself. God is not deceived.

And in some precious moments, he undeceives me. He does this through (among other agents) his prophets:

The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it? (13)

And through his Son:

What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. (14)

And through the Church, and the confession that opens the daily office: “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.”

G. K. Chesterton once noted the absurdity of denying human sin, “which [we] can see in the street.” But we really don’t have to go even that far to see sin. Sartre correctly said that “hell is other people.” He could have added, “hell is also myself.” On a good day, it is right there, in the twisted devices and desires of my heart, that I see the depth and power of hell with most horrifying clarity. And shudder.

That stark picture preempts the typical evasions. Like: “I really didn’t mean to. I didn’t want things to end so badly. I meant better in my heart.” There is no weaseling off responsibility. I did not mean better, certainly not in my heart. We are culpable precisely because our bad acts — thoughts, words, and deeds — proceed from the heart. They can proceed from nowhere else.

But there is, admittedly, a little more to it. Why do we turn to the “devices and desires of our own hearts”? The General Confession tells us in its very first admission:

“We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep” (15).

Life is hard. And scary. And bewildering. And we are by nature small, needy, dependent creatures, whose vision is not always adequate to see where legitimate creature-comforts — daily bread, for example — will come from, or when they’ll arrive. That is scary, and a frightened sheep will run every which way but the right way. So we may know, in times of relative peace, that our Father in heaven knows what we need and will give it to us if we seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness (16). Scare us a little, though, and we’ll go back to depending on those bad old devices and desires to give us what we need. That does not lessen our culpability in the least — the lack of faith is nothing less than spitting at the generosity of a most generous Father — but it explains how we go so far astray. I don’t usually get up in the morning consciously plotting to put my “devices and desires” in the driver’s seat. Yet in the driver’s seat they end up, because I’m a scared and foolish sheep.

If the opening admissions of the General Confession were turned into a horror flick, the one making them would be at once confessing to being the ghoulish villain and the guy who walks into the dark room without turning on the light. So we can be grateful the Confession doesn’t stop there, but goes on to better things. Who knows? There may yet be a way to brighten the villain’s thoughts. And, for once, the audience’s collective “Man, flick the light switch!” might actually get through.

(1) The General Confession from the Order for Morning Prayer, from The Book of Common Prayer.
(2) Luke 12:32
(3) Matthew 20:1-16
(4) Luke 15:11-32
(5) 1 Kings 17:8-24
(6) Mark 7:24-30
(7) Jonah
(8) Ruth
(9) 2 Kings 5:1-14
(10) Matthew 5:3
(11) Paul Simon, “Blessed” (from Sounds of Silence, 1966)
(12) Psalm 51:5
(13) Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV)
(14) Mark 7:20-23 (ESV)
(15) The prayer book here alludes to Isaiah 53:6
(16) Matthew 6:33

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Almighty and most merciful Father . . .

The General Confession, The Book of Common Prayer.

In the last post on the General Confession I noted that the power of God is a comfort to sinners. Yet, without mercy, the might of God is an unmitigated threat to us and leaves us no hope through confession. So if we ask God for mercy, it helps to begin by reminding ourselves of the extent of the mercy available to us.

So just who is this one the General Confession calls “most merciful Father”? How ready is He to hear and respond with pity to a true confession?

You probably know a story* that begins this way:

There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

The parable of the prodigal son is commonly oversimplified to the following, which is true as far as it goes: the younger son takes his share of his father’s property, goes off, squanders everything sowing his wild oats, then comes back, and is mercifully received by his father. But there is more to it, much more. The parable, which Jesus primarily addresses to experts in law, reads like a law school exam question: packed into almost every phrase is some monstrous injustice, or some unthinkable mercy, that raises some issue which must be dealt with. Both sons grievously offend their father, heaping insult upon insult. And the father meets every last insult with extravagant grace.

Estates don’t descend to heirs until someone dies. So the younger son’s request, “give me my share of the estate,” means, in effect, “I wish you were dead. I have no affection for you, no filial respect for you. I don’t want to be part of your family. I just want your stuff — my stuff — right now.” The younger son’s circumstances may get worse. But his behavior hits rock bottom right out of the gate.

But his father, again right out of the gate, meets this monstrous injustice with mercy. Far from taking the expected action — throwing his ungrateful son out bodily — he endures, ungrudgingly, the anguish of dividing his life with his son.

Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

The younger son, being a proud, stiff-necked, pity-spurning fool, doesn’t come away from his rebellion unscathed. To the original Jewish hearers of this story, feeding pigs and longing to be fed with pods the pigs ate was hitting rock bottom and starting to drill. It took circumstances that desperate to wake the son up. Only when his alternatives dried up did he think of home:

When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

It’s noteworthy that the son resolves to pay his father the compliment of calling him “Father,” but will not presume to ask to be treated as a son again. And that his planned confession lists the offended parties in the right order — “I sinned against heaven and against you.” But he has not yet totally surrendered: the son wants to be a hired servant; to do his father the justice of making restitution. Now restitution is a good thing as far as it goes, but the son’s plan overlooks that he cannot put a price tag on his father’s agony. To that extent he still doesn’t see the full gravity of his offense; he knows he has wronged his father, but he still thinks himself competent to judge his wrong and his father’s loss, and to sentence himself to repayment of squandered property. In short, he’s still attached to some idea of right, and the desire to captain his own ship. With these things in mind he goes home.

Plainly the father hasn’t been seething in the meantime, reciting to himself the things his son ought to say it he dares show his face around town again. And here as everywhere else, the father casts aside anything like dignity and convention. He runs — as women and children, but not fathers, did back then. The father dramatically “falls on his son’s neck” and kisses him. Stunning as that is, he’s just getting warmed up.

And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

In response to his father’s astonishingly affectionate greeting, the younger son begins his prepared remarks, but, significantly, stops before getting to the restitution part. He only acknowledges the sad truth about himself, and leaves it at that. He finally relinquishes any pretense that he is able of his own strength to make things right. How could anyone who has callously wounded such a generous father speak of repayment? He makes his confession, and leaves judgment to his father.

But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

For the son’s bare feet, a sign of his poverty, the father gives sandals; and the best robe and ring (a family signet ring, probably) signify the father’s full acceptance of his son back into the family as an honored member. Killing the fatted calf means that this is to be the party of parties, with the whole village to be invited. The villagers would have wondered at this, since the father was basically taking upon himself the dishonor the son brought upon the family. But the father does not stand on ceremony: how can things be otherwise, since my son has come back from the dead?

Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.

Having welcomed his prodigal son home, the father now takes an unkinder cut from his firstborn, which is worse than the younger son’s because it’s given in public. The family would have been expected to greet the guests from the village; for the firstborn to refuse is for him to publicly disown the family.

The father is nothing if not consistent. Instead of having the elder son bound and brought in to face judgment, he again goes out to meet a rebellious son. And not to command his son, but to plead with him.

But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

Just as his initial cut was unkinder than his younger brother’s, so is the firstborn’s response to his father’s grace, which is the unkindest cut of all to this point. He acknowledges neither his father nor his brother (contemptuously called “this son of yours”), and prefaces his complaint with the word “look.” He has not come to his senses; he does not see himself or his father or his situation clearly. He is blinded by his own bitterness at having worked with apparent diligence and faithfulness but not received the advances — one third of the father’s estate, and now the fatted calf — that his brother had received. He cannot see his father’s generosity to him, or what his speech makes plain: that he, just as his younger brother once did, loves his father’s property but not his father.

Again, this speech was not a back room deal; many of the guests would have followed the father out of the house and would have heard the son’s words. So the father, again publicly lowering himself, overlooks his son’s insult and labors patiently to bring his outwardly obedient but utterly wayward firstborn to his senses.

‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’

Don’t miss the opening words: “My son.” There are a couple of Greek words for son: one is “huios,” the more formal, legal term, the other “teknon,” a term of tender affection. Luke uses “teknon” to capture our Lord’s meaning. The father does not accept his firstborn’s rash disowning of the family; he loves his son starting from his address. Then he speaks of the grace of communion: “You are always with me.” And he labors on: “my property, my living, my very life, is yours for the sharing, and — isn’t this great! — that includes your found brother.” The father scorns all shame and will not be thwarted from seeking above all the restoration and peace of his family.

So how does the elder son respond to this last entreaty? We don’t know. The cliffhanger ending here is masterful, with Jesus in effect saying to the Pharisees and lawyers to whom he told the parable, and by extension to we who overhear today, “the doors of the kingdom of God are thrown open. Tax collectors and prostitutes and all manner of those who squandered the inheritance are coming to their senses, and going in to dine at the feast. Your God and Father is glad to welcome them. So are you going to stand outside and grouse about, indeed publicly decry, his generosity? Or will you go in to your Father’s party with your brothers and sisters and be happy?”

Jesus understood his Father to be “most merciful” — indeed, reading the parable through, we might say that it is “his property always to have mercy.”** This relentless mercy tends to produce one of two responses: wonder and gratitude on the one hand, a bad case of the sulks on the other. The General Confession begins by calling us to recognize the mercy of God as an inexhaustible wonder, in light of which we can admit plainly, without guile or rationalization, every bit of dirty dirt we carry, from our unshod feet to our tangled hair. ***

* Luke 15:11-32. All quotes from the parable are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
** From the Book of Common Prayer Order for Holy Communion.
*** The above look at the parable of the two sons and their father traces, almost to but hopefully not to or past the point of plagiarism, the works of Kenneth Bailey and Timothy Keller. I haven’t quoted either, and do not think I have borrowed any of their words, but their expositions have so impacted my thinking about this parable that my thoughts on it are closely intertwined with theirs. If anyone spots unattributed quotes, it’s because they were that well-lodged in my brain. I will gladly credit their words anywhere the credit may be due.

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The General Confession begins by addressing God: “Almighty and most merciful Father.” Those five words cannot be skated over quickly. If they are not true, the rest of the confession is of no value whatever. If any of them is untrue, then let’s eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

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Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind In Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.

The General Confession from The Book of Common Prayer.

Fans of The Princess Bride will remember this scene: Inigo Montoya, having been defeated by the Man in Black in the duel by the Cliffs of Insanity, is back on the outskirts of Florin City, drunk, resisting the Brute Squad’s efforts to get him to leave town. “I will not be moved,” he says. “Vizzini said when a job went wrong you went back to the beginning. Well, this is where I got the job. So it is the beginning. . . I am waiting for Vizzini.”

In the Anglican prayer book, the orders both for morning and evening prayer start with this General Confession. So it is the beginning. It is, however, the beginning in more than that obvious way. When a job goes wrong — which it does, to a greater or lesser extent, every day — it is the place to go to be reminded of, and corrected and strengthened by, basic truths: about God, about ourselves, about our need for grace.

I post this here with the idea that it will be the first in a series on the General Confession. But before I set out in this undertaking, I should post some disclaimers. First, I am not distinguished by any particular skill in reading or parsing sentences, less so by skill in actually living in a manner which reflects and honors Jesus. Second, I hold no teaching office in the Church, and have no inherent authority gained by virtue of advances in learning and holiness. So, if you’ve read this far, and if you happen to read further, take these reflections as the notes of a student, taken first for his own benefit, posted here in the hope they may be some help to fellow students. Whatever value the notes have is a happy reflection of the fact that the General Confession is the beginning, and it doesn’t take much progress to reach the beginning — only the progress of turning around after you’ve gone off in the wrong direction.

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