Lisa Nichols Hickman: We are failing at confession

Could the makers of the iPhone app for Catholic confession make one for us Protestants too?

Confession, at its core, is about connection.

But often, in Protestant worship, confession is more about disconnection.  We join in the unison prayers with all the mumbled enthusiasm of Charlie Brown’s teacher, letting our lips move while disengaged in heart and mind.

The act of confessing should include an examination of the mind, a probing of the heart, and a naming of wrongs with our lips.  But often these remain separated from one another.  Our hearts may long to tell the truth, but our minds can create new realities.  Our minds may know the truth, but our hearts are unwilling to be honest. 

Recently, Maureen Dowd explored the question of whether an iPhone app is an appropriate tool for an examination of conscience in the confessional.  With a scroll through the ten commandments as well as ‘customized’ sins, the application asks questions appropriate to particular ages.  The new app is currently number 42 on the best-seller list.

In Greek, the word for confession, homolego, literally means, “to say the same thing.”  While we have internalized that in the mainline with literal unison prayers, its truth in scripture is deeper. Isaiah 29:13 attests, “these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote.”  To “say the same thing” in confession is to unite heart, mind and voice in a way that conquers mindlessness.

The beauty of the confession app for Catholics is in its ability to create a new link, to make deeper connections despite all the ‘disconnects’ of contemporary life.  Here, technology is not a distraction.  The application provides a vital link to deepen our humanity.

In the movie "Changing Lanes," Gavin (played by Ben Affleck) walks into a confessional booth with a lot weighing on his heart and mind.  When the Priest asks him if he would like to confess his sins, Gavin responds, “No, I came here looking for meaning.”  When given that moment to confess, he balks at what seems to him an empty ritual. 

If only he had the new app.

As a Protestant worship leader, I find that our confession constrains our worship.  It feels ritualistic, empty, small.  Unison prayers disintegrate into moments of mind-wandering monotony.  Sometimes I ask myself if I can remember any word of the unison prayer or call to mind any heart-tending that turned up.  I have asked people in countless workshops on worship to say together the same words of a prayer of confession and then to turn over the written paper to write down any word or image they remember from the confession.  The majority come up blank.

We are failing in our prayers of confession.  An opportunity to call hearts and minds into synchronicity with the Spirit of Jesus Christ, is lost in our inability to link heart, mind, lips.  We say the same thing over and over again, routine prayers in unison with one another, without saying the thing that matters most to our hearts and minds that day.

The director of “Changing Lanes”, Roger Michell, seems to understand that struggle.  Not only does his understanding of the need for confession play out in the scene with Gavin in the confessional, but it is brilliantly interspliced with scenes of Doyle Gibson (played by Samuel Jackson) encountering a real confession with his former wife.  As Gibson spins with explanations for his behavior, his wife nods, seemingly having heard him say this same thing before.  It is not until he musters up an “I’m sorry” that we know there is a deep connection in his heart and mind in his confession. 

In that moment, Michell cuts to a shot of an empty closet, where in the background an icon of Christ is taped to the back wall.  

Ultimately, the unity of heart and voice in our confession of sin leads to a unity of heart, mind and voice in our confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. 

Making that link is the goal of our confession.  If the “Confession: A Roman Catholic App” makes that connection between heart, mind and voice that call us to an even deeper confession of Christ, then would the creators make an app for us Protestant worshipers as well?

Lisa Nichols Hickman is pastor of New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.