Louis Weeks: A recipe for thriving relationships -- confession

Repeat after me: “I’m sorry . . . I was wrong . . . You were right . . . Please forgive me.

I would like to share with you one of the most succinct, appropriate, and to-the-point messages I have heard at a wedding in my fifty years of attending scores of them.

I heard it at our niece’s wedding at Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tennessee. We enjoyed the wedding, the music, the attendant festivities, and the introduction to her new husband’s family. We also enjoyed the warm, informal style of the presiding minister, Paul Bonner, the church’s youth pastor. As I say we especially enjoyed and remembered his homily.

The scripture lessons were John 15: 9-11 and Ephesians 3:14-19, admonitions to love as Christ loves us.

The presiding minister affirmed the need for the couple, and the whole congregation, to attend to the centrality of love in marriage relationships. And he added that the next most important thing was a willingness to confess to and forgive one another. He called on our niece and her new husband to repeat after him:

“I’m sorry . . . I was wrong . . . You were right . . . Please forgive me.” Dutifully, each in turn repeated the phrases, with some smiles and a few chuckles emanating from the members of the bridal party and others of us in the congregation. “Learn to say these things to one another,” he advised. “And mean them when you say them.”

The consonance of the homily with the demeanor of the presiding pastor and the tenor of the worship service made the advice especially authentic. He offered a good model for married life in particular, but also for all kinds of relationships.

With the BP fiasco, self-serving apologies from Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, Tiger Woods, Goldman Sachs, Bernie Madoff and a host of others so obviously front and center, so lacking in the ability to confess appropriately, public pundits have been writing furiously on the nature of apology, confession, and forgiveness.

These arrogant, mostly botched attempts to seek forgiveness in the public square serve to remind us of our own foibles and failings, those in our congregations and other institutions.

In response let me ask: Do we regularly examine our practices of recognizing our own shortcomings, naming them?

Do we rehearse proper and unadulterated words of apology?

 Do we step up appropriately to forgive and restore covenants when confession and apology are sincere and remediation is projected?

One really good recent book on this is David Steere’s “Rediscovering Confession: The Practice of Forgiveness and Where it Leads.” Steere points to our Christian heritage in confession and forgiveness, to restoration of relationships, and to ways of practicing reconciliation. His book follows insights from Christian thinkers and others through the ages. He also offers case studies and illustrations from decades of teaching and offering pastoral counseling to hundreds of church leaders and others. I’ve found it extremely helpful.

And I’m trying personally to perceive when apologies and expressions of confession are needed, how to express them, how to offer restitution or at least promises not to repeat the behavior. You’ll have to ask others if it helps, but from my perspective it seems to.

I can perceive, though, that love and forgiveness are of one fabric, absolutely crucial for those who seek to follow Jesus—and pertinent especially, I would imagine, for those who seek to lead other Christians in communities and churches.

Louis Weeks is president emeritus of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and author, most recently, of "To Be a Presbyterian" (Geneva).