Last Tuesday night I gave a presentation on the family-centered care at hospice for the folks at the Greenfield Kiwanis Club. The meeting was held in the back of a Ponderosa restaurant and it was just packed in there—there were probably 60 people present. We never did get the technology figured out so the PowerPoint presentation I’d prepared wasn’t much help, but no matter—I spoke for about 40 minutes on hospice philosophy and the way we try to support the whole family during the difficult, important, and sacred last weeks of life.
I told a number of stories and at the end I asked whether they had any questions. There was only one. The man who raised his hand said, “I’ve always wanted to ask this question, but I’ve never had the chance. Do you hear a lot of death-bed confessions?”
I thought for a minute. “You mean, like, ‘I robbed a bank in the 1940s?’ I asked. Everybody laughed. He said he didn’t really know what he meant, exactly, but he was curious. What do people need to get off their chests? What do they wish they hadn’t done?
I’m sure my answer had a lot less drama and intrigue than he was looking for. Much of what I do as a hospice chaplain and spiritual counselor involves just listening and providing support for our patients; talking with them when worries or anxieties arise, exploring ways to say the important things they want to say or do the important things they want to do. Sometimes they are afraid of death because their faith tradition has taught them that some make it into the afterlife and some don’t. Understandably, they worry about which category they fit into.
So when there are confessions, of sorts, they aren’t really out-and-out confessions, about crimes and betrayals and bad choices. They are sometimes things along the lines of, “You probably wouldn’t have liked me much when I was younger.” Sometimes they show up as regrets, “I wish I had told my sister I forgave her before she died.”
But occasionally in hospice there are secrets people have kept that get in the way of their peace. I’m thinking of one wonderful man—who happened to be a pastor—who had spent his life in service to others. He was a fantastic teacher, a brilliant guy, someone who went out of his way make things easier for people in difficult circumstances. For a long time, he was doing quite well, and then there was a sudden change. He found himself in pain, struggling, confused, and unhappy. I visited him daily during those days and on one particular visit, I felt an inner nudge to ask him something new.
I asked, “Are you in emotional pain as well as physical pain?” As a pastor who had probably counseled hundreds of people himself through the years, he knew what I was asking. “No, but thanks.” He said.
“Because,” I continued, “I know you’ve been with people who are struggling on a deep level, but sometimes the physical pain is the least of it,” I said.
He was quiet for a long while. The silence stretched. I wondered whether he had drifted off to sleep. And then he said quietly, “I don’t think God will forgive me.”
I think of this moment, when I’m with someone and they tell me something like this, as a “face of God” moment. Back in seminary, when I was in clinical pastoral education learning how to be a chaplain, I discovered that I could get a sense of the face of God people were envisioning when they talked about the higher power in their lives. For some people, the face of God was kind and interested in them. For others, it was a cold face, turned away, and uncaring. For still others it might be a judging, angry face. I had a counseling session with someone recently who had an abusive father. Now she’s in her 60s and struggling to feel safe with God. It is often difficult for us to see God as gentle and loving if our first authority figure was threatening, judgmental, or cruel.
In that visit, I asked my patient to say more about his image of God. Instead, he blurted out what he felt he’d done that was so bad that God would not forgive him: When he was in his early 20s—which was more than 60 years ago—he had caused an accident that had taken the life of a young person. He said his recklessness had cost another person his life. He’d often thought of that young man through the years, tallying up how old he’d be, thinking of the children he’d never had, the life he’d never live. My patient had never told another soul about this—not his wife, his children, his seminary professors, or even his own parents. And now, here he was, facing his own death, and this deep dark secret was blotting out everything he could see of God. This is the same God he had served all his life with kindness and generosity. And yet in these painful moments, all he could see was his own self-judgment.
We spent a long time together, talking about God. About how we are given grace—we are forgiven—not because of who we are and what we do but because of who God is and God’s infinite, completing, unfathomable love. We explored the possibility that God knew the ultimate truth, the big picture in that tragedy and had known it all along. He had never really hidden anything from God, and God loved him anyway. After a time, our conversation began to slip into silence. Then he said he felt like he’d talked enough and he was ready for a nap.
As it turned out, he was with us only two more days. But there was a dramatic change. His thrashing had stopped. The agitation was gone. He no longer seemed to be in pain—physical or otherwise. When I visited him the next day, his wife was there and he seemed to be sleeping. At one point he opened his eyes, smiled at me, and just mouthed the words “thank you.” I knew that he could see God again and he’d made his peace.
I don’t know whether any of you watch the PBS series Father Brown, but it’s probably my favorite show. Father Brown is this awkward, curious Catholic priest in 1940s England, and he always seems to get himself mixed up in mysteries in his village. It’s a wonder they don’t suspect Father Brown himself because murders seem to happen wherever he goes. But the priest is a lovely, warm, quirky character and they do a great job of including his theology as a natural part of the show. At some point in almost every episode, a character comes to Father Brown for confession. In some cases they step into a confessional; in other cases, they just lower their gazes and sit side by side. “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” the person says, and then mentions how long it has been since their last confession.
In the Catholic Church, people confess their sins to the priest, who is considered anointed in such a way that he can stand in for God and grant absolution. In Methodist and Lutheran churches, confession happens corporately through congregational prayers. The minister may lead the prayers, but the people don’t need a minister in order for their confession to be heard by God. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, confession is made directly to Christ. The priest is considered a helper and a witness, rather than an intermediary.
In our Old Testament reading today, we heard familiar verses from Psalm 139. King David writes, “Search me, O God, and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” David knew all too well what it means to have done things he wanted to hide, things that got in the way of his relationship with God. And yet he lived by faith, and it compelled him to turned directly to God to ask that his heart be seen and cleansed. That, I think, is why scripture later tells us that David was a “man after God’s own heart,” not because he was a perfect person—because he wasn’t—but because his first desire, come what may, was an honest, authentic relationship with God.
Our New Testament reading is from the book of James, where he tells us about the healing powers of confession and its role in Christian community. “Confess to one another and pray for one another,” James says, “that you may be healed.” James—who you may remember is the brother of Jesus—shows us the power of the beloved community in bringing others back into the light of love. Not only do we not need a priest as an intermediary, but we can be a part of the grace and restoration for all when we love and pray for one another as the family that we are.
Of course we Quakers are known for cutting right to the chase in matters like this. We go directly to our source not only for forgiveness when we fall short but also for the learning that helps us know what we’re not seeing in ourselves. The Light of God, the Christ within, is our constant guide and teacher. As we do our best to “live up to the light we have,” more light is given us to understand our own actions, our reactions, our limitations, our sticking points. If we’re willing, we start to see the boards in our own eyes. We can ask God’s help in healing any of the issues the light reveals, and God—in God’s infinite loving wisdom, and sometimes wry sense of humor, is always willing to provide us with more opportunities for learning how to love.
I like what Isaac Pennington writes about this. He says, “Only wait to know that wherein God appears in thy heart, even the holy seed, the immortal seed of life; that that may be discerned, distinguished, and have scope in thee; that is may spring up in thy heart, and live in thee, and gather thee into itself, and leaven thee all over with its nature; that thou mayest be a new lump, and mayst walk before God, not in the oldness of thy own literal knowledge or apprehensions of things, but in the newness of his Spirit.”
This is living the sacrament of confession, from the inside-out. We don’t hear any references to sin or fallen nature. He’s not talking about the depravity of humankind or warning us against desires that might draw us toward darkness. Instead, Isaac Pennington urges us to wait for God in our hearts, to get to know the holy seed, to let it have the room to spring up and live in us, to lead and nurture and blossom us into being. By allowing this seed of God to flourish in our lives, we mature into that of God that God would have us be in the here-and-now. To live the way God sees us, through eyes of Godly love. That is the source and promise of George Fox’s belief in the perfectability of all people. It is not about how good we are or how hard we try. It is about who God is and God’s limitless, everlasting love for each and all of us.
In closing I’d like to share how George Fox himself sees this. In his letter to Lady Claypool, which he wrote to her when she was feeling ill and discouraged and in need of comfort, Fox says,
“This is the word of the Lord God to you all; what the light exposes and discovers, as temptations, distractions, confusions; do not look at the temptations, confusions, corruptions; but at the light which discovers them and exposes them; and with the same light you may feel over them, to receive power to stand against them. The same light which lets you see sin and transgression, will let you see the covenant of God, which blots out your sin and transgression, which gives victory and dominion over it, and brings into covenant with God. For looking down at sin, corruption, and distraction, you are swallowed up in it; but looking at the light, which discovers them, you will see over them. That will give victory, and you will find grace and strength; there is the first step to peace. ”
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- Psalm 139: 23-24
- James 5: 13-20