For anyone who is not familiar with the story, it relates one year in the life of a farming family in the backwoods of Florida during the early 20th century. The main character is Jody Baxter, a 12-year-old boy who turns an orphaned fawn into a pet. As the fawn--named Flag--grows, it begins to threaten the Baxters' crops, and in spite of the family's efforts to thwart its mischief it repeatedly causes damage to the young plants that are to provide the Baxters' sustenance and livelihood in the coming year. Jody, faced with telling his father that Flag has destroyed the young corn shoots that were just beginning to break through the soil, finds himself panicking because he knows that the family is running out of options for dealing with this problem. Yet he knows he has no choice but to go to his father with the bad news. As I read this passage to my children a few days ago, these words resonated with me in a way I didn't expect:
Jody was frightened. He dawdled about the field, hoping to have a miracle happen and the corn appear again when his back was turned. Perhaps he was having a nightmare in which Flag had eaten the corn crop, and when he awakened he would go out and find it growing, green and tender. He pushed a stick into one arm to make sure. The dull misery he felt was that of a bad dream, but the pain in his arm was as real as the destruction of the corn. He dragged back to the house with slow and heavy feet. He sat down in the kitchen and did not go to his father. Penny called him. He went to the bedroom.
"Well, boy? How's the crops?"
"The cotton's up. Hit looks like okry, don't it?" His enthusiasm was spurious. "The cow-peas is breakin' the ground."
He spread the toes of his bare feet and wriggled them. He was absorbed in them, as though they had developed an interesting new function.
"And the corn, Jody?"
His heart beat as fast as a humming-bird's wings. He swallowed and took the plunge.
"Somethin's et off most of it."
So--to the point of this post. A few weeks ago I became convicted of the need to see my pastor for personal confession & absolution. I take part in corporate confession every week as part of the liturgy, but due to certain circumstances in my own life of late I have found myself desperately needing to hear those words of absolution spoken not just to the assembly but personally to me. Having been confirmed Roman Catholic, I went to confession years ago as a teenager, but since joining the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in my young adulthood have not found individual confession encouraged to the same degree, although that is changing in some congregations (and I should clarify that in the Catholic church it is not merely encouraged but required at certain times in the believer's life).
So having made the decision to see my pastor and having called him to set up an appointment, I found myself having to wait for several days due to our conflicting schedules. And oh, the waiting--it was awful. I was desperate to go to confession--to speak to my pastor the truth of my sin--and yet I was dreading it. Could I really say those words out loud? And what was he--not just my pastor, but my friend--going to think of me? I felt just like Jody in the above excerpt from The Yearling, looking for ways to avoid the inevitable, hoping it was all just a dream, heart beating "fast as a humming-bird's wings."
But sin is very real, as are the deadly consequences it has on one's life and soul. And it was eating away at me in the same way Jody's fawn was eating away at those corn plants. And similar to Jody's father calling him to report on the plants, my Father had been calling me, and calling me, and calling me again, and finally I went to Him in the person of my pastor, took a big deep breath, and laid it all out there:
"I, a poor sinner, plead gulty before God of all sins.
I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most.
My Lord's name I have not honored as I should; my worship and prayers have faltered.
I have not let His love have its way with me, and so my love for others has failed.
There are those whom I have hurt, and those whom I have failed to help.
My thoughts and desires have been soiled with sin." (Lutheran Service Book, p. 292)
And Pastor's words came back to me, as he placed his hand on my head:
"In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
And suddenly it was clear that it mattered not what Pastor thought of me but only what my Lord thought of me, and He had known all along--and still knows--my sinful condition and yet for the sake of His Son and my Saviour had forgiven me all those sins and made me new in Christ.
In The Yearling, after Jody informs his father of Flag's devastating action, Mr. and Mrs. Baxter confer to decide what to do. Mrs. Baxter has long been "down" on Flag and Jody fears this most recent event might be the last straw. But when his parents call him to share their verdict, it turns out that Mr. Baxter--full of sympathy and compassion for his son--has prevailed upon his wife and talked her into trying one more time to manage the misbehaving fawn. A reprieve is granted: Jody will be allowed to attempt the building of a fence to keep Flag away from the vulnerable plants. At this news, Jody feels as though he has gotten his very life back:
It seemed to Jody that he had been shut up in a small black box and now the lid was off, and the sun and light and air came in across him, and he was free.
I can think of no better words to describe the way I felt after hearing my pastor's granting of my Lord's absolution. It was indeed like being let out of a tiny, suffocating black box--a tomb of condemnation--and finding myself once again able to live and breathe again.
As I mentioned earlier, I was confirmed in the Roman Catholic church and so have some memory of personal confession and absolution. But as a Catholic the experience was somewhat different: once the penitent has confessed, he or she is instructed to perform some sort of "penance"--perhaps an act of prayer, fasting, or good works--to demonstrate his remorse and make up for the harm that his sin has done. Now, I don't mean to argue against any of these things--they each have value, and prayer in particular seems to me a natural outgrowth of true repentance. But to have a priest prescribe that I say three "Our Father's" or two "Hail Mary's" or that I engage in some specific act to make up for my sin seems to me to fly in the face of true forgiveness, which is granted without any strings attached. For if the penitent is truly sorry, the joy and gratitude that are experienced upon receiving absolution will doubtless lead to prayers of thanksgiving and acts of Gospel joy.
If you are finding yourself weighed down by sin, I encourage you this Lenten season to see a pastor, preferably a confessional Lutheran one with a Biblical understanding of Law and Gospel, and relieve yourself of that burden. Then find yourself a Lutheran Service Book, turn to hymn #611, and sing or speak these words, not as an act of penance but as a celebration of the absolution that has just been granted you by your Father and of the reconciliation you now have with Him--a reconciliation that was obtained not by any work of yours but rather once and for all by Jesus on the cross:
Oh, the height of Jesus' love,
Higher than the heav'ns above,
Deeper than the depths of sea,
Lasting as eternity!
Love that found me--wondrous thought!
Found me when I sought Him not.
(Stanza 2, "Chief of Sinners Though I Be")