The call to confession is a part of a worship service when a liturgical leader reminds everyone of our sinful nature in order to prompt our desire to ask for forgiveness. One scripture that captures this idea perfectly is 1 John 1:8–9. In my experience, however, these verses can become rote. In order to focus my attention, it helps to transform abstract ideas into poignant, perhaps personal, illustrations. Thank God we have the writing of Anne Lamott to do this for us.
Those familiar with Lamott’s fiction have followed her character, Rosie Ferguson, throughout her life. In the novel, Imperfect Birds, Rosie is a teenager who experiments with drugs, alcohol, and sex. Through her experience, we can understand the damaging effects of these vices on her heart, body, mind, and soul. The sins that need to be confessed are obvious.
Yet Imperfect Birds is also about the sins of parents. Rosie’s mom, Elizabeth, struggles to set limits for her teenager daughter, even as she is allowed the freedom to grow. All parents are familiar with this balancing act. Lamott shows us, however, that we can do more harm by the actions we do not do. While we recognize physical abuse, perhaps we are more reticent to identify ways that parents can hurt their children by refraining from action. In Lamott’s skillful hands, we discover how turning a blind eye can be a moral failure.
There is a member at New Dublin who grew up in a Presbyterian church in Charlotte. As a child, she dutifully sat through the entire service under the watchful eye of her mother. While she cannot remember a single sermon, she remembers the weekly prayer of confession to this day: O Lord, forgive us for the things we have done and the things we have left undone.
Sometimes the later are referred to as “sins of omission.” In large part, they are not as attention grabbing as the sins of commission: the mistakes we are guilty of committing, for instance, the Friday night activities of Rosie and her friends. But at a time when many are questioning the value of denominational identity, perhaps we Presbyterians should reclaim this confession part of our tradition. Maybe by considering sin as more than just the naughty things we do or the mistakes we make, we could imagine God’s forgiveness as more than a get out of jail free card.
I don’t want to spoil Imperfect Birds by revealing the ending, but let me simply say that it does not wrap up neatly and I think it is a better novel for resisting this inclination. For life, too, is messy and complicated by the things we do and the things we leave undone. Thank God, then, that we have the opportunity to confess our sins every week together so that we might lift our hearts to something greater than ourselves.
Lamott says that the title of this novel comes from a poem by Rumi: “Each must enter the nest made by the other imperfect birds.” None of us are perfect. We all do things we wish we hadn’t and then don’t do things we wish we had. And yet, as a church, we are invited to come together anyway: to build friendships, seek counsel, find support, and make ourselves at home in imperfect nests made by other “imperfect birds” – our brothers and sisters in faith.