Why Confession?

This Sunday we’ll be adding a time of corporate confession to our weekly rhythm or liturgy. We’ll get to the reason for this specific addition, but first there are a couple questions I want to answer related to why we repeat things on a weekly basis.

Why do we repeat some things every week? Don’t they just become stale ritual?

Yes, it is possible for the things we repeat to become stale ritual, but this isn’t a given. If you kiss your spouse goodbye when you leave the house everyday, it can become stale ritual. If you go to the gym everyday, it can become stale ritual. Anything we repeat can become heartless and lifeless. However, this is not inevitable. If we remember why we repeat things they have tremendous power to shape us and the things we love.

Humans are creatures formed by our habits. These habits can be life-giving or life-destroying. Our physical, spiritual, and emotional health rest largely on the presence or absence of habits that nurture us. Habits have tremendous power and they are not formed by doing something once; they are formed by repetition over time.

Our hope is that we will enter into the things we do repeat with a focus and perspective that allow them to be full of life each time. There’s no guarantee of this, but it’s worth the risk.

Is Trailhead becoming a rigid church that just follows the same formula (liturgy) every week?

I think Trailhead is pretty settled in using a thoughtful rhythm at each worship gathering, but this has been true since its inception. Since the beginning of Trailhead there has been singing, reading, preaching, and participation in the Lord’s supper. In recent years we’ve added a space for storytelling or an interview and the praying of the Lord’s prayer, but our times together have always had a consistent structure.

It has also been true that Trailhead has been a church with flexibility to change things up when it’s helpful. We tend to approach the things we do each week a little differently each time. The songs are different, the sermon is on a different topic and might include different elements, the focus going into the Lord’s supper varies, and so on. With most of what we do the structure is consistent but the specifics are very flexible. This will be true with a time of confession as well.

Why are we adding a time of confession?

We are adding a time of confession because we believe in the power of sin and the importance of confession. Sin is the power that contorts and breaks us and our world. Our sin is not innocuous or free of consequence. On the contrary, it moves us further from God, each other, and the good work of God in the world. By confession we bring our sin into the light and ask God’s forgiveness and healing. In one of his letters, John writes, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).” In his letter James encourages people to, “…confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed (James 5:16).”

We are adding this time right before the Lord’s supper because when we eat the bread and drink the wine we are remembering the price that was paid for our sin. Our hope is the this time of confession will prepare us to remember the sacrifice of Jesus and cause us to take it seriously.

I want to give two caveats to this time of confession we’re adding. The first is that this is not a means of giving us license for immoral living. I grew up in a tradition where the focus on grace was sometimes misconstrued to mean that we could do whatever we wanted if we just asked for forgiveness. Similarly, I was recently talking to someone who grew up Catholic and he shared that weekly confession was used by many as an excuse to live however they wanted during the week. Using confession as license to sin is blasphemous. I know that’s strong language, but it’s necessary. That approach severely underestimates the destructive power of sin as though all the evil “wiped away” by confession has no consequence. Our time of confession is meant to do exactly the opposite of this. It reminds us that sin has power. It trusts in God to forgive us through the sacrifice of Jesus. And it implores him to empower us to live without sin so we can become the people he intends us to be.

The second caveat is that participating in confession is not compulsory. Hopefully that goes without saying, but nothing we do is required. In fact, if you have no intention of living in line with the ways of Jesus I encourage you to refrain from confession and the Lord’s supper as it would be insincere. I don’t mean you may not fail again! God’s mercy is always greater than our sin. What I mean is that your intention is to honor the grace and mercy of God by seeking his power to live with him fully.

This Week’s Confession

What we do/say will change some each week, but here’s what we’ll be using this Sunday. It’s based on Psalm 51.

Merciful God,
Have mercy on our souls,
according to your unwavering love;
according to your abundant mercy
wipe away our sins and the guilt we have carried for so long.

Instead write on our hearts your love
Your boundaries for our lives
Your salvation that sets us free from our sins.
To live the abundant life you have for each of us.

Lord we would see Jesus,
We would love Jesus,
We would follow Jesus
We would serve Jesus.

Lord,
Create in us clean hearts,
Renew your Spirit within us.
Do not turn us away from your presence,
do not take your Holy Spirit from us.
Restore to us the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in us a willing spirit.
Write on our hearts, your love O God,
Amen.

Shepherds

By Molly Mathers


Baby Jesus was born in the dark of night, surrounded by his teenage parents and a handful of dirty animals as the instrumental sounds of ‘Silent Night’ filled the manger. Joseph took a selfie of the new family and posted it to Facebook— ‘And baby makes three!’ As the world heard of Jesus through social media, many made their way to Bethlehem to see the new family and offer unsolicited parenting advice.
Luke 2 (2015 Translation)

Or maybe God took a slightly less conventional route when it came to announcing Jesus’ birth.

In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.”

When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as he lay in the manger. When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Christ. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.
Luke 2:8-20 (NRSV)

We associate shepherds with Old Testament heroes such as Abraham, Moses, and David, but by the time of Jesus’ birth shepherding had devolved from a noble calling to a job for second-class citizens. Shepherds were near the bottom of the social food chain. They were assumed thieves, for many allowed their flocks to graze off the produce of others’ land. The religious were forbidden from buying products from shepherds because they had most likely been stolen. Rabbis banned shepherding in Israel except on desert plains. Shepherds couldn’t hold government positions or even serve as witnesses in court because they were considered untrustworthy.
Think of the practical reality of life as a shepherd. Have you ever been on a camping trip longer than a weekend? How did you smell after a few days sleeping on the ground without a shower? Now add in a couple hundred sheep to the picture. Unfortunately most sheep don’t look like the cute little lamb pictured below. Sheep are notoriously dirty and stupid animals. Shepherds lived most of their lives outside away from society, constantly watching over and protecting their sheep from April to November. (Spoiler: scholars agree that Jesus’ birthday wasn’t December 25th.) All of this kept shepherds from holding to traditional Jewish laws of cleanliness, further alienating them from society.

These are not the kind of people I want coming to my firstborn’s baby shower. So why, after 400 years of silence from God, was “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3) first revealed to a bunch of dirty, thieving social outcasts instead of to kings or important religious leaders? What does this reveal about the heart and character of God?

The good news is good for everyone. In the ancient world there was no one more important than Caesar. Each time a new Caesar was born, it was proclaimed as “good news” throughout the Roman Empire. Everyone had to celebrate, even though for most people this meant continued oppression through an unjust system. The angel’s proclamation that Jesus would bring joy to all people, including these marginalized shepherds, was unprecedented. Jesus would not perpetuate the system, he would deliver everyone (not only the Jews) from it. In this we see a foreshadowing of Jesus’ ministry and the message later proclaimed through the the New Testament. Jesus has come to deliver and redeem all things, beginning with a group of lowly shepherd boys outside Bethlehem.
The marginalized have a voice. Remember that Israel had been waiting for hundreds of years for their deliverer. The shepherds delivered the news that Jesus was to be this savior, Christ the Lord. “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name— it is a title meaning “anointed one,” the Messiah who was sent to deliver Israel. The angels could have come to anyone, but God entrusted this glorious announcement to shepherds, giving them a voice in the story. This is significant: the powerless and voiceless were given the task of proclaiming the most important and most glorious news that has ever come to humanity.
Stereotypes do not limit one’s place in God’s Kingdom. While some shepherds earned their poor reputation, others were victims of stereotypes and prejudice. The religious leaders generalized them into one category and re-enforced their ostracization. Despite this (or perhaps because of it) God drew them into the story and gave them a role to play in expanding the Kingdom. No matter how negatively society or religious leaders classify a group of people, they are not beyond the reach of what God can and will use to expand his Kingdom.
In light of the radical nature and announcement of Jesus’ birth, we must become introspective. Where are there parallels between shepherds and today’s society? Who is unexpectedly proclaiming good news today?  How do we let our prejudices limit the Kingdom? What people groups make us so uncomfortable or fearful that we simply tune them out?
Applying biblical truths of justice, equality, and love will help the Church navigate the thick layers of injustice that exist today.


I originally wrote this post last year for my friend Allie’s blog, as part of a series called Jesus Loves the Marginalized in which she looked at the unlikely people surrounding Jesus’ birth.

Time is Short! – Thoughts on a Cosmic Nativity

dsc09023-2

By Matthew DeHarte


I believe, it is decidedly unoriginal to say that something out of the book of Revelation is bizarre, but I’m going to anyway: the twelfth chapter of Revelation is really bizarre. Especially during Advent, people are often inundated with renderings and readings of the birth of Christ from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, but not often do we Christians flip our texts open to the back end of the New Testament to read the other nativity story. You know, it’s the one with a seven-headed dragon, a woman crowned with stars who is dressed in the sun, and an epic spiritual battle between archangels, angels, and demons!

There are many things that could (and have been said) about the meaning, plot, and theological nuances of the Revelation 12. Who is the celestial woman? Where and when did these events occur? Did they occur at all or are John’s words that he saw a “sign” mean they are to be taken metaphorically? To these and many other inquiries, I leave you to your own study. However, there is one thing presented in Revelation 12 that, to me, is not only the central message of the chapter but also encompasses within it a key aspect of the Advent season. That thing is idea of the in-between.

Here is what I mean. In the last few years, when I ruminate on Revelation’s nativity scene, my mind often lands on a friend I had a few years back, whom I met working at a soup kitchen in Juarez. In homage to the season, I will refer to her as Mary. When I met Mary, she and her husband were expecting a child, and it was evident, with every encounter, that she was overjoyed to be having a baby. As we grew closer with Mary and her family, the group of friends we were a part of experienced many joys in anticipating the arrival of her newborn. There were baby gifts, a growing belly, complaints of achiness and morning sickness, occasionally one of our female friends would even probe Mary’s belly convinced the little tike was kicking her hand.

Soon, however, we started to notice that Mary was having some troubling interactions with some of the other workers at the soup kitchen, other ladies who had been working there for a while. At first, my friends and I just noticed some subtle things like when Mary would talk about her baby in front of certain people, there would be a huff or an eye roll or a head shake. It seemed a little rude, but I just assumed I was misunderstanding their reactions. Not long thereafter, we began to see instances where Mary, obviously distraught, would leave the soup kitchen early after speaking with some of these ladies. Eventually, one day, in the dusty concrete structure that served as our mess hall, we found Mary alone, crying, and angry. When we asked her why she was so upset, she would only tell us that one of the ladies had said something incredibly mean to her. My friends and I decided it was time to get to the bottom of this behavior.

So, the next time we were together working to prepare a lunch, we slyly tried to probe the woman who had supposedly said these things to Mary. She and some of the other workers said that they believed Mary was a liar who was manipulating people into buying her things. They recounted how Mary had claimed to be pregnant many times before and never had a baby! She would occasionally come to the soup kitchen with high hopes that she was with child, and for the first couple times, the ladies said they would celebrate and prepare with Mary. But, this pregnancy being the fourth or fifth iteration of her tale, the women had begun to believe her to be some grand grifter vying for the spoils of rich Americans who would come to serve in the soup kitchen.

None of this made much sense to me. Mary was not poor in the way others were so desperate in the neighborhood, and she never inquired about handouts or the like. Her husband had a steady job, they had a large comfortable home (at least in comparison to her friends and neighbors), and she was usually generous with both her time and money. In fact, in my memory, I was more often on the receiving end of her hospitality and generosity than the other way around. So, I was more than skeptical of what these women at the soup kitchen were telling me. I just didn’t see evidence that the pregnancy was faked.

Nonetheless, when it came around the time for her to deliver, she simply disappeared. We could not get a hold of her. Maintaining hope, I convinced myself that she was simply recuperating from childbirth and tried to stave-off dread that something terrible had happened during the birth. After a few weeks, with a hung head, and a gaze that was devoid of eye contact, she came around to see us.

She admitted that she did not have a baby, was never actually pregnant, and that this was not the first time such a thing had happened (something she had never told us before). By her telling, every time she thought she was pregnant, she was really convinced that she was! Her body would go through the changes, she would feel that the baby was growing within her, and a sense of expectation would progress in her household. But each time, when birth pangs began, she would rush to the doctor only to arduously find out that her womb was empty. Then, her “symptoms” of pregnancy would slowly dissipate. I have often wondered how she could get so far along before she or any doctor realized that she was having a false pregnancy, but it is not uncommon for women in her area and economic standing to not have the best, or any, access to proper medical care. And although, as I mentioned, she and her husband were better off than many in the area, they would still be considered deeply impoverished by U.S. standards.

The truth is, I believed her. I still do. At the time, my heart ached for her. And now, raising my own children and having had the amazing opportunity to anticipate their coming, my heart actually breaks when I remember walking with her through this situation. I can’t imagine the pain she and her family must have felt when hopes for a child were dashed.

When I think of her now, in connection with Revelation 12, I cannot help but think that this situation poignantly illustrates what Revelation means to tell us and what a large part of Advent means to remind us – we are in the in-between! A large part of Revelation 12 is spent telling how Satan is repeatedly defeated until he is finally thrown to earth where he wages war against “those who keep God’s command and hold fast their testimony about Jesus Christ.” In Contrast, the chapter also tells us that the Christ child was snatched up to the throne of God, which is meant to show Jesus’ true reign in the post-resurrection/ ascension era. Revelation 12 also says that “now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of God” and that “[believers] triumphed over [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony! “ [it. added]. There is a real tension here that John highlights. On the one hand, we ought to expect the hardship that comes from an enemy who continually wages war against us, and yet on the other we have the hope and assurance that the victory is already won.

That is to say, there is tension because we live in-between two Advents. Christ has come, and He will come again; Christ inaugurated his Kingdom when He rose, and we will consummate it when He returns! In the meantime, 1 Peter 5:8-9 tells us, and I believe Revelation 12 confirms, that our enemy prowls around like a lion seeking to devour us! And, although we can rest assured in the power and salvation of the blood of the Lamb, we continually wait for Him to finish what He started. We wait for him to return. Advent is a season to remember what Christ has done and how the Presence of the Lord, in the form of Jesus, broke into our reality to offer redemption and salvation. But, maybe even more, Advent reminds us, as we anticipate Christmas Day, that we perpetually wait for Jesus to come again!

Was my friend Mary’s ordeal a spiritual attack, a psychological ailment, or simply a by-product of a broken creation? I am not sure. Maybe, it was one or all of these things. What I do know, is that the “time is short.” I hope and pray that she sought and was able to find real healing in the wake of the tragic loss of her baby, even if her child only ever existed in her mind. I also prayerfully hope that she, like many of us in this season of hope, is able to cling to a different sense of expectation as she awaits the arrival of our Lord. In this, I am confident there will come a time when our damn-ed creation will breathe anew, when Mary’s pain will be replaced with joy and everlasting love, when the tears of loss she shed will be forgotten for He will have wiped them away, because then there will be no more mourning or crying or pain.