These days I am, among other things, a teacher. My students are middle and high schoolers. I am tasked with teaching “Omnibus,” which is essentially three classes in one: history, literature, and theology. We read the Great Books, I lecture, we discuss… and hopefully some of it sticks. I think St. Augustine might be one of the authors they will remember.
As we were finishing Augustine’s Confessions, I had an epiphany – or perhaps a momentary lapse of reason, I’m still not entirely clear on that. I required the students to write a confession. I explained the parameters: write as if you are talking to God and be as honest as you can. I gave them the option of allowing me to read it, but assured them that I would not, if they wished to keep it private. Everyone who participated received a 100%. No one got extra points for sharing. I promised them that they could not shock me, that I would not rat them out, and that I would only tell another living soul if I were legally required to do so. I shared with them some of the devastatingly beautiful truths that I am learning at City Pres: God never intended for you to do this alone and the darkness will only get darker if you try to hide it. Darkness is, after all, an absence of light. Sometimes you have to kick in the door and shine a spotlight on the face of that thing that is eating you up from inside.
The response was immediate and overwhelming. Before I finished explaining and reassuring them, tears were rolling silently down cheeks. One poor child waited painfully for the other students to leave the room after class before collapsing in sobs, unable to hold on to that soul-crushing guilt any longer. Another looked me straight in the eyes and assured me that I would be shocked when I read what she had to say, because she was convinced, with all the assurance of youth, that no one’s sins could be worse than hers. All of them were terrified. All of them were desperate to participate.
I was impressed with my students’ courage. More than half of them allowed me to read their confessions. That was far more than I expected. I met with those who wanted to talk… we wept, we prayed. I hugged them and tried to reassure them. Every one of them asked me, “Why? What could God’s purpose possibly be in allowing this?”
The best I could do was an analogy: your life is like a painting. It’s a masterpiece. But you can only see small sections of it at any given time. Sometimes you find yourself staring at a particularly dark blotch that makes no sense. “It has to be a mistake,” you think. “This cannot possibly be right. I hate this color. This brushstroke looks wrong. The Painter can’t love me if He allowed this.” Yet someday, you will see that your life is a breathtaking study in light and color and motion – that dark place was a shadow, where the Great Artist displayed some of His most masterful contrast work.
I don’t know if any of this helped my students. I hope it did. I know that my life has been drastically changed for the better by becoming part of a church that openly confesses weakness and brokenness. I want so much for my students to see and know the life that can only come from allowing others access to our dark, hurt places. It’s scary, it’s vulnerable, it’s not normal, but it is vital. It is a mystery and a paradox: the free gift of true life is ours when we stop trying to hide and handle the death that festers inside each and every one of us.