Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Campus Confession Booth

What I considered a horrible idea turned into a moment of transformation.
by Donald Miller

Don Miller was a student and campus ministry leader at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, a decidely secular and highly intellectual place that Princeton Review named "the college where students are most likely to ignore God." In his book Blue Like Jazz (Nelson, 2003), Miller tells of an unlikely event that introduced him to the mysteries of spiritual transformation.

Each year at Reed they have a renaissance festival called Ren Fayre. They shut down the campus so students can party. Security keeps the authorities away, and everybody gets pretty drunk and high, and some people get naked. The school brings in White Bird, a medical unit that specializes in treating bad drug trips. The students create special lounges with black lights and television screens to enhance their mushroom trips.

Some of the Christian students in our little group decided this was a good place to come out of the closet, letting everybody know there were a few Christians on campus. Tony the Beat Poet and I were sitting around in my room one afternoon talking about what to do, how to explain who we were to a group of students who, in the past, had expressed hostility toward Christians.

I said we should build a confession booth in the middle of campus and paint a sign on it that said "Confess your sins." I said this because I knew a lot of people would be sinning, and Christian spirituality begins by confessing our sins and repenting. I also said it as a joke. But Tony thought it was brilliant. He sat there on my couch with his mind in the clouds, and he was scaring the crap out of me because, for a second, then for a minute, I actually believed he wanted to do it.

"Tony," I said very gently.

"What?" he said, with a blank stare at the opposite wall.

"We are not going to do this," I told him. He moved his gaze down the wall and directly into my eyes. A smile came across his face.

"Oh, we are, Don. We certainly are. We are going to build a confession booth!"

We met in Commons—Penny, Nadine, Mitch, Iven, Tony, and I. Tony said I had an idea. They looked at me. I told them that Tony was lying and I didn't have an idea at all. They looked at Tony. Tony gave me a dirty look and told me to tell them the idea. I told them I had a stupid idea that we couldn't do without getting attacked. They leaned in. I told them that we should build a confession booth in the middle of campus and paint a sign on it that said "Confess your sins." Penny put her hands over her mouth. Nadine smiled. Iven laughed. Mitch started drawing the designs for the booth on a napkin. Tony nodded his head. I wet my pants.

"They may very well burn it down," Nadine said.

"I will build a trapdoor," Mitch said with his finger in the air. "I like it, Don." Iven patted me on the back.

"I don't want anything to do with it," Penny said.

"Neither do I," I told her.

"Okay, you guys." Tony gathered everybody's attention. "Here's the catch." He leaned in a little. "We are not actually going to accept confessions." We all looked at him in confusion.

He continued, "We are going to confess to them. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for televangelists, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely, we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus. We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them."

All of us sat there in silence because it was obvious that something beautiful and true had hit the table with a thud. We all thought it was a great idea, and we could see it in each other's eyes. It would feel so good to apologize, to apologize for the Crusades, for Columbus and the genocide committed in the Bahamas in the name of God, apologize for the missionaries who landed in Mexico and came up through the West slaughtering Indians in the name of Christ.

I wanted so desperately to apologize for the many ways I had misrepresented the Lord. I could feel that I had betrayed the Lord by judging, by not being willing to love the people he had loved and only giving lip service to issues of human rights.

For so much of my life I had been defending Christianity because I thought to admit that we had done any wrong was to discredit the religious system as a whole. But it isn't a religious system; it is people following Christ. And the important thing to do, the right thing to do, was to apologize for getting in the way of Jesus.

The booth was huge, much bigger than I expected, almost like a shed complete with a slanted roof and two small sections inside, one for the person confessing and the other for the one hearing it. We built a half-high wall between the two rooms and installed a curtain so the confessor could easily get in and out. On our side we installed a door with a latch so nobody could come in and drag us away. Nadine painted "Confession Booth" in large letters on the outside.

People walking along the sidewalk would ask what we were doing. They stood there looking at the booth in wonder.

"What are we supposed to do?" they would ask.

"Confess your sins," we told them.

"To who?" they would say.

"To God," we would tell them.

"There is no God," they would explain. Some of them told us this was the boldest thing they had ever seen. All of them were kind, which surprised us.

I stood there outside the booth as a large blue mob started running across campus, all of them, more than a hundred people, naked and painted with blue paint. They ran by the booth screaming and waving. I waved back. Naked people look funny when they are for-real naked, outside-a-magazine naked.

The party goes till nearly dawn, so though it was late we started working the booth. We lit tiki torches and mounted them in the ground just outside the booth. Tony and Iven were saying I should go first, which I didn't want to do, but I played bold and got in the booth. I sat on a bucket and watched the ceiling and the smoke from my pipe gather in the dark corners like ghosts. I could hear the rave happening in the student center across campus.

I was picturing all the cool dancers, the girls in white shirts moving through the black light, the guys with the turntables in the loft, the big screen with the swirling images and all that energy coming out of the speakers, pounding through everybody's bodies, getting everybody up and down, up and down.

Nobody is going to confess anything, I thought. Who wants to stop dancing to confess their sins? And I realized that this was a bad idea, that none of this was God's idea. Nobody was going to get angry, but nobody was going to care very much either.

I was going to tell Tony that I didn't want to do it when he opened the curtain and said we had our first customer.

"What's up, man?" Duder sat himself on the chair with a smile on his face. He told me my pipe smelled good.

"Thanks," I said. I asked him his name, and he said his name was Jake. I shook his hand because I didn't know what to do, really.

"So what is this? I'm supposed to tell you all of the juicy gossip I did at Ren Fayre, right?" Jake said.

"No."

"Okay, then what? What's the game?" he asked.

"Not really a game. More of a confession thing."

"You want me to confess my sins, right?"

"No, that's not what we're doing."

"What's the deal, man? What's with the monk outfit?"

"Well, we are, well, a group of Christians here on campus, you know."

"I see. Strange place for Christians, but I'm listening."

"Thanks," I said. He was being patient and gracious. "Anyway, there is this group, just a few of us who were thinking about the way Christians have sort of wronged people over time. You know, the Crusades, all that stuff …"

"Well, I doubt you personally were involved in any of that, man."

"No, I wasn't," I told him. "But the thing is, we are followers of Jesus. We believe that he is God and all, and he represented certain ideas that we have sort of not done a good job at representing. He has asked us to represent him well, but it can be very hard."

"I see," Jake said.

"So this group of us on campus wanted to confess to you."

"You are confessing to me!" Jake said with a laugh.

"Yeah. We are confessing to you. I mean, I am confessing to you."

"You're serious." His laugh turned to something of a straight face.

"There's a lot. I will keep it short," I started. "Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick. I have never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened, you know, if my ego gets threatened. Jesus did not mix his spirituality with politics. I grew up doing that. It got in the way of the central message of Christ. I know that was wrong, and I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me, who know him, carry our own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across. There's a lot more, you know."

"It's all right, man," Jake said, very tenderly. His eyes were starting to water.

"Well," I said, clearing my throat, "I am sorry for all that."

"I forgive you," Jake said. And he meant it.

"Thanks," I told him.

He sat there and looked at the floor, then into the fire of a candle. "It's really cool what you guys are doing," he said. "A lot of people need to hear this."

"Have we hurt a lot of people?" I asked him.

For the rest of this article, read HERE.

Don Miller will be one of the speakers at this year's Catalyst conference in Atlanta, October 6-9, 2005. For information about Catalyst, visit: www.catalystconference.com

5 comments:

pete said...

i'm a little surprised you read this book, given your link to Todd Friel's website. he's really against just about anything that can be called "emergent," like Donald Miller.

mrclm said...

I really enjoy Todd and his show, and have had the opportunity to talk to him on a number of occassions. I too am not a fan of the Emergent Church Movement, but that doesn't mean there is nothing to learn from it and people associated with it. I enjoy Donald Miller's writings, even though I might not always agree with it. If you look at my links, you'll also see I have a link to Mark Driscoll's Acts29 Network, Steve McCoy's blog Reformission, and a number of Emergent types in my blogroll. Some of the ones in the blogroll are people I go to school with. While I don't always agree with them on each theological point, I know they are doing a lot of work in Christ's name, being used by God to make His name known. I also blogged on the Willow Creek Leadership Summit, which if you know much about me you know that I don't jive with everything there either. But we can be discerning, and we can identify the good. The key is to not be tainted by the bad, which is why limited exposure is recommended by me. The amount of time I spend on Emergent types pales in comparison to the MacArthur/Piper/Phil Johnson plus others.

pete said...

That makes sense. I personally have a hard time listening to Todd, but to each his own.

I know of most of the people you wrote about there (I graduated from Bethel Seminary myself in 2003, and I teach at the College...oops, I mean University). I don't have much of a problem with the emergent churches, to be honest. I don't think it's going to be a very longstanding movement, partly because most of the people in it are defining themselves primarily by what they are not. The thing I always find frustrating, though, is the lack of engagement between non-emergent and emergent people. It seems like both sides primarily complain about the deficiencies in each camp without trying to have a conversation with each other.

mrclm said...

I looked at your FDoS photo on your blog, and I don't think we had the pleasure of crossed paths while you were on the "good" side of the hill :-)

I agree with the assessment that the ECM probably won't be too long lasting, but the effects/influence from it will be in some areas. That is why I want to learn from it, because some of their critiques of "standard" conservative evangelicalism need to be heard and addressed in my opinion.

What are you teaching this fall?

Big Chris

pete said...

Freshman Seminar this semester, and I also coach the Forensics team (mostly the debaters) all year.