I was all ready, sins in hand, feet stopped on shaky ground.

I was all ready, in front of the Confessional.

Having reflected on the time, long memorized the steps, prepared to complete that most anxiety-inducing phrase: “And these are my sins…”

But, just then, my internal quarterback piped up, “Omaha, Omaha!” An audible.

I wouldn’t be leaving the line, but I would be adding to the play call. 

What to do with those sins picked up while in the line for Confession?

On the one hand, it sure beats making them on the line out the door. Get sick before entering the hospital, not on the car ride home, someone wise undoubtedly once said. 

On the same hand, a line? For Confession? That’s news not found on the 6 p.m. rebroadcast. 

But, to take a word from another known sinner: le line c’est moi. It was only one-person long. Just me waiting for father to turn over the table-for-one currently kneeling.

And that was the problem. 

I had a friend in another diocese who was approached by a prospective volunteer. The recent retiree had been successful in business and was hoping to contribute some of those white-collar skills to his parish. Instead, the priest gave him a grammar school assignment. “I want you to go around the campus and—this shouldn’t be a stretch for you—pretend like you know nothing about what we do and who we are. How are we confusing to an outsider?”

Earlier on my Shrove Friday, I was already pondering the wisdom of that prompt.

Jen had gone to another church for her confessing, texting me a few questions. “How do I know if anyone’s in there?” she asked, attaching a picture of a closed door, with a walker out front and an ambiguous light up top. Red light, green light, 1-2-3…whoops, sorry about hearing that for-his-ears-only stuff!

Jen, of course, figured it out. And even did so without creating a commotion. I’m a bit slower, with architecture and grace. 

My sins are… I can be impatient, judgmental… 

I was rehearsing as the church lady walked up to me. 

In an unfamiliar setting, it’s hard to know the protocol. Post-post-Vatican II architecture doesn’t help much either. The church I decided to cast my sins on had tastefully—if impractically—reconfigured their confessionals years back, turning a double into a single in a manner any HGTV lover would appreciate. To the uninitiated, however, it’s confusing—the singular door opening on the far side of the confessional, a window with father’s face visible on the near side. 

Having walked the perimeter to find a door knob, I pushed my way back toward the front altar, happy to give plenty of space and to wait my turn. But, even in line, I was doing it wrong. 

As the office-side door of the church opened and the knowledgeable guide approached, I knew my line-of-one was in trouble. 

“That’s not where the line goes. You need to give people privacy,” she began once she arrived at my spot, fifteen feet from the confessional door.

had just let the current sinner-turning-saint skip me (after he emerged from his own misdrawn line, kneeling in a nearby pew). But I didn’t think that fact would redeem the assessment of my line-making. Telling her I was in a position to hear and see nothing certainly didn’t help.

“You’ve got to go far back here. Come with me.” With no one else inside the church, I couldn’t help but see the common critique: rules presented for the possibility of future application. Someone else might join the line, and then another, and then a detonating chain of chaos. Oh, the microcosm of it all!

I was in the wrong place, but as it turned out, it was the right time.

Just as I quieted my muttering and slowed my eye-rolling, I abandoned my tour guide, walking back toward the confessional. “No! Back here!” she stressed.

“He’s. Out,” I icily replied, motioning to the opened door and jotting down an addendum to my grocery-store list of sins. 

And this, dear reader, is why Confession is valuable.

It’s not as though a magic wand is waved and the penitent is placed in the category of the perfect. Confession isn’t a big game of sin-guilt-grace-repeat.

Rather, it acknowledges our human brokenness and offers real-world support along the way.

I can’t even stand in line for Confession without taking it out on my neighbor. I’m going to figure the rest out?

When Confession is good, it can’t be beat. I know all the stories: the priest who yells, who is strange, who leaves penitents in tears. One time, my sister’s garden-variety confession netted her the penance of the Stations of the Cross. Like, all fourteen of them. And it wasn’t even Lent. That shouldn’t happen. 

Neither is a good Confession Fr. Nice Guy. Once I was asked, “And what would you like for your penance?” Umm, isn’t answering this question penance enough?

The Goldilocks giving of grace is neither too cold nor too hot. It’s being reminded of how we’ve strayed and how God continues to pursue in love.

It’s what I experienced last week. Once I finally made it inside.

If the very word Confession gets us kicking and screaming into church—or, like me, kicking and screaming all the way into confessional booth—there’s more to it than that. 

I’m not God, but God is with me on the journey—a better addendum to my confessional notes. 

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