Every once in a while, I get someone who wants to pray for me rather than the other way around. They usually approach me with great enthusiasm, surprised and delighted to see someone who appears to be all-in for Jesus (which I am). I love it when this happens. We might talk about the goodness of God, life in Christ, and whatever spiritual stories they want to share. Then I heartily welcome their prayers, which generally end up being a request for God to fill me with the Spirit and bless my ministry. Amen. This week I had another one of these familiar encounters but with an unexpected twist. A woman opened her prayer by asking God to forgive me and cleanse me, citing 1 John 1:9. She didn’t quote this verse of Scripture, but I know it by heart because it’s in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. We use it during Lent – “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
“Okay,” I thought, “I didn’t express a need for forgiveness to this woman, but I can get on board with that.” Then she asked Jesus to reveal anything in me that is not of him, so that I might be further cleansed. For a second, I thought of a scene in the Netflix movie, Come Sunday, which is about a pastor who loses his megachurch because he tells his congregation that hell doesn’t exist. A former parishioner approaches his wife in the grocery store, asks to pray for her, and then essentially tries to cast out a demon. (See the 1:00:32 mark to watch.) Was this woman trying to cast something out of me? Did she think I was some sort of heretic? I very well might be, but that’s beside the point.
Next, she offered an analogy that put my mind at ease. We all pick up dirt without even realizing it. We can look down at our jeans and notice a stain and not know where it came from. I agree that we can likewise pick up sinful behaviors unintentionally. Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.
The rest of the woman's prayer was beautiful. I prayed for her too, and the whole encounter ended up being the highlight of my day. So why was I so sensitive to her seeking God’s forgiveness on my behalf? As mentioned, I didn’t ask her to do this, so there’s that. Yet I believe that repentance and forgiveness are integral to the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. And while it’s not exactly the same thing, as a priest, I pronounce God’s forgiveness over people all the time.
A couple of weeks ago, I heard someone’s confession. In the Episcopal Church we call this the rite of reconciliation, and it includes another memorable line from our Prayer Book. After hearing the penitent’s confession and proclaiming words of absolution, the priest concludes the service by saying, “Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner.” I like this ending because there's a certain freedom in saying I’m a sinner. It creates space for death to self, an often necessary blow to pride, and constant renewal through contrition and grace.
I recently heard that we are like cats, and God is petting us against the grain of our fur. The only solution is to turn around and face the other direction. The woman who prayed for God to cleanse me and point out my sin definitely caused me to bristle. But she also caused me to “repent and turn to God… so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” (Acts 3:19-20). Purr.