The Campus Confession Booth

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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.

"You haven't hurt me. I just think it isn't very popular to be a Christian, you know. Especially at a place like this. I don't think too many people have been hurt. Most people just have a strong reaction to what they see on television. All these well-dressed preachers supporting the Republicans."

"That's not the whole picture," I said. "That's just television. I have friends who are giving their lives to feed the poor and defend the defenseless. They are doing it for Christ."

"You really believe in Jesus, don't you?" he asked me.

"Yes, I think I do. Most often I do. I have doubts at times, but mostly I believe in him. It's like there is something in me that causes me to believe. I can't explain it."

"You said earlier that there was a central message of Christ. I don't really want to become a Christian, you know, but what is that message?"

"The message is that man sinned against God and God gave the world over to man, and that if somebody wanted to be rescued out of that, if somebody for instance finds it all very empty, that Christ will rescue them if they want; that if they ask forgiveness for being a part of that rebellion then God will forgive them."

"What is the deal with the cross?" Jake asked.

"God says the wages of sin is death," I told him. "And Jesus died so that none of us would have to. If we have faith in that then we are Christians."

"This is why people wear crosses?" he asked.

"I guess. I think it is sort of fashionable. Some people believe that if they have a cross around their neck or tattooed on them or something, it has some sort of mystical power."

"Do you believe that?" Jake asked.

"No," I answered. I told him that I thought mystical power came through faith in Jesus. "What do you believe about God?" I asked him.

"I don't know. I guess I didn't believe for a long time, you know. The science of it is so sketchy. I guess I believe in God though. I believe somebody is responsible for all of this, this world we live in. It is all very confusing."

"Jake, if you want to know God, you can. I am just saying if you ever want to call on Jesus, he will be there."

"Thanks, man. I believe that you mean that." His eyes were watering again. "This is cool what you guys are doing," he repeated. "I am going to tell my friends about this."

"I don't know whether to thank you for that or not," I laughed. "I have to sit here and confess all my crap."

He looked at me very seriously. "It's worth it," he said. He shook my hand, and when he left the booth there was somebody else ready to get in. It went like that for a couple of hours. I talked to about thirty people, and Tony took confessions on a picnic table outside the booth.

Many people wanted to hug when we were done. All of the people who visited the booth were grateful and gracious. I was being changed through the process. I went in with doubts and came out believing so strongly in Jesus I was ready to die and be with him.

I think that night was the beginning of a change for a lot of us.

Donald Miller is an author living in Portland, Oregon.

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A Post-Confessional Chat with Don Miller

Have you continued to use confession as a way to start meaningful conversations, even apart from the Ren Fayre atmosphere?
I usually ask people what their perceptions are about Christians and if they have been hurt or offended. I usually say I am sorry, sorry those things happened to you. It gives me the opportunity to share the true Christ. It also stirs in my heart a genuine love for the person.

Confessing is the opposite of defending, and most people defend. So offering a confession sometimes appears as a bright light in a dark world. Saying you're sorry, for whatever, it is always a tender moment.

You've said that the church "uses love as a commodity." What do you mean?
We sometimes take a Darwinian approach with love—if we are against somebody's ideas, we starve them out. If we disagree with somebody's political ideas, or sexual identity, we just don't "pay" them. We refuse to "condone the behavior" by offering any love.

This approach has created a Christian culture that is completely unaware what the greater culture thinks of us. We don't interact with people who don't validate our ideas. There is nothing revolutionary here. This mindset is hardly a breath of fresh air to a world that uses the exact same kinds of techniques.

What's the alternative?
The opposite is biblical love, which loves even enemies, loves unconditionally, and loves liberally. Loving selectively is worldly; giving it freely is miraculous.

If love isn't a commodity, what is it?
I think of love like a magnet. When people see it given in the name of God, they're drawn to it. If I withhold love, then people believe I have met a God that makes me a hateful and vicious person. And they're repelled.

I have two responsibilities to this world, the first is to love, the second is to speak the truth. I can tell somebody such and such a behavior is sin, and still love them. Why not? Why not bring them food, why not hug them, why not have them over to the house? Won't this only help them understand the truth?

Tell us about your church, Imago Dei, and how love is expressed there.
Imago has saved me in so many ways. Rick, my pastor, is a perfect example of somebody who speaks the truth in love. He is a genius at saying such and such an idea is true, and it is hard, and sometimes I don't like it, but we must trust that God is good, we must help each other, and we must obey. People feel loved at Imago, but they also feel instructed, guided, and that God is not just a Diety who is there to give them whatever they want.

Imago makes me feel parented and not alone. I spoke at Imago several months ago, right after the election, and a woman, a homosexual, was sitting on the front row with a giant sign that said, among other things, that she hopes our children die, that the legacy of hate will end.

At the end of the service, her sign was laid down in front of the communion table, and she was being held by me, and many others, sobbing as she had never heard truth being presented in love. She had not known the difference between a parental communication of truth and a judgmental, hate-filled communication of truth.

It is a very beautiful community, and I am honored they would accept me and love me.

How do you react to ministries that try to present Christianity as being cool and hip?
There are many problems with trying to market the gospel of Jesus, not the least of which is that, in itself, it is not a cool or fashionable idea. It isn't supposed to be. It is supposed to be revolutionary. It's for people who are tired of trying to be cool, tired of trying to get the world to redeem them.

I attended the Dove Awards recently and was brokenhearted. I saw all these beautiful Christians, wonderful people, with this wonderful, revolutionary message of Jesus, who, instead of saying, "Look, fashion doesn't matter, hip doesn't matter," were saying "World, please accept us, we can be just as hip as you, just as fashionable, only in a religious way."

I would say we need to choose our God, choose our redeemer.

This fall, you'll be speaking to a group of young church leaders. What do you hope will happen there?
I'm looking forward to that event. I hope people see Jesus there. I am going to talk about the gospel, how beautiful it is, and how much it has come to mean to me. I hope people who are there remember the gospel, and find it all over again, and in doing so, let go of some of our voodoo religion.

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


Copyright 2005 Don Miller, Reprinted from Leadership Journal.
Summer 2005, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Page 62

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