“It only takes a spark, to get a fire going.” Pass It On, Kurt Kaiser, composer
It is late in the evening, minutes shy of midnight, and two dozen of us are gathered in front of the old stone fireplace. We hear some words of Scripture and offer up some prayers to God … we pause and reflect in silence for a few minutes …and then we scratch out a few phrases on a small piece of paper each of us holds in our hands and then fold the paper in half a couple of times. When the worship leader instructs us, we walk forward to the fireplace and toss our papers into the fireplace when they burn up within a few seconds. You can hear a pin drop. Teenage boys and girls who just a few minutes ago were laughing and horsing around and chomping on snacks they have brought from their homes, are now virtually silent.
Our sins have been absolved. It is as simple … and as complex as that. For that is what we have written on our small pieces of paper – sins for which we are asking God for forgiveness. Even squirrelly teenagers are struck by the power of that act of forgiveness pictured concretely before their very eyes. They literally watch their sins consumed and drawn up into the presence of God as the fire burns the papers to ash, and the smoke from those ashes carries those sins up the flue and out into the dark night of God’s world. The sins may be large or small … they may have had virtually no impact upon the world, or they may have left a footprint of harm upon another life. Only God and his child know the nature of the sins. But whatever that nature is, they are one and all consumed by the fire before us and drawn up into God’s presence. We close with a little more prayer and dismiss them to their rooms for the night, and as they journey away from the fireplace, the sin which has been absolved is replaced by the more familiar laughter and horseplay and silliness that are typical of the group. Life has returned to normal … but it is life that has experienced the touch of God’s hand.
I sometimes hear the concern of parents that their children will not carry on the Christian faith in their lives, as they have been taught since their birth. The concern is a valid one in a world that no longer affirms the traditional Christian message that I grew to love as a child when I was growing up. But as I sit in the back of our little penitential gathering, and watch these young ladies and gentlemen take seriously the rite of confession and forgiveness, I have hope. Maybe their faith will not resemble my faith in every way, nor the faith of their parents. Maybe it will look and sound different, and use words and phrases that I will struggle to understand in my last years of life, as I gaze reflectively to the past, and wonder what heritage my generation has left upon the world. But if our young people can find ways to engage and encounter their God with the solemnity and seriousness that they did this past Sunday night, then we have little to fear about the faith of our fathers and mothers being passed along. Because wherever God is present calling us to confession … absolving us of the sins we acknowledge and repent of … and replacing that repentance spirit with a heart of joy and laughter … yes, wherever those actions are found … God will be found.