Recently I found myself inspired to tidy up the house. I vacuumed, dusted, washed dishes, and mopped a bit.
I also cleaned the toilets, though not without trepidation. In the entire process of house cleaning, and particularly in the face of toilets, you can't ignore the effects of your existence upon your surroundings. Even our natural functions have unseemly consequences that we must face, deal with, and sometimes, clean up.
One time as a college student, a recently converted Catholic friend (who now lives as a part of a monastic community) and I were on a service day together in Ashland, OH. When I asked this friend why he decided to come out that day, a bit of an awkward pause followed. He then told me he came out not as a choice, but as an act of penance recommended by his priest during confession. While my friend didn't share his sin, he shared this incredible insight into how penance worked in this instance: his penance helped him manifest his contrition for his sin through an avenue that enacted a work of reconciliation between him and the offended party.
To me, a snarky 20-something Lutheran, this broke open the doors for my consideration of penance. For my friend, penance provided an opportunity, albeit imperfect, to not only apologize, and not only to make amends, but also to foster within himself a newfound appreciation for that part of God's creation he offended.
Penance of this sort can grease the wheel for reconciliation, for it both cultivates change within the offender as well as offers recompense to the offended.
Like cleaning toilets, penance forces you to come face to face with the results of your actions, however unintentional.* Lutherans and other Protestants must consider that the lack of this formal practice may make acts of reconciliation harder for us. Without a safe space for brothers and sisters in Christ to commend acts of contrition to us, our confessions and God's forgiveness remain in the private realm, without a communal experience.
Now, we don't need to install confessional booths in our Lutheran churches, but we must begin to make spaces for penance in our own lives. Of course, this means we must first make space for confession with one another, for the sort of spiritual intimacy inherent to that act, and the sort of trust necessary to carry out the penance suggested by the one to whom we confess.
Sometimes, we need to be told to clean our toilets, and to embrace the ensuing humility.
*If you don't think ignorance or unintentional actions may bring sinful results, consider this earlier blogpost.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.