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Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Miserable Offender

Miserable Offender.

It's such a deliciously wicked term.

Not just an "offender" but "miserable" about it.  Now, that's "true repentance"!

Some of you know that one of my favorite singing groups is The Miserable Offenders, an internationally known dynamic duo of two New Yorkers, Ana Hernandez and Deborah Griffin Bly. During the time they were active, they sang throughout the Anglican Communion, from diocesan conventions and parish celebrations for the 1988 Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England.

They also sang for my installation (Instillation? Institution? Whatever we do to launch a new ministry) as Canon Missioner to The Oasis and they absolutely, positively brought the house down with drums and singing bowls and stunningly guhgeous voices that so beautifully harmonized so as to make the angels weep. 

They are reuniting after a too long hiatus and I can't wait to hear them again.

I confess, however, that whenever I hear the term "miserable offender" I get a wicked case of the giggles. Some think it a wonderful, quaint, poetic term. I just think it's so .... overdone .... such ..... overstated .... dramatic ..... hyperbole that, well, it just makes me giggle.

For those who don't know, the term is part of the "General Confession" in the service of Morning Prayer in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.  In that context, the term totally works.  At other times, it sounds more like something a Shakespearean actor would say rather than a priest.

I understand. It was 1928. This is 2012. We don't talk like that anymore. But, once, we did. Or, "they" did. And, we don't any more. Except, of course, in places where the 1928 BCP is still used. And, trust me on this, in some places and on some occasions, it still is.

I was thinking about the term today, after talking with someone who described herself as "miserable" about the "offense" she had committed. She is a fairly flamboyant, dramatic person and, given my perception of the fairly insignificant nature of what she considered her "offense" ..... well, I had to raise an eyebrow.

In what was, no doubt, terrible form, I gently interrupted her and asked, "Can I ask you something, before we go on? Were you raised in the Episcopal Church on the 1928 BCP?"

"Why, yes," she said, rather dramatically surprised. "Why do you ask?"

"Just a guess," I said, trying not to smile and suppressing an urge to giggle. Which would have been antithetical to the compassionate, holy listening I try to practice. I pulled it together during our time together, but I confess, I've been giggling about the term "miserable offender" ever since. 

As our kids would say, "Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima nisson stanza."

Morning Prayer in the 1928 BCP begins with Opening Sentences such as:
Thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.  Isaiah lvii. 15.
And, proceeds to a call to confession which invites "Dearly beloved brethren" to "acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness".

Okay, so it sounds very poetic and eloquent and probably even majestic, but, you know, it's a bit heavy on the groveling for my particular taste. Especially for a corporate (vs. private) confession.

I was remembering a time in seminary when one of my classmates went out on a fundraising mission for an inner city soup kitchen to one of the more affluent suburban congregations. She went of a Sunday morning and was going to be part of a three person Adult Forum to discuss the particulars of the ministry, and hopefully, loosen some change from the pockets of the affluent "tweed and natural fiber suburban set".

Finals were rapidly approaching and no one was getting much sleep. We were writing papers and studying for exams while still tending to our families, working part time to keep the student loans as low as possible, as well as working as interns in our respective congregations.

She was seriously sleep-deprived which, no doubt, negatively contributed to the situation. The congregation was a remnant of the "Morning Prayer Congregations" but had compromised by continuing to use Morning Prayer from the 1928 BCP on the fifth Sunday of the month - or, about four times a year.

Because God has a sense of humor and the Holy Spirit is a trickster and Jesus had the Sunday off, my sleep-deprived colleague walked into a situation that just begged for disaster.

The rector was straight out of Central Casting. Tall. Statuesque. Gray haired. Impeccably dressed. Eloquent and articulate. Exuding confidence and status. Possessing a professional, FM radio-announcer sonorous voice with clipped tones that wasn't quite British or faux-British but clearly not the way most people talked - even then.

He looked like he wouldn't know sin if it were staring him in the face.

Above it all, thank you so very much.

My friend, a fairly new convert to The Episcopal Church from Roman Catholicism had not experienced the 1928 BCP. Initially, she was a bit taken aback by the Opening Sentences, but as she listened to the dramatic cadence of the rector's voice, she began to be amused.

Then, he called the congregation to confession and began to intone,
ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.
The report I got was that, my friend started smiling broadly around the words "lost sheep".  By the time she tried to get her exhausted brain to cooperate with her mouth to say, "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done".... well, there was no health in her.

By the time she got to "miserable offenders" she was giggling so loudly she literally fell off the hand-embroidered kneeler. Her two companions pushed her down under the pew, one hand over her mouth, while her body melted in waves of exhausted hilarity. Tears rolled down her face.

She explained later that it wasn't so much the words - although, there was that, to be sure - but that the priest saying them was so unbelievable to her that she simply couldn't bear the tension of hearing the words of a dramatically penitent sinner coming from the lips of a man who sounded as though he thought more of himself than God.

In her experience, it was performance, not prayer and, given the dramatic gravity of the words of the prayer of confession, she experienced the whole thing as absurd. Which, no doubt, it was.

That being said, she had, herself, become a "miserable offender" - an occasion of sin for which her two companions could forgive her and which they later confessed they knew God would, too. They thought Jesus probably had great compassion for her in her exhausted state and ensuing bad case of the giggles, especially given that he didn't have to show up in that church that morning, anyway.

They were also convinced that the Holy Spirit had, in fact, shown up and was, without a shadow of a doubt, the culprit. They chalked it up to what happens when the Trinity is out of balance. Their only concern was to keep her out of the rector's sight so as not to do any harm to the possibility of financial support for the work of their ministry.

That, in there estimation would have been an unforgivable sin. 

Some people prepare for Advent by considering it a "mini-Lent".  Their emphasis is less contemplative and more penitential. Indeed, the church once considered Advent in that way.

I know one local priest who uses the penitential opening sentences at Eucharist during Advent. (v. "Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins." r. "His mercy endures forever".)

Makes me cringe but, you know, some old habits die hard. Especially in the church.

Whatever your Advent preparation, amidst all the hustle and bustle and frenetic pace of the 'holiday season', I hope you find some way to find moments of joy in life.

I hope you don't have to get exhausted to see that life can sometimes be absurd and the human condition is often hilarious and that, no matter what we do - even when we make fools of ourselves, especially when we think we are being 'meet, right and proper' - God's love for us is unconditional and God's mercy is beyond our human comprehension.

Yes, even in those moments when we, ourselves, can be "miserable offenders".

I mean, how else do you expect to be joyful about the Incarnation - Emanuel, God With Us, God robed in human flesh - if you aren't able to laugh at your human self once in a while?

I'm convinced that being able to not take yourself so damn seriously is the fuel that keeps the divine spark within each of us shining brightly.

And, that divine spark is how the wise will seek and find the Christ within the humble manger that is our hearts.

Prepare ye the way, O thou miserable offender. Lo, he comes on clouds descending!

Or, in the words of Absolution from the 1928 BCP:
ALMIGHTY God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live, hath given power, and commandment, to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins. He pardoneth and absolveth all those who truly repent, and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel.
    Wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance, and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do at this present; and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy; so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
 See? It's all about the joy.

So, somebody say, "Amen."


Joanna Depue said...

Joy trumps Grovel any day! Amen!

Matthew said...

I find the confession in Rite 1 of the 1978 BCP even more giggly, and also somewhat offensive. With respect to our sins, we say, "the burden of them is intolerable." I always chuckly because I think, well, if they were intolerable, we wouldn't do them. Also, when I confess sins, I don't usually "bewail" them and I do not always feel "heartily" for these my misdoings.

I used to attend a progressive Episcopal Church but often would go to the Rite 1 early service, not because of Rite 1 but because I'm a morning person and liked the simplicity of the service but the confession often made me giggle.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Joanna - Amen. Amen. Amen.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - You're right. Using the language of "performance" for community worship leads to a case of the giggles.

Elaine C. said...

Thanks for news of this recording -- I spent some time trying to purchase it -- only to go from a Morehouse link to Church Publishing -- then to Cokesbury and be told they were all out of mp3 copies to be sold? Scratching my head ...

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Elaine C - I'm sorry for your trouble. I hope Anna or Deb read this.

whiteycat said...

I had the same problem as Elaine C. Try this link to Amazon. Have not yet tested it, but it looks as if it holds promise. I was able to get the previews.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks so much whiteycat.

Anonymous said...

Dear Elizabeth

I am very sorry to say that I have just learned that Deb Bly has just died. This came from a member of the St Sam's mailing list, which she was active in a number of years ago. I don't know anything more at this point, other than it was a heart attack.

I wish I could have sent you a private email, but I don't the address.. but I felt that you would want to know.

If you want to contact me, my email is my full name as one word (signed below) at

I am particularly saddened because I learned from your blog that Deb and Ana were getting together to work again.

I'm playing "Keeping the Baby Awake" as I type this.

Joan Rasch

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, Joan,

Thanks for your kindness and consideration but Ana Hernandez let me know a few days ago about Deb's heart attack. I'm so deeply sad on so many levels. My prayers right now are for Deb's family. They must be devastated. What a tragic loss.