Thursday, November 3, 2011

We're Confessing

Early in my ministry, a prayer of confession was introduced into the order of service, whereupon I was confronted by one of the members during the coffee hour. “I don’t like that confession prayer,“ he said. “I’m not so bad I need to do that every week.”

Well, more than one point got past him.

The importance of confession of sin in worship for any and all of us is that it reminds us of our distance from who God. The challenges of our faith are considerable, and we fall short, often as not. Confession allows us to recognize the forgiving, healing grace of God, and sends us on our way rejoicing. That’s only one point he missed.

The other fumble on his part was that he didn’t see that this prayer of confession was a part of common worship. We’re confessing together. It’s not that we are confessing our individual and personal sinfulness at the same time. Rather we are as an assembly, a group, a body, a people, corporately confessing. We don’t say “I” but “we”.

Of course the Prayer of Confession can prompt in any of us rue and regret for our personal failures. Inherent in the corporate confession is each individual’s personal prayer.

Early in the post-Vatican II dialogue between Protestants and Roman Catholics, I attended a semi-clandestine gathering of both brands of clergy. We began our meeting with a time of prayer led by a priest. The prayer was a Roman Catholic form in which the priest confessed to the people, receiving forgiveness pronounced by the people, and then the process was reversed.

Given the historic situation at the time, this was a powerful experience of mutual forgiveness, both personally and corporately. Protestants and Roman Catholics had plenty to confess before God and one another—prejudice, misrepresentation, hatred, and so forth.

Alot of these sins were (and still are) committed by corporate bodies. When I began in ministry, the session of the church I served required a Roman Catholic becoming a member to be re-baptized. In those days, this was left to the session to decide. If you disagreed with that personally, it didn’t matter—someone else made the decision for you. It was a corporate decision, and if it were considered sinful, it was a corporate sin. (In that instance, the session soon removed that requirement and recognized all baptisms.)

A more current example in the ecumenical realm is the inability of both the Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant bodies to share communion at the Lord’s Table. This is the sin of disunion. Even though a person personally does not agree with such policies, and denounces them as sinful, he or she may participate in the sin as a member of a group that fences their Table to keep others out.

There are many other current situations in which we all participate in sin that needs confessing. When policies and practices of our government violate our Christian consciences in waging war or raping the landscape or oppressing the poor, we all participate in the sinfulness, and are cut off from God—because we belong to the national body.

Prayers always lead to action, or they are not authentic prayers. This is radically true of the Prayer of Confession. Whatever it is that we confess, whether it is our individual failing, or something in which we share because of our membership in some group—whatever we confess becomes a commitment to do something about it.

Prayers of confession are often fonts from which flow the actions of protest. Recognizing what is wrong, what is an affront to God and a conflict of conscience for ourselves, leads us to champion repentant change. This was clearly the case in the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, and is today evident in how many Christian respond to the war in Afghanistan and the financial policies of Wall street. One has to wonder how many of those occupying Wall Street nevertheless want good dividends on their personal investments. It can get complicated.

It is always difficult for us to extract our personal actions from those of the groups with which we are identified. On Sunday mornings, before God and in front of one another, the Prayer of confession helps us sort things out. Then we take responsibility not only for our own actions, but to challenge and change the sinful status quo championed by the groups to which we belong.

Do you pray your confession “before God and one another” on Sundays?

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