If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess
our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all
--1 John 1:8-9 NRSV
This past weekend I was honored to take part in an ordination service held via Zoom for a long-time friend and mentor of mine. She was my Baptist Student Union director for some of my time at the Southern Baptist college I attended. After a decades-long journey, she chose to pursue ordination in the Presbyterian Church, USA. I know from my own journey what it is to leave the faith tradition of one’s family and upbringing in order to search for a new home, so as a fellow “Baptist refugee” I celebrated the welcome she had received in another tradition.
During the service, we prayed a Unison Prayer of Confession that I am sure came straight out of the Presbyterian Church, USA Book of Order. Presbyterians are known for doing things “properly and in order” after all.
Here is part of what the prayer said:
Merciful and loving God,
you have called us to be your people
and claimed us for the service of Jesus Christ.
We confess that we have not lived up to our calling to proclaim
the good news in word and deed.
We are quick to speak when we ought to listen
and remain silent when it is time to speak.
We put too much faith in our own actions
and fail to trust the strength of your Spirit.
The prayer concluded with a request for the grace to live out Christ’s calling in our lives and was fallowed by an “Assurance of Pardon” offered to the congregation.
I think the prayer or one like it is a good one to pray every time a church gathers and maybe a good one for Christians to pray individually every day. There is certainly nothing I object to in it and maybe I’m just “disorderly” in my own preferences for worship, but I struggle a bit with prayers of confession. I don’t naturally gravitate towards including them in worship services I lead. I think this personal struggle of mine is a struggle with shame.
I know I’m not the only one who struggles with shame. There are some of us who are wired to be overly zealous in our self-examination and self-criticism. Growing up Southern Baptist, the countless messages of how great a sinner I was merely confirmed what I already thought about my own inadequacies. There were messages about grace too, but they never seemed to make the same impression.
There is a recognition that bubbles up naturally among people who struggle with religious shame, a shared understanding that passes unspoken when two similar souls meet. I’ve met them throughout my career as a minister and they are usually raised Southern Baptist or some other kind of Evangelical but also Roman Catholic too. Even though they don’t believe in a judgmental or wrathful God anymore, their shoulders are permanently hunched as if braced for a lightening bolt hurled by angry deity.
I’ve learned along my journey as a minister that there are plenty of people who love prayers of confession and revel in the depravity of us sinners. These folks pray the prayers as if it applies to everyone but themselves. I’ve encountered such church folk most often on church boards or committees. They’re the ones who fire off furious emails criticizing others, reminding others how much money they give to the church and what would happen if they chose to leave it. As the frequent recipient of such missives, I’ve wondered why such people even go to church at all?
The folks who most intrigue me, however, are the ones who seem to pray the prayers of confession but take just as seriously the words of assurance offered after the prayer. Somehow, they balance their very real need to acknowledge their shortcomings, sins of commission and omission, while at the same time feeling comforted that God forgives them and shows them grace. Folks like this seem to get it right. They take the confession seriously with humility but don’t wallow in shame, preferring instead to revel in God’s goodness. Maybe I’ll get to where they are someday.
I was raised as a good Protestant to believe in what’s called the Priesthood of All Believers, the idea that in Christ I have my own relationship with God and do not need a priest, saint or anyone else as a middleman or middlewoman between me and God. Yet, I’ve always been a bit jealous of our Catholic siblings who make a practice of confession and being declared forgiven by a priest. The simple act of asking God to forgive me through prayer never seemed to convince me I was really forgiven. Sometimes when you know you really have blown it and can’t make up for what you’ve done to hurt others, knowing God forgives you isn’t enough. Sometimes God must speak through another person for one to hear God’s loving mercy.
Along my journey as a minister, I’ve met people who needed someone to pronounce them forgiven by God. I’ve always been uncomfortable in such a priestly role speaking for God, but at times I’ve dared to do so, because their need to hear it was so great. I’ve said the words with as much authority as I could muster, “God forgives you”, because I believe it with all my heart, at least for everyone else but myself. There’s still the voice inside my head that whispers, “Yeah, but what about . . .?”
I probably still won’t be inserting a Prayer of Confession followed by an Assurance of Pardon into a worship service I plan, at least not unless the circumstances demand it. But if you need me to speak for God and pronounce you forgiven because you are struggling to believe it yourself, I am glad to do so. Just be prepared for me to ask you to pronounce the same thing to me in return.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.