Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Grammar of Confession, Part 2

In my last post, I wrote about pronoun selection when confessing one’s sins. I gave my rationale for using first person pronouns rather than second or third. Confessions should be “I” statements, not “you” statements. But what is the distinction between first person singular and first person plural? When should I confess “my” sins, and when should I confess “our” sins?

When I was a choir director in my previous life (before seminary), there was an ongoing debate in the choir about corporate prayers of confession. During worship, the prayer often had a line that went something like, “We have not been an obedient church, we have not done your will, we have broken your law, etc.” One bass in particular was upset every time we prayed this prayer because, as he put it, “I never did any of that stuff!”

One of the altos would inevitably chime in, “I’m not upset by that; I get upset because, when we confess together, I never get a chance to confess my own sins, only our group sins.”

And then a soprano would say something amusing like, “Well, I never sin so I don’t have anything to say, anyway” and then the whole choir would think that was just so funny and all start laughing and I would work to get everyone refocused on the actual choir rehearsal. (We were nothing if not predictable.)

The question at hand is this: When to say “I’m sorry” and when to say “we’re sorry”? Maybe the answer has something to do with the specificity of the sin. If I say, “We have failed to be an obedient church,” that is different from saying, “We have gone down to the gambling boat and blown $500 at the poker table.” The general confession leaves room for individuals to supply their own specifics; the more particular confession may very well exclude some people. But then what does it mean to live together as the body of Christ? If one member of the body gambles, is it not proper to say that “we” as the body of Christ have sinned? Of course that is true to a certain extent. When one part of the body hurts, the entire body suffers. So, on the other hand, it is right and good to be specific in our corporate confession, even if certain individuals do not feel the confession applies specifically to them.

But a bigger problem arises when the sin I am confessing on behalf of the group is not perceived to be a sin at all by some individuals in the group. More so than just feeling the confession doesn’t apply, they believe that the confession need not be confessed at all. (This is the core of the conflict over homosexuality: one group believes it to be a sin, another group believes it is not.) In such cases, a body comprised of a diverse group of individuals would do well to dwell in the abundance of God’s grace and allow space for each person to confess before God by couching corporate prayers in more general language.

Err on the side of grace, I say. Rather than haggle together over what is or is not a sin, perhaps we can come to an understanding that all sin is at its core some version of idolatry – that commandment number one is, “There is one God and only one.” And the good news is that, whenever we forget that, God’s grace is there to remind us again and again. Every prayer of confession is therefore some variation of, "Oops, sorry. We forgot that you were God."


mandyc said...

Hi Andy! I've missed reading your blog and was looking for a homework break - what a great post! I think the ideas of communal confessions are interesting - there is something to be said for the complacency with which many of us participate in things we don't acknowledge (or don't know about). Of course, I'm not one to worry about the IRD getting upset, but they made a point about confessing "your" sins or confessing "my" sins. Ultimately, how many of us even know what is a sin and what is not? How many debates have there been (and they continue as in the issue of homosexuality) over what is and is not sin? Much of theology seems to be debating things we really have no way of answering definitively, yet we try and get passionate about it. Ultimately, God is the only one who knows and understands and we are left to remind each other that we're in this together, like it or not.

David said...

You know, A-man, I hadn't realized until I read your post that I have subconsciously "solved" (ha!) this problem (and another one) by not giving specifics during confessional prayers. I usually say something along the lines of "for failing to heed your call," or "because we prefer the comfort of selfish patterns to the challenge of ground-breaking service"... you know the drill.

(The other problem it solves, incidentally, is the "prayer-as-gossip-fuel" bug that drives me nuts.)

But when I "solve" a problem subconsciously it usually means I'm missing something big. So.... hit me! What am I missing?

: )

Adam Caldwell said...

good thoughts

Anonymous said...

We as a nation, as a world, as a denomination, indeed, have much to confess. So do we, as individual Christian disciples. If we cannot see or take responsibility for sins as a society, as a group, we are truly blind pharisees. "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." Grace and forgiveness, even the death of Christ on the cross, is because of our sin, individually and corporately. And I would offer forgiveness even if you disagree with me. Jim