Communal confession

I heard last Sunday from a preaching pastor[1] that the plurals in the so-called “Lord’s Prayer” indicate that “confession is done in community.”

Let’s examine this idea — not because I disagree with the conclusion, but because I challenge the way this well-meaning man reached  the conclusion.

The plurals he spoke of are these:

  • Our  Father”
  • “Give us  this day . . .”
  • “Forgive us  our debts, as we forgive . . .”
  • “Do not lead us  into temptation, but deliver us  from evil”

First:  there is no confession per se included in this prayer (not as the pastor was using the term, anyway).  The “forgive” request in this prayer is not specific, and there is no obviously personal aspect.  Surely Jesus and the Father do want us to confess personally, but that desire doesn’t really appear in this “model prayer.”

Second, and more significant:  this model prayer is found within a specific literary context.  I haven’t spent as much time with this gospel as with Mark or John, but I do know that, in Matthew, a sectional structure — including so-called “teaching blocks” — plays a major role in how the gospel is laid out.  Considering this particular teaching block, one would want to know something about a) how chapters 5-7 fit into the whole, and b) how this prayer fits into the so-called “Sermon on the Mount” (not a biblical label).

One might also inquire into such aspects as

  • how Matthew treats prayer from a Jewish, and then a new-Kingdom, perspective
  • what significance there might be in the concepts of forgiveness, debts, “kingdom,” end-time matters
  • how the Father is understood in this text
  • the relationship of this prayer to the one recorded in Luke 11
  • immediate contextual matters (alms, hypocritical religion, etc.)

Other questions:

Did this amount to new garments on a traditional body for prayer?

Or was Jesus providing the disciples with a framework for a completely new kind of prayer that should now become typical for them?

Could Jesus have been acknowledging Jewish synagogue custom of public prayer here, using it as a basis, in the time period before Pentecost?  (A follow-up here might involve whether the kingdom is generally seen, in Matthew, as having begun already, during the time before Jesus’ crucifixion.)

Could Jesus have been using the royal “we” and “us”? Or perhaps he was not implying a grouped, public sort of praying, but was speaking plurally to his hearers who were assumed to be individuals when engaged in the actual act of prayer?

What about the history of the evangelical “altar call” or “invitation” might come into play?confession

Is an innate evangelical reaction to the Roman “confessional” at work here?  In other words, do the rest of us believers naturally assume the confessing-to-one-cleric thing is off-base, and therefore lean toward the opposite extreme — assuming the whole gathered church should hear a confession?

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Again:  I heard it said that the plurals in the “Lord’s Prayer” indicate that “confession is done in community.”

I have not raised questions here because I think confessing sin to some group is a bad idea.  I, too, tend to gravitate toward a small group, or to one sibling, for some “confession.”  I think confessing to one another is a good  idea, in many cases.

But I question whether the confession-to-the-whole-community conclusion may rightly be drawn from the “Lord’s Prayer,” and I think it is important to be circumspect and careful with biblical texts.

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[1] I specify “preaching pastor” because, biblically speaking, pastors would not be assumed to be public teachers/preachers.  Today’s pastor role — while it may make sense in some scenaria — is not, by and large, a scripturally supported role.

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Ekklesia values 8b (non-music worship)

Besides expressing worship through music, I also believe that the spoken word is crucial.  Prayer is not the only non-musical spoken mode for worship, but it seems to be the most significant.

Prayer has more than one face and is not to be defined solely as “prayer requests.”  Literally, prayer is more about asking, but based on biblical examples, that does not represent the totality of its purpose.  Conversing with God is an area to be explored in the assembly!  Although few of us do this very well these days, it seems to me that we could use more silence, toward the goal of listening for the voice of God.  I’m not sure my ears are very well trained for that.

Another area for regular attention is the Lord’s Supper or communion.  (I stay away from the word “Eucharist” because it carries enough inappropriate connotations and is not especially biblical based in this context.)  While my own tradition strongly believes and practices weekly observance, I see nothing in the scriptures that demands this.  Frankly, my experience of communion has been spiritually lacking for all my years, and I’m more than a little tired of the insistence on observance with little or no spiritual emphasis on meaning.  Put another way, my closest spiritual siblings a) assume that they’re right in practice, b) virtually never question that they should be doing this thing weekly, and c) take as gospel that the Lord’s Supper is to be central in the Christian assembly.   The actual practice, however, rarely matches those surface-level commitments.

For me, the experience has only rarely approached what I think it can be, and I’m interested in deepening the practice of communion, not de-emphasizing it.  This desire may result in a lessened frequency, but frequency is not specified in the scriptures, as far as I can tell.  One more word on frequency:  while my particular fellowship has majored in frequency and could use less emphasis there, most other Christian churches could probably use more frequent Lord’s Supper opportunities.

In addition to worship through prayer/the spoken word, the Lord’s Supper, and music, I’m very much interested in such additions as well-conceived drama, dramatic reading, devotional reading of certain scriptures (subjugated to the practice of contextually studying and applying scripture), and various devotional activities that aid–first in vertical, and secondarily in horizontal—relationships in the church.

Next in series:  study and the use of scripture

Prayer of worship and confession

The old song announces our presence, “standing in the need of prayer.”

Today, on the contrary, Lord God, we invite and recognize Your presence, as we stand in the need not of prayer, which is from us, but of divine atonement, which is from You.

You were so gracious, so benevolent, in having all Your fullness dwell in Your only Son, and through Him to reconcile to Yourself all things, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.  We were alienated from Your holiness and are, in and of ourselves.  We are Your enemies because of our evil behavior and our naturally fleshly mindset.  But You have put our sin far away—“as far as the east is from the west.”  You have reconciled us by making the Messiah to be sin, so that we could be presented holy in Your sight, without blemish and free from accusation

I pause now for each person here to ponder the need for forgiveness, great and small.

We stand in the need of forgiveness, and oh, how You provide it – from the secret sins to the obvious ones.

All praise to You, Mighty and Forgiving God, because in Your great mercy You have given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.  This is of Your doing, not ours.  We acknowledge our sin, and we revel, gratefully, in Your forgiveness.

Give us grace, all-providing, sufficient God, for us to continue in faith, walking in light, knowing of the spiritual blessings You provide.

It’s true that we stand in need, Father God—in need of what You can and do give through Jesus Christ.  And we will try more to be Your undeserving, thanks-filled people in a way that pleases You.  Amen.

Closing prayer

In another, brief attempt to call Christianese into question, I bring forward the word formulae “in Your name,” “in Jesus’ name,” ‘in His name,” and similar expressions.

I was weaned on “in Jesus’ name,” and part of me is as comfortable with that expression as with anyone. But my spirit resists habits that may induce spiritual comas!

I understand that, in ancient times, the reference to someone’s name was a bit more substantive than a reference to a name today. In a name was meaning and power. So the tradition that led to bringing closure to prayers by saying “in Jesus’ name” was probably pretty well founded.

Still, I wish I could be confident that all of us who use these phrases were really considering their meaning. When I close prayers, I want to do better than floating an incantation. If I can truly mean “by the power vested in Jesus” or “cognizant of the authority inherent in His name” or “because of the access provided by Jesus’ intercessory priesthood,” I’ll use such a phrase as “in Jesus’ name.”

I want to be found infusing my prayer-closings with meaning … instead of merely using ritualized phrasings that may pass two eardrums without being apprehended by gray matter. But that’s just me.

Loving God

Sunday I had the privilege of wording a public “adoration and confession” prayer for our church. I’ve uploaded the content (almost verbatim) of that prayer to the Special Content area here. Here’s the thinking behind it. . . .

First of all, it’s a somewhat creative approach–it refers to Billy Joel and Peaches & Herb, for crying out loud. (I’m sort of known for a certain amount of innovative methodology. Though I’m sure that some would rather do things the same ways all the time, I’m one of those people who likes to shift the furniture around and replace items on my desk because I’m bored with the look. I like new foods. I like to find different routes to the same destination and rarely have exactly the same morning get-ready routine.)

Anyway, I’d been thinking about this approach to a worshipful prayer for years, and Sunday, I hoped the good siblings in our church would pray with me. (Several indicated they appreciated the thoughts very much.)

In this prayer I used once-popular love songs — “Oldies,” really — as springboards. I hope no one saw this as flippant or irreverent. For me, it was simply a starting point—we humans have to have a place to start when we attempt to adore God. He is, of course, a love “Object” far out of the realm of any human, romantic love.

One other note before directing you to the actual prayer. Some of these words may sound as though they were announcements to God — sort of like telling God when John’s surgery will be, and at which hospital, when God obviously knows the details — instead of prayers. The prayer mentions popular singers’ names and such, and God certainly knew these details before I said them. My hope was that these brief mentions of song titles and singers helped to frame a sort of three-way conversation among me, the rest of the church, and the Lord, helping some to remember each love song better … toward the ultimate goal of drawing better contrasts between love between humans and worshipful adoration of God.

Adoration Prayer (Love Songs)

Arrogance

I heard or read these (regrettably familiar) expressions recently:

“Our prayers are with the Johnson family.”

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to you.”

Do these wordings strike anyone else as arrogant?  Not that they were intended that way, but they seem to place emphasis on the value of who’s praying, and on the supposedly magical prayer-energy itself, rather than on God Who might be hearing the prayers.  I know, I know, to say “our prayers are with you” sort of means “hey, we’re with you, man … and we’re praying.”  And the newscaster’s “our prayers go out to you” strikes me as a non-religionist’s way of appeasing religionists all the while appearing to have the milk of human kindness coursing through her veins, despite a lack of belief in God or even in prayer.

I’d prefer these altered phrasings:

“Our hearts of prayer are engaged … begging God to help the Johnson family in this time of real trial.”

“Our thoughts are with you, and those of us who pray have already been asking Deity to be with You.”

When to pray

And they are accustomed to pray twice every day, at morning and at evening; when the sun is rising entreating God that the happiness of the coming day may be real happiness, so that their minds may be filled with heavenly light, and when the sun is setting they pray that their soul[s], being entirely lightened and relieved of the burden of the outward senses, and of the appropriate object of these outward senses, may be able to trace out truth existing in its own consistory and council chamber. – Philo of Alexandria, On the Contemplative Life or Suppliants, 1st century

The passage above, as noted, comes from a Jewish writer/thinker from the 1st century who, according to Gary Collier, wrote as much as is in our entire Bible. Philo was a contemporary of Jesus and Paul, and he is describing a society of the day known as the theraputiae, who lived separately and made it their business to live a quiet, contemplative life. (I don’t have enough of a grasp of the subjects of Philo’s piece to specify further.)

It wasn’t for any holy or well-founded reason that I began to question the idea of mealtime and bedtime prayers. I think it’s just because I’m a creature who chooses his habits carefully, varies them from time to time, and dislikes being in ruts.

I observe a few things:

  1. that this particular type of person/society prayed twice a day–not at mealtime or bedtime
  2. that Jesus does not appear to have sanctioned prayer habits, either by sustaining them Himself or by enjoining them on His followers
  3. that examples of Jesus’ prayers are few and far between
  4. that Jesus’ particular “retreats” for prayer are even fewer, and that they seem to precede especially significant events in His ministry
  5. that mealtime prayers have not been devotional in my life

I wonder … just wonder … if I stopped praying over meals and insisted, in my soul, that I replace those typically lackluster word clusters with private, occasional, intentional prayer … would I be praying more as God would want me to pray?

Then again, if I nurtured a habit such as the one Philo described, would I truly sense heavenly light on my daytimes and restful relief from the outward senses in my nights? Or, better yet, would my heart be drawn into worshipful communion with my God?

I’m a list-maker . . .

. . . which may be one of the reasons I’m repelled by “prayer lists.” May I explain further?

Maybe you’ve heard phrasings such as these:

  1. Debbye needs our prayers.
  2. So, keep Steve in your prayers.
  3. That just shows us the power of prayer.
  4. Kelly is thankful for everyone’s prayers.
  5. Lori has a prayer request.
  6. Please keep Brad on your prayer list.

Ack.

In order,

  1. No, Debbye doesn’t need our prayers. She needs God.
  2. I couldn’t care less whether Steve is “in” my prayers or yours. The keeping of someone “in our prayers” is sometimes offered as though “our prayers” is some holy vat of enchanted prayer elixir that somehow immerses the need, and/or the person who has the need, in mystical hope and healing. But no, it is God—the source of all good—Who hears our hearts’ devotion a) to others and b) to His capacity to provide.
  3. Prayer is said to be powerful by metonymy. That is (c’mon, don’t we know this?), God is the source of power, and it is by His elective extension into the realm of communication with human that that power is seen. A contextual reading of James 5 will show this, I would suggest. The ultimate attention is to God’s power, not to prayer’s power.
  4. Wouldn’t it be better if Kelly were thankful to God, giving him credit for what she perceives as His activity?
  5. Could it be a “God request” instead of a “prayer request”? I find the endless suggestions to “remember Derek in your prayers,” keep him in your prayers,” etc., time-consuming, tedious, repetitive, and flat-annoying. “Prayer request” itself is a very tired expression.
  6. I’m left high and dry by prayer lists. The brain switch is turned off, and that circuit, I’m afraid, includes my heart. This is especially true when the prayer list includes a sincere, but oh-so-misplaced, allusions to the dead turtle belonging to the cousin of one of little David’s 1st-grade classmate’s neighbors. Maybe the lists would reside more comfortably in my heart in a small/cell group prayer, but not in a large group.

I sorely (sic) wish that prayer were more solidly, and more often, experienced as worship than as mere begging, though I know God does hear it all, and wants us to ask Him for things. I’ll keep making my lists of tasks for the day, but I’m just not a “prayer warrior” who keeps a list on the refrigerator or in my pocket. (Can I still be your brother?)  I move away from the computer for recreation (read:  I don’t like playing computer games) and choose to move away from my business list-making mode for my praying.  That’s not to say you have to; it’s just me.

All those enumerated items up there are merely semantic differences, you might say. Wouldn’t you rather expend your energy on other things? Maybe I should. But somehow, I can’t keep from encouraging a more God-oriented philosophy and practice of prayer. It might just make a difference in how we see Him and how we live. It’s not a Christianish sort of system we’re supposed to uphold, speaking Christianese. It’s more radical than that.

A worship-filled prayer

It’s been too long since I offered a thought focused on the worship of Almighty God. Here is a prayer penned by my grandfather, Andy T. Ritchie, Jr.–a prayer I think I’ll adapt for use in tomorrow’s assembly where we have opportunity to worship weekly:

O God, You who have made us in Your image,
We confess that through our blindness and stubbornness, we have marred your creation.
Often when we are inclined to turn to you,
Is because of what you can give us.
Help us, O most attractive one,
You Who are Goodness and Holiness and Love,
To worship You for what You are.