What Should Worship Sound Like?: Dusting Off an Old Story
Ash Wednesday

Emerging Confessions Part One

In his book on emerging or progressive Christianity, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg questions whether "sin" is the best term for describing our human condition before God. His argument isn't merely theological, but liturgical: "The nearly universal liturgical element of 'confession of sin and absolution' might be replaced or complemented by a 'declaration of what ails us and God's promise to us'" (p. 170). He continues in a note: "I am not suggesting these exact words as 'liturgical headings.' I would hope more elegant phrases could be found, but I am suggesting the notion that lies behind these words" (p. 185, n. 8). Following is one attempt at more elegant phrasing for several of the images Borg mines from the Bible to describe our condition.

Confession of Blindness and Promise of Illumination

God of Light, we confess that our vision is impaired. Your presence is lost to us in the shadows of our world and the darkness of our hearts. We look, yet we do not see, blind to the daily opportunities to praise you and serve others. Restore our sight, we pray, in the name of Christ whose vision of your kingdom come, led him on the path of salvation.

God who commanded light to shine out of darkness has sent Christ as the light of the world. He remains with us in the Holy Spirit, and promises that those who seek will surely find. In Jesus Christ, our eyes are open. Amen.

Recognition of Exile and Hope of Restoration

God, alone in whom our hearts find their rest, we have awakened to find ourselves far from home. Our paths have led us away from you. We feel lonely and fear we are abandoned. Here, your word seems foreign to us, and we struggle to sing the songs of heaven. In your faithfulness, show us your presence once again, that we, too, may rejoice with all who call upon your name.

We have a good shepherd who searches for lost sheep. The Spirit of God still blows through the wilderness and prays for us. The sacred testimony gives us this hope; God delivers us in Christ. Amen.

Admission of Bondage and Words of Deliverance

Listening God, hear our cries. We are not free. We have enslaved ourselves and others to debt and despair. We are bound by vain desires, and our liberty to love is curtailed by bad habits. Our emotions hold us hostage to wrongs, real and imagined. In our bondage we are less than what you call us to be. Hear and answer us, we pray, in the name of him who came to set prisoners free.

The God of the Israelites has shown us the way of exodus. Forsaking what lies behind, we follow our liberating Lord. When we are weak in faith and strength, the Holy Spirit provides daily bread and springs of living water, that we may complete our journey in the land of promise. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Comments

Mike

If I were a blind person, I would be very offended by replacing the theological language of "sin" with "blindness." Sure, the Bible uses blindness as a metaphor for sin (John 9, etc.), but it's one thing for Scripture to do it and another for us to uncritically appropriate such language into our liturgical life.

And think of how "bondage" is going to sound to the teenagers (chronologically or mentally) in the congregations. "Admission of Bondage?" Come on!

Marcus Borg is hardly the person worship planners who are committed to classic Christian faith should take a cue from. Rather than finding all sorts of creative metaphors to replace traditional language of sin and forgiveness/pardon, why not try *teaching* people what these words mean? You could use such metaphors as blindness, bondage, etc. to get the point across -- but the traditional language has served the church well for 2000+ years for a reason.

RonRienstra

Mike,

Thanks for your comments -- they are well-taken, but I think the lesson here is that the traditional language of sin/salvation is, to many people, foreign or stale. For them, some creative appropriation of secondary metaphors -- secondary biblical metaphors -- can enliven their understanding (and ours) of this central dynamic of faith.

While one might object to blindness or bondage*, there are a whole host of other metaphors to employ in order to help a congregation understand sin and salvation. So, for example, death and life. Or injustice and justice. Or disease and health. Or chaos and meaning. The Borg prayers are fine examples of the sort of thing anyone might try with one of these other pairs.

* and actually, though the word "bondage" has those S&M overtones, it is very powerful for people who struggle with, or love someone struggling with, an addiction. Depending on whose statistics you believe, that's up to 80% of your congregation.

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Critiquing the thinking of Marcus Borg is often a risky thing to do. Critiquing that thinking when one has not read the book in question, nor the context in which quotes from it are taken, is perhaps even riskier. All sorts of misunderstandings are bound to occur and perhaps be worsened in the process.

Still, if Borg is making a case for an historical liturgical basis of a confession of sin and absolution sequence that has primarily to do with a confession of our situation before God over which we find ourselves with little control, but rather primarily as victims, I would argue that there are at least a good number of significant exceptions to that in early Christian liturgical practice, and indeed in the basic Ordo of most contemporary liturgical practice of Word and Table.

Consider Didache, for example. In Didache, the work of confession of sin does not appear to occur in the liturgy proper at all. Why? Because the underlying liturgical ethos and practice of this community appears to have been that acts of confession of sin to one another, and acts of reconciliation between parties that had offended against each other in some way, would have taken place before the liturgy proper began, and perhaps even in an entirely different space-- i.e., not in the context of worship at all. Why? Because there the approach was that in order to offer God a perfect sacrifice, without blemish or spot (Malachi is quoted to this point), the community has to be whole itself-- both in relationship to God (confession of sin/pardon) and in relationship to each other (acts of reconciliation). Persons who were not reconciled to each other, and who had not participated in the other confessional acts prior to the beginning of the liturgy simply would not have been admitted to the liturgy itself at all.

A similar impulse seems to inform the liturgical instructions in both Didascalia (AD 230) and its later recension as Apostolic Constitutions (AD 380). There, if the deacon has not called for persons who are not reconciled to each other to leave before the prayers of the people are offered, the entire rest of the liturgy is to be considered invalid. The point-- not so much that we have to get rid of people or fence the table (though that is exactly what is going on here!), but rather that God requires that those offering both prayers and the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in the Eucharist be as whole as possible-- both in their relationship to God and in their relationships with each other.

One result of this approach is that when you look at the Eucharistic prayers themselves in these texts (Didache, Didascalia, Apostolic Constitutions), to which one might also add the Eucharistic prayers in Apostolic Tradition (early 3rd century, Rome or North Africa), you see an outpouring of thanksgiving for having been made worthy to offer thanksgiving and to share in the communion of Christ's body and blood (Didache doesn't mention either the death of Jesus or connect the bread and wine to body and blood directly-- but the same sense of thanksgiving for worthiness already granted is present). In other words, in all of these cases, the Eucharist is a feast of joy for deliverance in many forms, and for the opportunity to participate in the Divine Life-- it was not a feast from which one gains forgiveness or healing, but rather thanksgiving for those gifts already received.

Coming back around to contemporary ecumenical Eucharistic liturgies. In Protestantism, particularly, the confession/pardon sequence has become rather a "moveable" rite. In some cases, especially in contexts where there is a Sunday service of the Word only, it is the first thing done out of the gates, as it were, as a means to allow any sort of act of worship to proceed. I would suggest that in such a context, indeed Borg's approach may well make sense. Such a confession of our condition makes sense as an entrance rite, corresponding to the Prayer for Purity in Rite II of the Book of Common Prayer (Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, from whom no secrets are hid... etc.). I would say that such prayers and promises help us resituate ourselves as the baptized who are ever in need of repentance, precisely because we do live in a sinful world, and precisely because we are blinded and in bondage and need to be reminded of God's promise to open eyes and set us free. I would say that such prayers make sense for a setting such as daily office as well, and for similar reasons.

However, Rite II goes on to provide for a second rite of confession-- an explicit confession of sin and an act of forgiveness, as part of the sequence leading to the Lord's Table. The ritual of the United Methodist Church (Word and Table I and II) does precisely the same thing. Not having other books in front of me at the moment, I cannot comment how widespread this is-- but I would think it nearly universal. The point-- there is something important being taught in this dual pattern of confession. The first (collect for purity) confesses our state beyond our control. The second confesses our complicity in which we have acted, willingly or otherwise, to break relationships with God and neighbor. For the first there is no need of forgiveness-- but of healing, insight, or deliverance. For the second there is need of forgiveness. Why? So that we can do what comes next in the liturgy-- offer reconciliation to others with whom we have broken relationships (the Peace) and extend the blessing of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace to those with whom we are at peace, and thus, following the ancient pattern, be ready as a forgiven and reconciled people to offer ourselves and our gifts to God.

If Borg's argument regarding the liturgical use of such "alternative" confessions is limited to a complementary role, at least in services of Word and Table, then at this point I'd find myself and the witness of early Christian liturgical practice to be generally with him. If, however, he's suggesting that we do not really need to confess the ways we've broken relationship and seek God's pardon, so that we can then offer pardon to others, especially in services of Word and Table, then I think he may be misreading or truncating what appears to be the larger witness of the tradition over time, as well as the liturgical witness of the practice of the Episcopal Church (among others) in its "dual" acts of confession.

Of course, I'm open to the possibility that I may be truncating or misreading the liturgical traditions I've tried to represent here as well.

Peace in Christ,

The comments to this entry are closed.