by Lynne Baab
It was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. My husband Dave was sitting in his office at Tel Aviv University where he was acting chair for one of the departments in the dental school. An adjunct lecturer, who did not have an office in the building, came into Dave’s office and asked to use the phone.
The conversation was in Hebrew, so Dave couldn’t understand what was said. After hanging up, the man explained to Dave “It’s Yom Kippur today, a day of reflection and repentance for Jews. I wanted to make sure I have a clean slate. So I called a friend to say I was sorry for something I did a couple of months ago.”
Dave was halfway through his 18 month contract at the university so he knew this man fairly well. Like the majority of the lecturers in the department this man described himself as a secular Jew. Yet, despite his assessment that he wasn’t a religious Jew, he had held onto this long-standing tradition of making amends. He saw the value of enough self-reflection, at least one day a year, to identify wrongs he had committed and ask for forgiveness.
Yom Kippur comes a week after Rosh Hashanah the Jewish New Year. Christians often set resolutions at the New Year, but do we look back on the previous year and ask forgiveness for wrongs we have committed?
I was raised in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition. Every Sunday I sat through the liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer, which included a prayer of confession and words of absolution (assurance of pardon) by the minister. A couple of lines from the prayer of confession were quite meaningful: “We have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep . . . We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” As a child and young teen, I liked the metaphor of seeing myself as a straying sheep. And I liked the idea that sin includes not only things we’ve done wrong, but also things we should have done, but didn’t do. As we recited those words week after week, year after year, I saw some of the patterns of my life.
For most of my adult life I attended or served congregations where weekly worship always included a prayer of confession and assurance of pardon. In the past dozen years, since I left my position as an associate pastor at a church in Seattle, I have attended worship services in somewhere between 60 and 80 different congregations, representing a variety of denominations, in the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, France and the UK. Well over half of those dozens of worship services did not have a prayer of confession.
A weekly prayer of confession in a worship service does not guarantee that people will actually confess their sins, but it does model the importance of confession, and even if worshippers actually do confess their sins during a corporate prayer of confession there’s no guarantee they will ask forgiveness from the people they have wronged.
I am concerned that the new confession-less worship pattern leaves behind long-standing Jewish and Christian traditions of self-examination, confession and asking forgiveness. We also miss the joy of receiving an assurance of pardon. Important aspects of living into the Shalom of God are lost without self-reflection, confession of sin to God and to the person wronged, and receiving forgiveness.
For someone who attends worship services without a prayer of confession, the penitential psalms can be a lovely resource. Pray them, memorize them, sing them. My favorite band these days is the Sons of Korah, an Australia-based group that sings the psalms. Here are three penitential psalms they have recorded: Psalm 32, Psalm 51 and Psalm 130.