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Undone

Once a week or so, I join a few Anglican clergy for morning prayers. Like many who grew up in a “low church” tradition with its relentless demands (real or perceived) for extemporaneity in prayer and worship, I have taken a sort of refuge in the solidity and predictability of the durable prayers and liturgies found in the high churches. I’m glad for a few Anglican friends who don’t mind a stray Mennonite showing up and stumbling along through forms that still feel at least somewhat foreign (and beautifully so).

One of the things that I most appreciate about morning prayers is that I am forced to confess my sins. I say “appreciate” through somewhat clenched teeth. I don’t appreciate confession like I do a beautiful mountain scene or a nice glass of wine. More like, “recognize the need for or the implications of.” Or like, “I can appreciate your (wrong) perspective on this matter.” It is a rather grudging and perhaps aspirational use of the word, I grant.

To say that confession is unpopular in our cultural context would probably be the height of understatement. We can barely be convinced that we are sinners most times, mountainous evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. It’s good to be forced to reckon with old words that illuminate realities that don’t change, no matter what we might tell ourselves.

So, each week, the familiar words:

Most merciful God,

we confess that we have sinned against you

in thought, word, and deed,

by what we have done,

and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart;

we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,

have mercy on us and forgive us;

that we may delight in your will,

and walk in your ways,

to the glory of your Name. Amen.

I was struck yesterday by two things near the end of this prayer.

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy…

I listened to a truly awful sermon yesterday where the preacher was going on and on about how Jesus died for us because we were so inherently worthy of it or because he wanted us to become better versions of ourselves or some such nonsense. God does love us and we do have value, obviously. But not in the ways that we are sometimes pleased to imagine or describe it. The BCP reminds me that forgiveness is for Christ’s sake.

That we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways…

This probably falls into the “patently obvious” category, but all of the confession-worthy thoughts, words, and deeds that we do and leave undone seem to mostly boil down to delighting and walking in our ways. Which aren’t very good ways. They are ways tainted with greed and violence and lust and selfishness and apathy. They are rather easy ways to walk in. They are ways that represent the path of least resistance. It’s not hard to delight in our own ways. It’s also toxic and destructive.

So we confess our sins. We allow Christ to lead us into truer loves and better delights. And we are undone.

28 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken Peters #

    Ryan, with a hearty amen I read your post and with the other eye seeing my text for this Sunday – Mark 1.29-39 that tells us stories of Jesus’ ministry of healing and exorcisms and proclamation without a reference to sin. This text and many others caution me to not fortify the spiritual corrals too strongly in predetermining who receives God’s healing, cleansing and salvation. We are taught to be humble, repentant, contrite, prayerful. We also need to be taught that God will be God and grant to others those very things we seek, even when they haven’t done any of the spiritual exercises we deem so essential.

    February 1, 2018
    • Wise words, Ken. It’s a dangerous business indeed to be placing limits on the mercy of Christ. Thanks.

      February 2, 2018
  2. and I love: “Almighty God, to You all hearts are open, all desires known, and from You no sec rets are hidden. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts…..

    February 1, 2018
    • Yes, another great one.

      February 2, 2018
  3. Thanks, Ryan. I once read something about the BCP being created in the wake of the Reformation, precisely to be a discipleship tool–not just a liturgical resource–for the average church member. No wonder so many Anabaptists find deep affinity with Anglicans.

    February 1, 2018
    • I hadn’t heard that, but how interesting!

      February 2, 2018
  4. Kevin K #

    Hi Ryan,

    As always, appreciate your take on things… in particular I resonated with your observation:

    “Like many who grew up in a “low church” tradition with its relentless demands (real or perceived) for extemporaneity in prayer and worship…”

    I’ve often felt that demand, implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) within the context where I worship and lead… any thoughts as to why that demand exists within our particular stream of christianity? And what might be an appropriate ongoing response to it for those of us tasked with the (sometimes) difficult task of leading worship with that expectation in the background?

    February 2, 2018
    • If I were to hazard a guess, it might have something to do with the implicit (or explicit?) connection that the more evangelical streams of Christianity make between the depth of one’s piety and one’s ability to describe this in the language of personal experience. I suppose it’s the legacy of the evangelical movement more broadly—faith as affective, emotional, spontaneous, suspicious of tradition and structure. At its best, this tradition reminds that faith is personal; at its worst, I think it opens the door to (and perhaps even valorizes) a rather unreflective and, at times, even emotionally manipulative approach to faith and worship.

      Re: how to lead in worship with some of these expectations in the background? I’m not sure. I suppose I just tend to lead in ways that try to combine the warmth of personal piety with my convictions about the value of well-chosen words and liturgies from the broad Christian tradition. It probably doesn’t please everyone, but that’s fine. There are some expectations that I don’t particularly care if I don’t meet. 🙂 And also, I have just enough experience with super-spiritual evangelical environments to know that there really isn’t much point in trying to produce something that isn’t there. I’ve tried and failed to think about and articulate my faith in those terms, and it just doesn’t work for me.

      February 3, 2018
      • Kevin K #

        Thanks Ryan. Appreciate this clarification, immensely helpful as I consider my own context and ministry.

        It seems to me that genuine piety (a worthy goal) can only ever be known internally (i.e. by the individual) and of course, by God who sees all. Yet we spend an inordinate amount of energy invested in external piety. But external piety, whether structured or extemporaneous in nature, is no guarantee of the internal goals to which we aspire.

        So it’s not the particular words we pray that matter most, but rather the genuineness with which we pray them. I suppose there are pharisees of all sorts: charismatic, evangelical, catholic; lay and clergy alike.

        “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you…” is a good place for all of us pharisees to start.

        Thanks again.

        Kevin

        February 3, 2018
      • mike logue #

        Great point,Kevin K

        February 4, 2018
      • Paul Johnston #

        Reading your last few sentences here, well, first off they made me laugh and then I wondered if you could see any value in a person seeking an ecstatic relationship with Christ?

        I get being suspicious given all the fraudulent claims that have been made, particularly in the evangelical world but isn’t it a fundamental truth of sacred scripture that anybody who did anything for Christ, first had to encounter Him?

        Not compelling arguments about Him but a real encounter with Him?

        February 4, 2018
      • Kevin K #

        Thanks Mike, for your encouragement, and thanks Paul for your encouragement and challenge.

        Paul, I think we agree, for the most part, and I particularly appreciated how you put it:

        “Just make space for Christ within you… All Christ asks of us is our invitation.”

        Another Paul put it this way (2 Cor. 4, NIV):

        1 Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,”[a] made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

        7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

        You’re also the second person this week to point out to me that… “Satan delights in tormenting our internalized musings. The more we muse, the more he torments.”

        So I’ll take that as a sign to listen up 🙂

        Take Care!
        Kevin

        February 6, 2018
  5. Paul Johnston #

    I believe I have a word from God to share.

    The sentence, “The BCP reminds me that forgiveness is for Christ’s sake.”Is one of the truest statements you have ever written or ever will write.

    More then just forgiveness, (as you imply), everything that is good and true exists for Christ’s sake and Christ’s sake alone.

    We are wholly dependent.

    Independence is servitude. Independence is satanic. Independence is death…

    Speaking for myself, as an Orthodox Roman Catholic,and like many young Christians often feel in their youth, I was dissatisfied by how little my church new about God as compared to me, so I went denomination shopping.

    My experience was with different evangelical communities mostly,a few months as a Presbyterian, an occasional visit to an Anglican parish…that always left me oddly satisfied but I new for certain was to close to being Roman Catholic to be true…and half an hour spent with a United Church congregation that the Lord commanded I walk out on.

    My, “Low Church” evangelical experience was at first intoxicating. Way more pretty young women then I had ever seen at a Sunday Mass for starters. Kick ass music as compared to what I had previously experienced in Christian cultures and a “firebrand” way of preaching, that what every else I could say about, there was no way of sleeping through it. This wasn’t your typical Sunday homily.

    Over time though, I become uneasy. The amount of extemporaneous prayer made me uncomfortable. My Spirit felt that too much focus their was for our sake and not the Lord’s. No one seemed to even remotely play with the idea that suffering was meant for redemption. That our suffering too, was for Christ’s sake. Christ’s glory. We were all getting rich in grace and we were gonna make a lot of money too! Sweet deal, but…that darn Spirit was so restless within me…

    I felt that I was in relationship with a group of beautiful people who were clearly more chaste and modest than I was, so surely God was here in some form but at the same time God wasn’t there for me.

    It wasn’t His pleasure that I be there. “He knew me before I was born. He consecrated me. He had a plan for me.”

    It was His plan that I be an orthodox Roman Catholic. So for His sake, for His glory, I went home.

    February 2, 2018
    • Thanks for sharing this, Paul. It’s very interesting to hear a bit of your own personal journey in the church.

      February 3, 2018
  6. Craig Anderson #

    Thanks for this. I sense that in my Mennonite Church Canada congregation we are quite hesitant to talk about sin using that word, though we often do have confession as part of the order of worship. But having grown up in a U.S. evangelical Lutheran-influenced Pietist tradition I think that in my current congregation we are poorer for our discomfort with acknowledging sin. My own preference would be for us to talk A LOT more about sin, but to define it very broadly to incorporate not just our willful disobedience but also our pettiness, our imperfection, our alienation, our weakness, etc. So . . . I really identified with what you wrote in the first portion of this post. But then I got to the part about the “truly awful” sermon you recently heard, and the examples you cited as “nonsense.” I suspect I might have liked that sermon and found it substantially in accord with what I think God is calling us to believe, be and do. Any chance you can forward a copy of the sermon? 🙂 I suspect not. But can you say more about the ideas you find nonsensical. I would love to hear that and suspect I would learn from it.

    February 3, 2018
    • Thanks, Craig. I agree with what you say about not abandoning “sin” language, and about properly broadening its scope to go beyond the hyper-individualistic parameters that many of us grew up with. It seems like we are tempted to make sin either individual (and nothing more) or structural and systemic only (thus taking the focus off of us as individuals). It seems to me that a biblical notion of sin would have to include both.

      Re: the sermon, you’re right, I’d prefer not to pass that along. 🙂 It’s entirely possible that I was interpreting it rather uncharitably. Odd, because I certainly prefer a bit of charity in how my own sermons are interpreted. But I digress. I suppose I just didn’t like how the preacher seemed to reduce the cross to something less than it ought to be (mostly about us and our shame, our brokenness, etc, rather than about God and God’s cosmic purposes). I certainly could have described that with a bit more grace, though.

      February 3, 2018
    • mike logue #

      “My own preference would be for us to talk A LOT more about sin, but to define it very broadly to incorporate NOT JUST our willful disobedience BUT ALSO our pettiness, our imperfection, our alienation, our weakness, etc.” …. Yes! Thank you.

      February 4, 2018
  7. mike logue #

    I think we’ve ALL failed and come short of being “christians” in the truest sense of the word. I really can’t name a single person i know who fills those shoes. Church-goers seem to be the worst at deceiving themselves into believing God is OK with them. The only place i’ve ever regularly heard mention of overcoming those pesky “Character Defects” was in AA. In fact, some of the most profound examples of being “Born Again” can be found in the rooms of AA. Sadly,Christianity has been reduced to a simple shortcut to Heaven, you will never hear mention of working on your glaring “minor sins”,which i guess helps keep attendance up. …God help us all.

    February 4, 2018
  8. Paul Johnston #

    Good to hear from you again, Mike. 🙂 At least I think it is you, I don’t remember you using your last name previously.

    Never wound up going to AA…well not in any meaningful way…was still in denial at the time. Too much pride, not enough courage. To your point though a dear friend of mine, since deceased underwent a miraculous conversion through AA. For ten years he faithfully attended his meetings. The real transformation of his person was simply astounding.

    February 5, 2018
    • mike logue #

      Thank you,Paul, yes, it’s me 🙂 I’ve decided to be a little more transparent with my identity. I appreciate the story of your friend’s experience.

      February 5, 2018
      • Paul Johnston #

        Awesome, bud, hope all is well with you and your family. 🙂

        So thinking about this a little more I am convicted by your point about the conversion ability of AA. And it all starts with a heartfelt (has to be heartfelt) admission that a person is an alcoholic/sinner…and then God can and does work miracles…

        Many people, myself included, can sit in church pews for years and years and never grow at all.

        Makes you wonder.

        February 5, 2018
  9. Paul Johnston #

    I’m wrestling with this one, Ken. Thank you. 🙂

    I’m not so sure about the implication you draw from, Mark. This book is pretty much a series of stories and events devoid of context and analysis. The other synoptic Gospels, particularly Matthew, seem to make the case for me that sin is decisive. My sin impedes my ability to reach out to Christ. To receive the super abundant graces he stores for me. My choices that are of sin keep me apart from a God that desires a relationship with me. A God that created me for the sole purpose of having a relationship with Him.

    In short, I choose hell (whatever hell is) for myself. God does not choose it for me. Love and reason demand he honor my choice.

    I often think that many of the wounds of the cross have nothing to do with atonement. They are simply the scars left on an all loving God as a consequence of the loss of every single one of us who chooses hell.

    February 5, 2018
  10. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Kevin K,

    Please don’t make a self conscious, self determined, internal personal piety a part of your game plan. Just make space for Christ within you.

    Satan delights in tormenting our internalized musings. The more we muse, the more he torments.

    All Christ asks of us is our invitation.

    If I have misunderstood you, please forgive me.

    February 5, 2018
  11. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Kevin,

    Thank you so much for the tone (dare I say spirit 🙂 ) of your response. Your generosity and humility, combined with wisdom, is inspiring. I could use a voice like yours in my life. Help me straighten out my rough edges. Lol

    With regard to St. Paul’s observations here and elsewhere in scripture, I am not always in full agreement with him. I know this may be sacrilege for some but where I see apologetic and lengthy abstractions that I would broadly describe as legalism, in scripture ( and you see a lot of that in the words of St. Paul) I see human conjecture about God and do not necessarily hear the voice of God.

    I would challenge the saint, if I could, regarding his contentions in verses 3 and 4, for example.

    For those who I am familiar with, who have made the audacious claim that God has spoken to them, one thing is a constant. Our God is a God of few words. There is an, “I am” assertion and a, “this is” instruction and and that’s about it as far as words go.

    The rest is a silent experience of deep love.

    February 6, 2018
    • Kevin K #

      Thanks again Paul for your kind words! I’ve had my own contentions with the other Paul on many an occasion as well. For me, It’s all about verse seven… but verse 1 and 2 set it up so well… and then, it sometimes feels not quite right to cut around the parts I find besides the point, so I just pasted it all. Should have kept going though…

      8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body…

      and then, I suppose, if we’re carrying on in the chapter…

      16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

      And I think we’ve come full circle… at least in the conversation about inward/outward piety… not necessarily in our practice of following Jesus, that will take at least a few more thoughtful posts on Ryan’s part, and conversation threads in response on our part, before we get it fully figured out 🙂

      February 6, 2018
  12. Paul Johnston #

    Verses 16, 17 and 18, are for me, St. Paul at his best. I don’t always agree with his diagnosis, particularly in the way he is used to inform what I have always thought were the toxic expressions of salvation most associated with Calvin but I love His prescriptions, particularly the courage with which we are called to have, in our suffering.

    Say whatever else you will about, St. Paul, the man was relentless and the man had, “Nads”. 🙂

    February 7, 2018
    • Kevin K #

      Agreed! Thanks Paul.

      Kevin

      February 8, 2018
  13. Paul Johnston #

    ….in our times of suffering…

    February 7, 2018

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