Sunday worship from the Ukrainian Cathedral of the Holy Family in Exile was moving and informative. I was above all impressed by the prayer of confession:
Lord God. We have strayed from the path of peace. We have forgotten the lessons learned from the tragedies of history. We have disregarded the commitments we made as a community of nations. We have betrayed people’s dreams of peace and the hopes of the young. We grew sick with greed. We thought only of our own nations and their interests. We grew indifferent and caught up in our selfish needs and concerns. We chose to ignore you, to be satisfied with our illusions, to grow arrogant and aggressive. To suppress innocent life. To stockpile weapons. We stopped being our neighbours’ keepers and stewards of our common home. We’ve ravaged the garden of the earth with war. And by our sins, we’ve broken your heart. Who desires us to be brothers and sisters, now with shame we cry out: Forgive us, Lord.
It is a ‘We’ prayer, not an ‘I’ prayer: that is the first good step.
The worst and biggest evils are those we make together. Most of us never get near killing even one person, but together, ‘we’ are armed with the capacity to destroy people and cities and wheat fields.
In this prayer, we take our stand as people responsible for and in the history we make and suffer. We do not abdicate the human calling, the dignity of being responsible to God for one another and for the earth. This prayer does not let hands droop and knees shake (Isaiah 35.3; Hebrews 12.12). God gives human beings the ability, in finite freedom, to be good stewards of earth and all that is in it.
Confession is a strong, healing, rousing kind of prayer. It brings us to face the truth about ourselves as doers. Confessing both guards us from despair over failures and saves us from expecting miraculous rescue from God – the sort of rescue that costs the loss of God’s gift, the dignity of human responsibility.
Cardinal Vincent Nicholls spoke this pray in two minutes, but who can grasp its import in two minutes? I need the transcript, for I need longer to pray it well, both in thought and in obedience. Can it be a ‘We’ prayer if we don’t give time to talk it through together?
In truth, a prayer like this gives us an agenda for thought and action. For this prayer to be true to human dignity and the calling of God, it has to be taken into the longitude of life, even political life. Don’t ‘the tragedies of history’ as well as the bounty of God’s triune goodness in human being call for a lifetime of learning and responding?
Prayers of confession rarely get much time in church services. ‘Short prayer – instant absolution’ is a frequent formula – this prayer ends simply asking ‘forgive us’. Perhaps that is all a minister can say. The phrase, ‘Forgive us’, leaves us waiting for God, in God’s way and time and working with God. ‘Forgiveness’ gains real substance as we stumble through history, with and towards God.
Forgiving, God’s forgiving and ours, is fundamental to being human. It makes it possible to be simultaneously truthful about, and hopeful for, human being. But forgiving needs to be thought and lived through time, it is not given by a word, nor achieved in a flash.