CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- She was a young woman who had experienced some negative things in her short life. Yet, she maintained cheerfulness and seemed happy that I came by the hospital to visit her after she had received some burns. I did not know how those burns came about, but I felt that my job was to be there with her, to hear what she had to say, and to affirm her value.
The visit took an interesting turn. She asked me to hand her purse to her. She rifled about in its contents, and then came up with a folded piece of paper. She told me that it had meant a great deal to her. Unfolding the paper, I realized that she had cut the prayer of confession out of the Sunday worship folder from our church. Each Sunday, we would have a prayer of confession, taken from one of our worship resources, which the congregation prayed in unison. Then a silence. Then, what we called an assurance of pardon.
The young women then told me a short story. She had been to church one Sunday and prayed the prayer of confession with the other people gathered for worship. She felt that the prayer expressed her feelings exactly and that she felt refreshed as the prayer ended. I said some positive things to her, I hope. I was humbled that she brought that prayer to our time together. She was not a regular pew sitter, but the time of confession was good for her, and went with her in her crowded purse at all times.
I grew up in a Presbyterian tradition that did not have prayer of confession. The minister, Mr. Theodore Beckett, fed us the prayers from the pulpit, and we knew pretty much what he would confess on our behalf.
Further along in my religious experience a few churches did have printed service orders, and fewer still had any kind of printed prayer of confession. The services were designed as teaching events where the Bible was read and interpreted by the preacher. Our minister's praying was improvised, I suppose, but we knew when he would turn to subjects like suffering people in Europe (he had been a chaplain in WWII), folks in the hospital, the needy and otherwise afflicted.
Later, when I was about to go to college, I learned about a Presbyterian tradition where a prayer of confession was included in every service, and the minister was expected to assure the folks that God forgave sins. I determined that I would include that in services I would conduct as a student, and then as an ordained person. I was not entirely successful, but more and more, as I grew older, I saw that part of the service was important. I needed not to fear a written down prayer, but welcomed that kind of prayer, just as I welcomed the sung prayers in the form of hymns and the prayers in the Bible.
My young parishioner had received much comfort from a prayer many had possibly recited by rote in the service. I conclude his meditation with one such prayer, adapted from my denomination's Book of Common Worship:
Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo.
Forgive us what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment
Set us free from a past which we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed
And grant us your grace. AMEN
In confidence of forgiveness, we can confess our sins to a loving God. Finally: The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting. In Jesus Christ we are forgiven. Perhaps this is what the young woman prayed. For all of us it is a grand and appropriate one. Let us confess our sins unto almighty God.Posey is a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who writes from his home in Charleston, W.Va.