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Liturgy “Re-imagined” – Prayers of Confession at General Synod 29

by The Rev. Scott A. Ressman, Minister for Worship, Music, and Liturgical Arts, United Church of Christ

GSConnecting Voices asked Rev. Ressman to respond to questions about “the lack of prayers of confession” at General Synod 29 in Long Beach, CA. 

Thank you for the opportunity to offer my observations concerning the “Prayer(s) of Confession” at the recent United Church of Christ General Synod in Long Beach, California.

At the national setting of the United Church of Christ, Rev. Susan Blain, Minister for Worship, Liturgy, and Spiritual Formation, and I (as Ministry for Worship, Music, and Liturgical Arts) co-plan worship for General Synod, along with a wider-church Worship Advisory Team of six, as well as in consultation with different constituencies along the way in the process.  The process begins nearly a year in advance and the liturgy moves through many incarnations throughout that year.

Part of the joy of planning General Synod worship is to “re-imagine” liturgy so that it speaks to people in new ways, while remaining true to the historic and theological roots of the United Church of Christ and its predecessor denominations.  Liturgical “labels” that might be used in the local congregation sometimes don’t find their way into General Synod worship.  This is intentional and encourages worshippers to think beyond what they generally experience in worship, to something new—indeed, how “God is still speaking” to each worshipper in the moment, as well as what God might be saying to the gathered community.

For General Synod one of our many goals is to provide an opportunity to experience worship through a different lens and (hopefully) awaken our souls to discover God anew, hear the words of Jesus with another perspective, and feel the playful, powerful push of the Holy Spirit.  Not easy goals!  Those attending worship with 3000-5000 people well know that the congregation has a unique energy each time it gathers for worship, often shaped by the liturgy, not the least of which includes the words, the music, the silence, the movement, the worship space, the participants, etc.

Local congregation worshippers are used to worship elements being labeled with familiar language.  For example: “Call to Confession,” “Confession,” “Assurance of Pardon,” etc.  All of this happens within the body of synod worship as whenever the community gathers we are reminded of the ways in which we have turned from God (sinned), even as we come together to praise and worship God and seek ways in which we can do better, along with the challenge to do so.

As examples:
In Friday’s worship service, an implicit “Call to Confession” can be heard in the offering song: “Come, Holy Spirit.  Come and hear the plea of your people.  Come and teach your church to listen to your call of hope and freedom.”  And a “Prayer of Confession” built into the “Litany of Response”:

Let us pray:

Call us to the edge, O God!
Amid the chaos and tumult of our lives,

we have not always waited in silent contemplation;
we have not always danced with expectant joy;
we have not always made room in our hearts
to receive a difficult word or a challenging task.

Yet our souls long for you, O God,

more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.

We proclaim for all the world to hear:

Your word for the Church,
and your vision for the world,
is here and is coming just as surely
as the coming of the dawn.

Help us be awake, Giver of Visions,

when the sun begins to rise.

Help us shake off the terrors of the night

and find the courage to embrace your hope for our future,
through Jesus Christ, who makes us one.  Amen.

And, Friday’s worship, the “Assurance of Pardon” is implied in the sung response: “I have one pray’r.  Let me know You are there.  I have one goal, to feel Your love in my soul.”

On Saturday, a contemplative service was centered on prayer with a continuing invitation: “I am opening.  I am opening.  My heart is ready to receive.”  And a “Responsive Prayer”—again calling on God to open us to step beyond who we are and what we’ve done:

Open us to your peace, Gentle Dove,
that bitter tears of grief
and longing for vengeance
may give way to sounds of laughter
and the blessed touch of compassion.

Open us to your justice, Holy One,
    that the cries of the weak
        and the prayers of the poor
            may be heard throughout the land
                and turn our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.

Open us to your truth, Living Word,
that every word we speak
and every action we take
may bear witness to the light of Christ
and the glory of your image within us.

Open us to your grace, Guide and Guardian,
    that regrets of the past
        and fears of the future
            may hold no power over us in the present,
                as we rest secure in your presence.

And a response, Psalm 46, with the assurance to “Be still, and know that I am God!”

On Sunday, many different parts of the liturgy served as confessions and provided multiple opportunities for individuals and the gathered community to re-imagine and restore their relationship with God.  From the “Call to Worship” which began with questions: “What do you want us to be?” to pleas: “Open our eyes.  Open our hearts.  Open our lives—so that we might share hope with the world!”  For Communion, we were musically reminded that “we are people on a journey, pain is with us all the way” and “all who truly thirst for justice seek their liberation here.”  Again, during the Communion Prayer, worshippers were asked to consider how best to live a Christian life in a challenging and unjust world: “How shall we live as images of God?  How best reflect the wonder of our Maker?” And, “How shall we love the neighbor filled with greed?  How best respond to those consumed by hatred?”  These questions, are others, moved us to a collective assurance: “Then shall we see the images of Christ.  Then shall we know that God is in our neighbor.  Humbly we will walk, with mercy respond, and know the Essence of Love is always with us.”  No, not the “traditional” form of call, prayer, and assurance, but a re-imagined one where we are challenged to look inside ourselves, see how our actions don’t reflect the image of God, and realize that we have an obligation to do better and that God is with us all the way.

For Monday’s worship, an implied “Call to Confession” asks the “Spirit of the Living God, [to] fall afresh on me” followed by an excellent prayer “Invoking the Fire,” noting many ways we have fallen from God, and beseeching God to intervene, even as we ask God for strength and courage to do the difficult work of ministry.  “Holy Spirit, come close!—the prayer doesn’t just ask, but passionately seeks God’s attention.  And the prayer ends with a plea to God to move us beyond complacency:

Holy Spirit, come close!
Send us warmth, sustenance, and energy that give us life
Reshape us, reform, renew, remake and rebirth us
As your people and as your Church.
Through Jesus Christ we pray.  Amen.

“Invoking the Fire” was followed by a challenging meditation by Julian DeShazier, a danced response, and finally a cathartic “Total Praise” with the assurance that God is always with us and God’s help is ever-present.  “Lord, I will lift mine eyes to the hills, knowing my help is coming from You.  Your peace You give me in time of the storm…”

And finally, for Tuesday’s closing worship service, we began with the suggestion of a New Orleans’ Jazz Funeral using the liturgical form of a solemn procession which moved us through the stages of confession from the realization of what’s been done, to mourning, to turning that mourning into a celebration of new life.  We intended, by using this form, to issue an implicit invitation to all of the UCC gathered to enter the solemn, deliberate moment of relinquishment of all that was holding us from full engagement with God’s Vision.  What greater acclamation of God’s assurance of God’s love for us could there be but the powerful words, “Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!”?  (If you were at the worship service, you know that these were repeated several times, building the energy and assurance each time the words were offered.)  Such a pattern continued throughout the worship service.  The hymn “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” is a form of confession.  “I am weak…if I falter, Lord, who cares?” And the plea: “Just a closer walk with thee.”  In other words, despite what we’ve done, don’t abandon us!  The words continue with the “Litany of New Life,” another assurance: “And God re-creates, in God’s time—Resurrection power!  Who dares say that God can’t or won’t?!  Surprise!  God laughs with joy.” Along with a contemporary “Amen” (“so be it”)—“Let it be!”  And again, a sung celebration “You’ve turned my mourning into dancing again.  You’ve lifted my sorrow, and I can’t stay silent.  I must sing for Your joy has come!”  God’s forgiveness, experienced as joy.

For those who looked for their traditional wording in General Synod worship, they might not have found what they’re accustomed to in their local setting.  But, that doesn’t mean the elements weren’t there.  Perhaps, however, we need to revisit this for future planning and be more intentional with wording.  All of General Synod worship seeks to bring each worshipper into a place where they can be before God, even as they are surrounded by thousands of others, and experience God as never before.  That, again, is one of our goals in worship planning.  Not everything will speak to everyone.  That’s not the goal.  But, providing different opportunities for experiencing God?  Yes, that’s a huge goal.  And sometimes that means re-imaging the usual language of liturgy and creatively (courageously) presenting it as a new thing.

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