“Forgive us for what we have done and what we have left undone.” These words, from a traditional prayer, have pushed me to pray for forgiveness as much as I pray for help.
A couple of weeks ago, I was visiting a new church in a new city. Everything about the experience was unfamiliar – the setting, the people, the music. I was there to experience new things, but I took in the heavy feeling of being unknown and disconnected. I participated actively, I took notes on the service and sermon, and then found myself astonishingly struck when we reached a specific part of the worship service.
The prayer of confession.
The pastor elegantly and profoundly invited us to think about what our hearts were longing for and how God promises to hear our prayers. He asked us to offer our prayers to God, but first, we prayed:
Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone. We have not loved You with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We justly deserve Your judgment. For our sake, and the sake of your son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in Your will and walk in Your ways that lead to glory. Amen.
Something about this prayer caught me – these are familiar words to me. As a churchy person, I’ve said them before many times.
But saying them in a crowd full of strangers seemed more profound. Here we were, all of us, offering the most shameful and true thing aloud: we’re not perfect. Even when we try, we often fail. Forgive us for what we’ve done and what we’ve left undone.
I think it is the last part that struck me so.
What we’ve left undone.
A wash of guilt came over me as I thought of the unwritten thank you notes, the pile of unread emails, the overdue appointments for my children to see the dentist. None of these seem sinful on their own, but collectively they pointed to the ways in which I need to be more mindful, attentive, and grateful.
But, then I started focusing on what I’ve actually done that demands forgiveness. There are big things, of course: the ways in which I’ve hurt people I’ve loved, the undervalued friendships, the untended anxieties. But, my mind led me to remember the ways in which I’ve done things that were unintentionally sinful.
Recently, I invited some beloved friends to attend a new church with me. As we sat together in unfamiliar pews, I realized that I had the privilege of sauntering into any church with a sign out front that said “Worship at 10 am!” I am a straight, white, mother of three. I pass as a person of privilege. I don’t often have to think twice before going somewhere or doing anything. I don’t have to warn my children about the perils of driving while white or wearing the hood up on their sweatshirt.
But my beloved friends are a same-sex couple with children. I invited them into a place where I could enter freely, forgetting that their experience of church is so radically different than mine. Before they will set foot in a church, they will do hours of research to ensure that they and their children won’t experience harm. I invited them, and they bravely attended, with their hopes high and their hearts open.
God, forgive me for what I have done. I have not loved my neighbor as myself.
I forgot to consider the wholeness of their experience and what it is like to be someone who is potentially unwelcomed. I participated in a system in which the preference is for people who look like me.
I am growing more aware of my own privilege and what it means to both recognize the unjust ways it offers me preference, and the important ways in which I can use it for good. But, I constantly have to remind myself of the things I have done and the things I have left undone. I have taken on praying for forgiveness as often as I pray for help.
It is easy for us to think we don’t do terrible things. We have a tendency to weight sins… often convinced that our own aren’t so heavy. Confessing what we have and have not done seems almost silly. How often have we compared our actions to another and thought, “Well, it’s not like I’ve committed murder.”
Jesus had something important to say to this argument. In Matthew 5:21-24, Jesus addresses a crowd saying, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
So, of course, Jesus affirms that whoever murders shall be liable to judgment. But, he goes on to say something far more universal: “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”
Jesus tells us that the real confession for us to acknowledge the motivation behind the actions. Anger is the issue. Think of all of the lives anger has stolen from the world. Anger is the prompting motivation for so much harm. It is what drives people to take the very life of another.
Who amongst us has not been angry?
The great gift of confession is that it is the equalizer of our experiences. It brings us back to a baseline of humility and grace. Saying a simple prayer doesn’t fix everything, but it starts us on the path toward greater recognition of what we can do better to bring more love to the world.
This is my prayer, as I offer my actions back to God: forgive me, help me, put me to doing all I can to show love rather than hate, justice over judgment, and grace to all.
Rev. Mandy Sloan McDow is a native of Knoxville, TN, serving at First United Methodist Church of Los Angeles. Mandy holds a black belt in Taekwondo, makes music whenever possible, and watches a lot of baseball with her three children. Find more of her work at Reverend Mama.