Themes and Variations on the Order of Confession

In the traditional order of worship, we confess our sin, are assured of pardon, and are instructed on how to live. This practice acknowledges that we are sinners in need of forgiveness whether we want to confess or not (see Order 1 below). But “sinners in need of God’s forgiveness” is not the only situation from which God’s people cry to heaven. As I reflected on other stories, situations, and remedies found in Scripture, I developed themes and variations on the order of confession in worship.

The choice to speak and sing aloud in these orders is intentional. Confessing aloud puts the prayer on the lips of participants. The kinetic quality of this action reinforces anything that might go on in heart and mind while it is being uttered. The assurance of pardon is also spoken together because we need to hear ourselves pronounce that sin is forgiven and prayers are heard. If a participant can assure others in a worship setting that their sin is forgiven (Order 1), they can also do it at home, school, work, or on the road. In the same way, we can assure others that God hears our appeals for relief from oppression, for light in the darkness, and for healing from what ails us.

The unison sung prayer is a prescribed element but not a prescribed piece of music. Originally I had the Kyrie in each order but was advised that it is too much associated with sin and forgiveness of sin to be used elsewhere, so I wrote some different short sung responses. I like the Kyrie because even little children who can’t read and old folks whose vision makes the words in the bulletin too blurry to decipher can pick it up and participate. Whatever a worship leader chooses to use at this point in the order, it should do what the Kyrie does: ask the Lord for mercy. This is a valuable part of why we gather to worship.

In a manner akin to preaching the main points of doctrine from the Heidelberg Catechism every four years, as suggested in some denominations, or to the cyclical use of the Revised Common Lectionary, using these orders in rotation will offer a congregation a healthy and varied liturgical diet. Since the tradition of confession of sin and assurance of forgiveness is a hard habit to break, perhaps we should retain it in general, using that order on alternate weeks with others in between, breaking strict rotation for the feasts and festivals of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost, and two other lesser festivals observed by your congregation. This would result in twenty-three annual occasions of congregational confession of sin and four or five times for each of the other conditions, leaving space for seasonal appeals for mercy and assurance of God’s care.

One final note: The call to confession and the instruction for life should not appear on the screen or in the bulletin. Their power lies in being spoken and heard.

Order 1

The Sinful Seeking Forgiveness

Theme
Seeing oneself as sinful and seeking forgiveness

Scriptural Anchors
Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8–9

Call to Confession
If we claim to be without sin,
we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
—1 John 1:8

Let us pray.

Unison Prayer of Confession
Merciful God,
we’ve tried to hide the wrong we’ve done from you.
We have lived for ourselves and turned from our neighbors,
      refused to bear or even to hear the troubles of others,
      ignored the pain of the world,
      and passed by lonely, hungry, poor, and oppressed folks.
Forgive us for this sin.
      Free us from selfishness,
      and guide us to choose your will and follow in your way.
Amen.

Unison Sung Prayer: Kyrie Eleison

Unison Assurance of Pardon
If we confess our sins,
he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins
and purify us from all unrighteousness.

—1 John 1:9

Instruction for Life
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul
and with all your strength and with all your mind’;
and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
—Luke 10:27

 

Order 2

The Oppressed Seeking Liberation

Theme
Seeking liberation

Scripture Anchor
Exodus 3:7–8

Call to Confession
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened.
—Matthew 11:28

Let us pray.

Unison Prayer
Bent beneath our loads we bow, God, alone to you.
Memories of how we’ve lived lead to fears anew.
Work and worry only bring anguish and despair.
Meet us here, Lord, where we’re at.
Hear our humble prayer.

Unison Sung Prayer: Bent Beneath the Burden

Unison Assurance of God’s Attention
The Lord observes our misery, hears our cries,
knows our sufferings, and delivers us from our troubles.

—Adapted from Exodus 3:7

Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Instruction for Life
Trust in God, who preserves you through plagues
and guides you through waters that threaten to drown you.
Join hands with others who walk the same road,
helping one another to the glory of God.

Order 3

The Alienated Seeking Reconnection

Theme
The exiled seeking return

Scriptural Anchors
Psalm 137; Lamentations 1

Call to Confession
How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
—Psalm 137:4

Let us pray.

Unison Prayer
Like desolate cities once teeming with life,
we’re lonely and vacated now.
Made captive like exiles, enslaved far from home,
we yearn to get free and rebound.
We’re hungry and thirsty for what we once had,
desiring again to be whole.
Within these conditions we call to you, Lord,
and cry from the depths of our souls.

(silence)

Unison Sung Prayer: We’ve Wandered Away

Unison Assurance of Relief
God has said, “Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”

—Isaiah 49:15–16, adapted

(silence)

Instruction for Life
Wherever you are—county, city, state, or nation—
seek the welfare of that place and pray to the Lord on its behalf.
—Jeremiah 29:7, adapted

Order 4

The Unseeing Seeking Vision

Theme
Those blinded and needing to see

Scriptural Anchor
Deuteronomy 28:29

Call to Confession
As if with blinders on our eyes and failing right and left,
we seek vision and direction.
Let us pray.

Unison Prayer
When compared to light eternal, nothing else has but a glow.
But that dimness in itself has blinded us and brought us woe.
Flash and bombast of the market and our need to make a show
Drive us to ignore our neighbors and the needs of those we know.

We can say the devil did it, bound our hands from reaching out.
Stuffed our ears with cotton wool and cut us off from cry and shout.
But we know that we ourselves prefer to leave things as they are,
Keeping all things nice around us, thinking evil’s somewhere far.

God of gods and Light of lights, break through walls we try to build.
Show us in the world around the needs of others we can fill.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, lest we miss your kingdom’s goal.
Shine your light upon the way that leads to vision of what’s whole.

Unison Sung Prayer: Source of Heaven’s Light

Unison Words of Encouragement
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the LORD rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

—Isaiah 60:1–3

Instruction for Life
Walk in the light and have fellowship with one another.

Order 5

The Lost Seeking a Way Home

Theme
We who are lost and our home in the Lord

Scriptural Anchors
Psalm 107; Luke 15:17–20

Call to Confession
Some wandered in desert wastelands,
finding no way to a city where they could settle. . . .
Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
—Psalm 107:4, 6

Unison Prayer
From east and west, from south and north,
you bring, O Lord, the wanderer home.
As they, we too are lost and aimless,
caught in places where we’ve roamed.
Addicted to our phones, computers,
iPods and tablets, games and screens,
we’ve lost direction in our freedom,
can’t discern what isn’t clean.

Break down the bars and walls
that hold us captive in our little worlds.
Point out the ways that Jesus showed
before we into chaos swirled.
Be like a compass showing truth,
a map that shows the way to go.
And like a mighty river
wash and carry us within your flow.

O God of wonders,
we have traveled far and seen so much you’ve done.
Exploring for what’s new and seeking thrills
but finding not a one.
We fear what fate awaits us
just beyond the things that we have known
So seek us out, where we have wandered,
rescue us and bring us home.

Unison Sung Prayer: Bring the Wanderers Home

Unison Words of Direction
The LORD is gracious and merciful,
a very present help in times of trouble.
The LORD heals all who are torn
and binds the wounds of all who have
been struck down.

—Adapted from Psalm 46:1; Hosea 6:1

Instruction for Life
At all times, give thanks to the Lord for unfailing love;
for God’s wonderful acts for all of creation.

Order 6

The Sick in Need of Healing

Theme
Those who are sick and in need of healing

Scriptural Anchors
Numbers 21:9; 2 Kings 5:10–14

Call to Confession
A man with leprosy came to Jesus and begged on his knees,
“Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
—Adapted from Mark 1:40

In imitation of that man,
we bow our heads in the same direction,
for the Lord indeed is willing.
Let us pray.

Unison Prayer
Lord, since you are willing,
      cleanse us of what stops us from loving with heart and soul and mind.
Lord, since you are willing,
      free us of what drives us to destroy what you have made.
Lord, since you are willing,
      touch us with your love and heal us of what makes us ill.
Lord, since you are willing,
      draw us to each other in true fellowship. Amen.

Unison Sung Prayer

Unison Words of Confidence
Responding to a man’s request,
Jesus reached out, touched,
and said “I am willing,” and “Be clean.”
The man went away cleansed.

—Adapted from Mark 1:41–42

Instruction for Life
Live in faith and trust the Lord to cleanse you day by day.

David Alexander received a master of arts in theology from New Brunswick Theological Seminary in 1980. After years of evangelistic, parish, publication, and administrative work as a missionary for the Reformed Church in America, he lectured in practical theology at Tainan Theological College from 2012 to 2018.