Thoughts on Yom Kippur, from an American Christian
Today, I've been noticing a number of posts on my social media feeds from my friends who are observing Yom Kippur. Many of them posted versions of this poem (whose authorship appears to be unknown):
To those I may have wronged,
I ask forgiveness.
To those I may have helped,
I wish I had done more.
To those I neglected to help,
I ask for understanding.
To those who helped me,
I thank you with all my heart
I have been struck lately by how much the American Church --- or, at least, the corner of which I inhabit --- has to learn about the fullness of God.
Aside: one lesson the Church has had the opportunity to learn about over the last six months is the role of lament. Lament is a part of the historical Christian experience. (My goodness, there's a book in the Bible named "Lamentations"!) But lament hasn't been a part of the common worship experience of most Christians. (As a church worship director, I've noted this any number of times while trying to find meaningful music to pair with certain sermon topics.)
Of course, we've had plenty to lament over during the last six months, and some folks (like me) have re-discovered this part of the Christian experience. We've had to learn from those who've learned the lessons of lament all too well (Black Christians, for example). I've found that experience extremely helpful.
But back to the original topic.
Another lesson I think the Church really needs to learn is the role of repentance --- and in particular, public repentance --- in the life of the church. Again, it's simply not a part of our liturgies (formal or informal), or our music, or our practice. I don't hear music of confession or repentance on Christian radio ... and if it is mentioned, it's only in passing. As in the song we sang today at my church (lyrics by Matt Maher):
Lord, I come, I confess
Bowing here I find my rest
Without you, I fall apart
You're the one that guides my heart
Lord, I need you, oh, I need you
Ev'ry hour I need you
My one defense, my righteousness,
Oh God, how I need you
Sure, we sing the words "I confess", but it's not clear what we're really confessing, or if the word "confess" is just being used as a synonym for "profess".
(Aside: I'm not criticizing the song. I love the song for what it does say. But if that's the closest we come in contemporary Christian music to confession, we have a long way to go.)
I suppose this isn't much of a surprise, given the culture in which we live. Our culture revels in self-glorification. It actively promotes avoiding taking responsibility, and in particular finding reasons to blame others for one's own faults. Admitting responsibility might get you sued; at the least, it'll get you ridiculed not just for the fault, but for admitting the fault.
And don't even dare to suggest that you take the time to confess the sins of others and act to remedy them. If I didn't hurt you, don't ask me to help heal you --- especially if it might require something of me.
Is it any wonder that we don't seek confession as a part of our worship practice?
Except that there are parts of Christian practice that still embrace repentance and confession. In particular, the more liturgical traditions still have a place --- a prominent place --- for repentance.
When I was a first-year undergraduate student, I joined a university choir that put on a couple of concerts over the year. We sang a couple of old Latin masses --- a traditional mass (Beethoven? Bach?), and Mozart's Requiem.
Since it was a university choir, the director took the time to teach us all about the structure of the Mass. It was there that I learned that the traditional Latin mass begins not with a song written in Latin, but in Greek:
Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy)
Christe eleison (Christ, have mercy)
Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy)
In essence: the first act of worship in a traditional mass is an act of confession. (In the Requiem, it's the second act of worship, but it's still awfully close to the beginning.)
I can think of a handful of modern worship songs of lament and confession --- but only a handful.
I wish there was a place in the Christian liturgical calendar for Yom Kippur. I can only think of a couple of weak parallels.
- The closest thing to it, perhaps, is Good Friday. But the focus on Good Friday is the sacrifice of Christ for our sins, not our sins themselves.
- The one time that I can remember someone seeking me out to ask for my forgiveness was when I was contacted a former student who was a recovering alcoholic, who was working through the Twelve Steps as a part of his recovery. But obviously that practice is not widespread.
It doesn't have to be this way. John Wesley, in the early days of his Holiness movement, promoted a set of 21 questions that he and his friends would ask each other to drive them to confession: questions like "am I a hypocrite?", "am I honest in all my actions?", "do I disobey God in anything?". I suspect there are few adherents to the Wesleyan tradition who engage in that sort of public accountability anymore.
I know of no widely-practiced equivalent in the Christian calendar to Yom Kippur, where we focus on our own need for repentance, and seek the forgiveness of others whom we have wronged. And so, we only confess when we think we "need it", and of course we fill our lives with enough other things so we never think that we "need it".
To my friends observing Yom Kippur: tzom kal.
To my fellow believers: let's find a way to make confession and repentance a part of our daily worship.
(Acknowledgement: one of my pastors, Joe Wright, introduced me to this song a couple years ago. )