I mentioned praying every day this month Nehemiah’s prayer: “Our people have sinned, my tribe has sinned, I have sinned.” Often when I start praying, I start thinking about what I’m saying.
What Nehemiah actually said was, “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you.”
As I thought about his prayer and my adjustment of it, I realized that I need to be a little more specific about what I’m saying to God as I echo Nehemiah.
Nehemiah talked about Israel. It was a nation, but at the time he was writing, it was a nation distributed. For a couple generations and more, the people identified as Israelites had been being taken into captivity, with very few left in Israel. And it was a nation particularly identified as the people of God. More than geography, Nehemiah points to the instruction of God as the identity and lack of obedience as the problem.
I’d like to suggest that as I talk with God this month, thinking about the people of God in a parallel way to what Nehemiah was praying isn’t a particular country. It’s the people of God, the people who bear the name of Jesus. Not in a triumphant way, but in a penitent way. Not within national boundaries or parties but spread across the world. Not by holding up a Bible or threatening God’s judgment but by demonstrating compassion and faithfulness and repentance.
So I think that for me, the prayer of confession becomes this: “We your people have sinned, and my particular family / denomination / thread of theology has sinned and I have sinned.”
I don’t need to spend energy talking about your tribe has sinned, or how those who aren’t concerned about being identified with the people of God make choices. I need to start with me.
My friend Rick wrote yesterday, “Here’s one thing I’ve learned traveling around the world for Jesus: You don’t change the world by traveling around the world for Jesus. You change the world by loving your neighbor. Change the world today.”
I cannot fight systemic anything unless I’m willing to address the system I’m part of. Starting with confession.