It’s a theological word I usually associate with the faith of my youth. Or with fire and brimstone preachers pointing fingers at quivering congregations. Neither of those images are of use to me anymore. But the word “repent” is still a precious part of my faith journey. Although it is rarely used in the progressive church and has often been seen as a term of judgement and reproach, for me It is a term of hope.
The word is a translation of the Greek “metanoia” which means literally “to turn around” or “to change one’s mind.” Repentance is an invitation to a new way of thinking and a new way of being. And that is exactly the invitation I want from my faith and from my spiritual practices- a new way of life in this weary world.
Once when I was in college, I spent three days wandering in the Sierra wilderness because I refused to believe I was lost. “Those landmarks don’t seem to match this map,” I kept noticing, “but I’m sure I’m not lost. I don’t get lost. Must be something wrong with the map.”
On the morning of day three I met hikers coming the other way. When I told them where I was going, they looked at each other and then back at me. “You’re going the wrong way,” one of them said.
“Oh.” I responded. Then I turned around and started walking in the opposite direction. And because of that, I found my way home. Repentance. Literally.
To repent authentically requires at least three things. First, I have to see that I am wrong. I am going the wrong way. I am on the wrong path. The very way I see myself and the world is off. Then I have to get some direction- back to a right path, back to a sound mind, back to an honest view of the world. And finally, I have to walk that new path.
In these last three weeks our nation has been offered a chance to repent. I have been offered a chance to repent. Once again the reality of racism, baked into the American system, has been starkly revealed to white people by another murder of a black man at the hands of state-sanctioned authority. The casual, blatant disregard for George Floyd’s life unmasked the casual, blatant disregard for Black lives, and the lives of indigenous and other people of color that has been this country’s story for over 500 years.
“I’m not racist,” I might reassure myself, and just keep going. But by God’s grace I have encountered travelers who know this terrain far better than me. When I tell them where I am going, they gently or forcefully tell me, “You’re going the wrong way.” And I am invited to repent.
Let me tell you that on that summer day now over forty years ago, when those wiser travelers pointed out for me my error, I was not pleased. To turn around and go the other way meant a lot of hard work ahead. It meant trusting in something bigger than myself and my own mis-calibrated “inner compass.” It meant climbing back over mountains I thought I had already climbed. By the time I got to where I wanted to be, I was out of food and water. I was spent.
But that day, repentance saved my life.
Today, we are being invited to save our lives. The racist system we are all caught up in is a system of death. It will hide from us, try to convince us we are fine, tell us we have done enough, suggest that we don’t need to change. We must see it, name it, and change it, again and again and again.
This is no three day walk in the woods. This is an every day commitment to faith and to practice and to life. So here is the other thing those who repent know. Repentance, in the theological sense of the word, is not a one time thing. It must happen over and over, and throughout life.
Any traveler knows that one does not just look at the map once, choose a path, and start walking, never to consult a map again. All along the way, a faithful traveler calibrates and checks the compass again and again, watches for landmarks, listens to wiser travelers who have walked the path as well, and makes constant course corrections. The power of racism is strong and it is a part of everything I touch. It is in the stories I’m told (and then tell myself), in the privilege I don’t see, in the unconscious way I perceive myself and others. A journey of constant repentance is not a journey of shame, it is a journey of hope.
The Greek word I mentioned earlier not only means to change one’s mind and to change one’s direction, it also means to change one’s story.
This is my chance to do just that. To begin a new story. To listen, and learn, and walk the path of justice. To repent. Well you join me?