Y'all Continually Repent

April 28th, 2012
George Tinker helps lead an

Friday night’s worship’s service at General Conference was titled “An Act of Repentance.”  I must admit after another long day of Legislative Committees I didn’t have great excitement about spending my Friday night asking forgiveness for all my sins. (My reticence was probably a pretty good indicator that I needed this service more than most.)

In the service we heard from different indigenous people who shared stories of atrocities that their ancestors had faced. These were not stories of long ago people with whom the speakers were distantly connected. They shared stories of their grandparents and great-grandparents, stories of lies, theft, and murder. 

I was under no illusion that settlers and colonizers had always acted appropriately and morally, but this worship service began to hit closer to home that I had ever experienced before.

A quote was shared from Desmond Tutu. “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land.  They said, ‘Let us pray.’  We closed our eyes.  When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”

Next we heard a story of a Methodist minister who led the massacre of hundreds of Native Americans. (Sand Creek 1864) 

The speaker then shared a story about opposition to that evening’s service where someone wrote they didn’t see the need for us to repent for our distant relatives’ sins.  And by the way the critic wrote, “At least we brought them Christ.”  The speaker remarked he felt it a raw deal to kill his ancestors and steal their land in exchange for Christ.  He wished another deal had been struck. 

But I will never forget when Rev. Dr. George Tinker began to speak about the unwritten history of the atrocities against his people, Native Americans.  He said what we had been taught in school was not the full story. 

He then shared about the missionaries who did stay and defend the Indians when Jackson ordered the death march to Oklahoma now known as the Trail of Tears.  A bit of pride began to swell up in me.  “At least some stood up for what is right!” Then he said the missionaries stayed with the Indians until the Tennessee Annual Conference of the Methodist Church ordered that the missionaries come home.  There would be great land and financial gains for the parishioners of the Tennessee Conference if the Indians were forced to leave.  The missionaries left and the indigenous people of Tennessee were pulled out of their home. 

It is hard to describe the emotion, the physical reaction I had when he spoke those words.  I was sitting in the Tennessee Conference section, as a Tennessee Conference delegate, with Tennessee Conference on my nametag. I felt like a spotlight was on me. I began to sweat.  Then, I began to cry. 

I felt so sorry for my heritage.  Who could I apologize to?  What would it mean if I could?  What weight would it carry?  I wanted to run to the Native Americans who had gathered in the gallery that night and beg them for forgiveness.

Dr. Tinker said that we are far past the point of apology. And, he said, we are nowhere near reconciliation.  His remarks were pointed, but full of compassion and grace as he said we must begin the work of repentance together. 

He did some etymological and exegetical work on the word “repentance” in the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures.  It was information I had heard before, but it sounded new in that setting.  He said that the word in the Greek is a present imperative word implying that we are not to repent now, but to repent continually.  He also said it is not an individual work, but one done in community.  He said in the south we might say, “Ya’ll repent continually.”

As I sat at the table with delegates from Zambia I began to feel a closeness and connection with the global church that I had never experienced in worship in America. 

We all named together, painstakingly so, a list of wrongs that we had committed against each other. We closed with this prayer.

Convict us, O God, by your judgment that we may hear your word to change, and grant us the power of your Holy Spirit that we may be empowered to repent, to turn around, and to participate in the new creation brought by our Lord and Redeemer, Jesus Christ. 

So be it Lord.  

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