Leaving Salem

Repent. Now that’s a uniquely Christian word. I’ve heard it most of my life, and to this day it still makes the hair on the back of my neck tingle with fright. See, as a child, I heard the call to repent burst from the lips of many a revival preacher.

With the evangelist’s bulging carotids, burning eyes, and angry finger pointing, I could feel the fires of hell licking at my heels. With “turn or burn, get right or get left,” as a vital part of my spirituality, I repented every chance I got. Even a young child can be made to feel as if his sins are sucking him down into the nether regions.

That kind of intensity is now usually reserved for the sandwich board prophets of our time; those walking the streets of our major cities with the declaration “the end is near.” Or sometimes you find a wild-eyed television evangelist or snake-handling preacher, furiously condemning our immorality.

Much of organized religion is very angry, and sometimes down right sadistic. There is a real pleasure experienced by many a pulpit-pounder who can hardly wait it seems for God’s consuming wrath to fall on the world.

Repentance is thrown out there as a means of escape, but secretly, I don’t know if they really want us to get away. How could some religionists be happy for all eternity if they knew that we sinners, heretics, and reprobates weren’t actually burning in hell somewhere?

Still, we should not let the fuming fundamentalists of the world rob us of a good word: Repent. Yes, we must repent. But what does that mean? It means we must change our minds or turn around. It means the direction we are heading is a dead end, so go home and start over.

It means the thoughts we are constructing are destructive. It means we recognize that the way we are living is not life at all. Sure, we preachers like to use the word in the context of lying, cheating, stealing, whoring, and smoking. But I don’t think it is that simplistic.

True repentance is to completely forsake one way of life and take up another. Repentance means our hardness of heart is replaced by compassion; vengeance is replaced by forgiveness; those we despised because of their race or color or gender are now accepted; and where there was greed, now is found generosity. It is a change of lifestyle.

A couple of years ago a friend if mine decided he wanted to do more camping, to get out and experience the great outdoors. He went out and bought this huge, beautifully grotesque recreational vehicle. He gave me a tour.

It is a rolling luxury home. It has satellite television; a queen sized bed; stainless steel appliances; Berber weaved carpet; surround sound. This vehicle is a technological masterpiece. I was scandalized.

If you’re going to go camping, go camping. Strap on a backpack. Hike a few hills and feel the burn in your thighs and in your lungs. Eat out of a can. Sit around a camp fire. Sleep in a tent with a mountain stream lulling you to sleep. Swat bugs. Count the blisters on your feet every night. That’s camping.

RVs are great, but don’t roll around the countryside in a limousine and call it “camping.” Why? Because nothing has really changed. I said to my friend, “Russ, you can leave the comforts of home in this thing, and never be uncomfortable?” “That’s the idea,” he said.

We live our lives the same way. Yes, we need to change some things – our attitudes, our priorities, our behaviors – we need to repent. Instead, we often just rearrange the furniture, change our surroundings a bit, or adjust the landscape. But our way of life remains the same.

Do you have relationship troubles? Change partners. Is your career in the toilet? Change jobs. Have you grown tired of the troubles at home? Change houses. You can do all of these things but never experience change for yourself.

Repentance is not about complying with the moral and behavioral standards of the oppressive religious order. It is about surrender to Christ who will do more than put wheels on your life to speed it in a direction you have set. He will change you into who you were made to be.

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