Lee’s surrender 1865. ‘Peace in Union.’ The surrender of General Lee to General Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, 9 April 1865. Reproduction of a painting by Thomas Nast.

Lent, Holy Week call us to confession, repentance, restoration

By the Rev. John Burns

Forgive our foolish ways; reclothe us in our rightful mind.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, John Greenleaf Whittier, a Quaker, a representative in the Massachusetts State Legislature and secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society, wrote the above phrase in one of his poems. Later, the full poem entered the hymnals in “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.”

John Greenleaf Whittier

Whittier was grieved by U.S. factions’ mistakes that led to the Civil War and to the miscarriages of justice that followed in the war’s wake. The travesties of the Civil War were tragic enough, but the fact that the nation did not seem to learn from those catastrophic mistakes caused Whittier despair. He believed that the only hope for the nation and human race was for all people to recognize their foolish ways and seek God’s help in restoring their rightful minds.

One can only dream about the nation we would have today had all Americans gathered after the war to tell the truth about their transgressions, seek God’s forgiveness and call for the help of the Almighty to “reclothe” the country in its rightful mind. Sadly, that kind of national repentance did not happen, and the seeds of racism and injustice remained planted deep in the American soil to continue to plague and infest our democracy to this day.

Maybe Whittier drew his wisdom from the prophet Jeremiah, who, in his book of Lamentations (3:40), wrote, “Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord.” The “weeping prophet” had watched the destruction of his entire nation and believed that the only way Judah could survive was for the people of God to reflect on their mistakes and return to God.

Richard Rohr writes, “For humans, true and full goodness is a mistake transformed rather than a mistake always avoided.” The insightful Catholic writer observes that mistakes are endemic to our species and cannot be completely avoided. Our errors can be transformed into spiritual growth, however, when we take them to God in repentance and seek divine help to turn awareness of our foolish ways into deeper connection with God. Such is the purpose of Lent. The season leading up to Easter is designed to encourage believers to face up to moral and ethical lapses and confess them to our redemptive God.

What happens to a people when mistakes are no longer acknowledged, or when wrong deeds are always attributed to someone else? The simple answer is that the mistakes cannot be transformed. Instead, they become systemically ingrained and repeated.

When Republicans blame every error in judgment on Democrats, and Democrats lay the fault for every governmental blunder at the feet of Republicans, we continue in our foolish ways. When Congress blames the president for missteps that cost money and lives, and the president, in turn, shifts all responsibility for national problems onto Congress, we cannot benefit from examining our ways. Nothing gets better when the president excuses his inaccurate and often mean-spirited tweets as being misreported by the mainstream media and his inappropriate dealings with foreign powers as hoaxes perpetrated by the FBI. Progress is impeded when those who oppose the president pretend that present difficulties are his fault, rather than admit the flaws of a generation of failed economic, domestic and diplomatic policies.

What is true of our governmental leaders is just as valid for the rest of us. For every incident of sexual assault and spousal abuse, someone is guilty of deplorable deeds. Darkness persists when every allegation is relegated to a “he-said-she-said” scandal in which the culpable parties feign innocence or blame victims. When more and more of us operate on a code of behavior that declares, “If we didn’t get caught, the offense never happened,” the healing power of confession can never take effect. Consequently, we continue in our foolish ways.

Of course, these destructive patterns are not new. Jesus was crucified by Roman and Jewish leaders who refused to face up to the hideous failings in their deeply flawed justice systems. Rather than consider the possibility that their abusive use of power, misreading of Scripture and misinterpretation of the work of God had lead them to torture an innocent man, they joined forces to extinguish the light of the world. The willingness to kill the innocent to keep from owning up to systemic evil continues today.

The themes and scriptures of Lent and Holy Week call us to acknowledge our mistakes, repent of our sins and allow God to forgive and restore us to wholeness. We can do nothing about the refusal of others to admit their mistakes, repent of their sins and seek God’s forgiveness. The only sins we can address are our own. May the church of Jesus Christ take full advantage of the season of Lent and the observance of Holy Week to examine our paths and “return to the Lord.”

The Rev. John Burns is pastor of University Baptist Church, College Park, Md.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.