My early religious memories are of civil religion. I remember conversations in public settings that were shaped by conservative, politically correct expressions on radio and TV. I remember Cumberland mountain rocks painted “Get right with God,” and “Repent” signs nailed to trees.

I encountered transactional religion that focused on the experience of getting saved, using that transaction as a starting point to talk with others about whether they had been saved. One old friend regularly cited his transaction date and retold how he was saved while using a crosscut saw.

My faith is more relational than transactional, with at least as much mystery as certainty. My faith is more about God’s preferred future rather than my record of prior conversion(s). For me, repentance is an ongoing process of turning as I learn about myself, God, Jesus and Reality.

In my mid-20s, I read Erich Fromm’s You Shall Be As Gods: “The meaning of sin as missing the right road corresponds to the term for repent, which is shuv, meaning ‘to return.'” I identify with the Hebrew term for the repentant sinner, baal teshuvah, literally “the master of return.”

Repentance is continually turning, growing, maturing, evolving, rebirthing. I see it as normal, not exceptional. Repentance happens when the “kingdom of God” comes near (Mark 1.15). If repentance is something done just once, often long ago, it will be an undervalued faith theme.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1667-69,
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)
State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

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