I’m not confessing the sin of my fathers, I’m confessing my sin, and of those twelve men.”
Dr. James Baird, spoken at General Assembly
This past week I had the privilege of attending the 43rd General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church in America. GA is a collection of elders from presbyterian churches from across the country. For a number of years, I did not enjoy attending GA. It seemed that the procedures and rules for this annual meeting had long ago eclipsed the real purpose for such times together. Granted our meetings need to be orderly, but something had been lost. I think it was the living nature of a communion of believers falling on their knees together to cry out to God together, to seek his face for life, and to rise up with a renewed sense of mission in the world.
I’d been avoiding GA for years when a friend exhorted me to attend. I, for one, am glad I did. During the assembly, a personal resolution came forth from two Mississippi pastors calling the denomination to repentance over the sins of racism and an unwillingness to stand together with African American sisters and brothers in their distress. The resolution was heartfelt and well crafted. But, the assembly stumbled over the process of moving forward with it. It was the final meeting of the assembly when Dr. Jim Baird, one of the PCA’s founders, rose to his feet to speak. The assembly, about 900 elders present at the time, fell silent as Dr. Baird cut through the procedures with a clear and beautiful confession of sin. No excuses were given. There was not a trace of minimizing.
I sat in my seat and wept. Not because he was a founder of the PCA. Not because he was a former pastor of Granada Presbyterian Church where I now serve. Not because this fixed the injustice of the past. No, it was because it was true, a true word, a real and living confession before God. Repentance. I believe only God can grant real repentance. We can’t work it up. We don’t produce it on our own. And, when it comes, we can only step back and say, “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it.”
Thankfully, a new procedure was not invoked. Instead, the moderator called the assembly to prayer, and what Dr. Baird started continued as fellow-elders rose to join a chorus of confession and repentance. I think this is the first real assembly of the church I have attended. Others were business meetings, it is true. But, what is to happen when the church meets together? We appear before each other for sure. We also appear before God. I believe this is what happened, and this gives me a deep hope that a corner has been turned, if but a small one.
The good news in this is that it was just a beginning. I heard elders and pastors talking about how to take this work of repentance back to their churches and presbyteries. I heard others speaking about “producing fruit in keeping with repentance.” All of this sounded to me like life, the presence of God and the power of the Spirit of God.
Years ago when I first came to Granada, my mom gave me a very nice leather journal, one I felt was too nice to use for the normal daily journaling I do much of the time. How could I use it? I decided to record in it those things I saw that were clearly works of the Spirit of God. Surely God is at work in all things, but I wanted to keep a record of things that I could find no other earthly explanation for, works of God among us. You’d think the journal would have been filled long ago. But, sadly not. Perhaps, it is my lack of vision or flawed perspective. For whatever reason, many pages remain blank. Immediately, I knew I needed to write this down, and thank God.
I hope you will do that with me. Thank God. And yes, confession. It is not a one-time event. It is a life of sensitivity to the holiness of God, a life honest about one’s sins and the deep need for what only God can provide. Please pray with me that this repentance will flow like a mighty river bringing many to their knees, that our sisters and brothers we have failed will forgive us, and that God will teach us how to love one another.