Seeing Repentance as Joy (March 2, 2018)
We are about midway through Lent. It began with Ash Wednesday, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. Lent is a season to take stock of our lives. It’s a time to reflect on our faith more intentionally. We take time during Lent to remember that we are a people who belong to God, people who have taken vows of loyalty to God, people who have been claimed by God. And because we don’t live it perfectly, part of our spiritual discipline in Lent is repentance.
As a result, Lent is a serious season in our lives. But … and this is important, since Lent has gotten a bad rap … Lent need not be a sombre season. The whole notion of repentance and reflection goes against the spirit of our age, which has more to do with instant gratification and getting whatever we want whenever we want it. As a result, Lent is understood by many to be a time of denial and pain.
Honestly, who wants to “give something up for Lent”? Oor, for that matter, any time?
Let me suggest a different way of living into Lent. I begin with the notion that we are a people who have been claimed by God.
What does it mean to belong to God? It means that we are not our own. We honour God’s values in our world: values of justice, peace, reconciliation and wholeness. As we have been blessed, so we bless others. As we have been healed, so we touch other lives as gently as we can. As we have been included by God’s grace in a community of hope and reconciliation, so we reach out across all the barriers which keep us apart. We are called to embody God’s gospel purposes in all of our lives, and as we manage to actually live that way, then we live as people who honour God’s claim on our lives.
But none of us live up to our highest hopes. We are human; we all make mistakes. I can guarantee that 100% of us will screw up.
That’s where repentance comes in. And therein lies the rub.
These days, to repent means “to feel remorse, contrition, or self–reproach for what one has done or failed to do”; or again, “to feel such regret for past conduct as to change one’s mind regarding it”. In other words, to repent means to feel really really sorry for what you’ve done.
But that’s not really what repentance means. It actually has more to do with changing our hearts. We don’t focus on the past. We focus on moving into our future with a new purpose, a new vision, a new hope.
Let me tell you my favourite story about repentance.
A professor from a large American university had been invited to speak at a military base one December. Ralph was sent to the airport to meet him. They introduced themselves, and headed toward the baggage claim. All the way down the long concourse, Ralph kept disappearing: once to help an older woman whose suitcase had fallen open; once to lift two toddlers up so they could see Santa Claus; again to give directions to someone who was lost. Each time, he came back with a big smile on his face, and picked up the conversation where he had left off. The professor couldn’t figure him out.
“Where did you learn to do that?” he asked Ralph when he came back for the third time.
“Do what?” Ralph said.
“Where did you learn to live like that?”
“Oh,” said Ralph, “during the war, I guess.” During the drive to the base, he told the professor about his tour of duty in Viet Nam. His job was to clear mine fields, and he watched one friend after another blow up before his eyes. “I learned to live between steps,” he said. “I never knew whether the next step would be my last, so I learned how to get everything I could out of the moment between when I picked up my foot, and when I put it down again. Every step I took, it was a whole new world, and I guess I’ve just been that way ever since.”
Repentance is about seeing life made new, and learning to treasure life. It’s about understanding the fragility of life. It’s about learning to live with grace and compassion. It’s about being mindful in every moment, and living as gospel people within a deep and profound community.
To repent means to live life in a whole new way. Life is shot through with the grace and compassion of God, and repentance is God’s grace at work in our lives, turning us around, transforming our vision, and renewing our living.
I love the way former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams puts it. “Repentance happens when you suddenly see the abundance of God’s love and generosity in someone else and you come to the realization that you must change. Not only must you change, you want to. You want this in your life.”
Repentance is the joyful work of finding and wanting the fullness of God in your own life. It’s a holy dissatisfaction with the way things are, and deciding to do something about it. It’s learning to see deeply what our holy, life–giving, compassionate God wants in our lives and in our world.
Seen that way, Lent is not a bummer. Lent is a gift in which we come home to our best and truest selves.
Rev. Yme Woensdregt