We’ve all heard the sidewalk preachers and TV Evangelists quoting the Gospels, telling us, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!"
It’s a claim that is generally intended to strike fear and trembling in the hearts of many. We’re supposed to straighten up, do right, and atone for all of our heinous, sinful ways.
If you went to my kind of church growing up, there wasn’t a sermon that went by that you didn’t hear the pastor say something like, "The end could be today, tomorrow or next week. So you’d better beg for forgiveness, get right with the Lord, or risk getting ‘left behind.’"
The season of Lent is a time of reflection and repentance, yes. But we’ve come to misunderstand both what it means to repent, and what Jesus is talking about when he foretells of God’s coming Kingdom.
As for the latter, Jesus preached to some degree about the afterlife, yes. But his Kingdom-talk primarily was focused on us, on receiving and co-creating God’s Kingdom vision for ALL of us, here and now, in our very midst. So rather than talking about some hellfire apocalyptic end-times, he’s urging us to open our eyes, to see what’s right in front of us.
We can have what he, what God, long for us. To live in a world inspired and living into the Kingdom possibilities just there, nearly within our reach if we’ll only claim it and risk everything to fulfill it.
Ash Wednesday begins Lent, a 40-day season in the church’s life leading up to the death and resurrection of Christ on Easter. It is traditionally meant to be a time of reflection, reevaluation, and renewal in our lives, both for the community of faith and in our relationship to the world. But the “R” word that is most characteristic of Lent is “repentance.” And repentance, biblically speaking, is not about the fire and brimstone television preachers but rather about the gospel call to turn around and go in a whole new direction.
Already in these first few days of Lent, I am reminded of how difficult confession, humility, and repentance are in our culture. Humility is something Americans are not particularly good at. Neither are we strong in the areas of self-examination, deep reflection, and repenting for things we have done wrong and then no longer doing them.
We tend to believe if people are poor, there really must be something more wrong with them than with those of us who are not. If black young men are having trouble with police, many white people suspect it must be the things that they are doing more than any problems with the systems we perpetuate.
Our family was just away for a week in the Dominican Republic on baseball service and mission trip, where our boys’ baseball teams do “spring training” with Dominican players and coaches. Spending a week in Consuelo with the Dominican players and the adults in their lives, and meeting the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception who helped host us, provided a glimpse into their lives and a kind of poverty that most American young people have never seen.
We played on their rural “fields of dreams” cut out of sugar cane instead of corn, to wonderfully energetic community stadiums in what is truly a baseball culture. In one game, our high school team got to play the Detroit Tigers Dominican Academy teenage players. It was great baseball — but also a “life-changing experience,” as was told to me by many of our players and their coaches. In addition to the baseball skills, reflection, listening, learning, and asking big questions about how our lives affect others were the lessons of the week.
Lately, a particular quote has been wending its way around Facebook, popping up in the feeds of the most disparate names on my friends list. It appears written in feminine cursive script or blocky varsity letters or etched under a photo of leaping flames: “May the bridges I burn light the way.”
The words seem significant on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, when ministers mark a believer’s forehead with a sign of the cross — two simple finger strokes drawn as a reminder of the impermanence of this world and our own mortality. The imposition of ashes is often accompanied by words from Genesis 3:19: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Lent is the season of reflection, reevaluation, reconciliation, and — here’s a hundred dollar Christian word — repentance. For many, the word “repent” calls to mind a red-faced TV preacher banging a hammy fist on the podium, or a guy in a sandwich board, standing on a corner yelling through a bullhorn about the fires of hell and the threat of damnation. YOU MUST REPENT!
But repent means, in the most literal sense, to turn in a different direction. It is less about avoiding being struck down by God than embarking on our own particular course-correction.
We’re a few weeks into 2015, which means many of us are striving to keep our New Year’s resolutions while others have already seen their best intentions collapse under the pressure of daily routines. Every year, we make promises to be better — we’ll go to the gym, save more money, slow down. But for Christians, every day is an opportunity to make resolutions. We call that repentance.
And this year — today — I am repenting of my dependence on fossil fuels.
While many associate repentance with sorrow or guilt, the biblical meaning of the word is to stop, turn around and go in a whole new direction. Repentance means changing our course and embarking on a new path.
For Christians, humanity’s failure to care for God’s creation warrants our repentance. This is not just a theological claim but a practical moral imperative when it comes to fossil fuel consumption. American Christians need to repent — and quickly!
Our society’s addiction to fossil fuels has had an unconscionable impact on the state of our Earth and on future generations. Coal-fired power plants are giving people cancer and asthma. Oil pipelines are spilling and destroying sacred lands. Natural gas fracking waste is leaking underground, threatening water sources. Through our consumption of coal, oil, and gas, we have enabled this toxic activity.
I attended Catholic school for one year as a child. My second-grade year in Philadelphia’s St. Athanasius left me with a strong sense of the mystery of the church. The most mysterious space there was the confessional booth. I wasn’t allowed to enter because I wasn’t Catholic, so I just sat and watched others enter with pinched brows. Then they would exit with peace painted over their faces.
There is a scene in the book Blue Like Jazz where author Donald Miller sets up a confessional box in the center of the Reed College campus. But Miller’s confessional worked in reverse. Students of Reed, which is known as the most liberal campus in the country, entered the confessional booth with curiosity, cynicism, skepticism, or worse — to disprove this thing called Christianity. But what they encountered upon entry was disarming — even healing. Rather than prompts to confess their sin, Miller sat on the other side of the veil and confessed of the sins of the church. This was a revolutionary act in the context where, according to Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman’s modern classic, UnChristian, the general consensus about Christians is decidedly negative.
“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” —2 Chronicles 7:14
Confession and repentance are messy and painful, and they don’t come natural to us. Our human heart is in a natural state of denial. Without an external agent, God, we are unable to recognize our prejudices, offenses, and sins.
In the previous text God speaks to God’s people, those whom God claims as God’s own. We belong to the Creator and to each other. That means that regardless of how we perceive others, and regardless of how others perceive us, bonds that can’t be broken tied us up. The relationship we share is held together by the very identity of God. Mother Teresa reminded us “we have forgotten that we belong to each other — that man, that woman, that child is my brother or my sister.”
It is necessary that we understand that this belonging is mutual. I belong to you and you belong to me. There is no escape; we can’t change this relationship. It is only when I recognize others and welcome them into my life that the fullness of God’s identity in me is revealed. No one is an outsider. No one should be left out at the door of my heart; to do so is to deny my God-given identity.
Often we do not know how our words and actions affect and harm others. However, ignorance is not an excuse. As the body of Christ, we must be willing to look deeply at the implications of the choices we make. When those choices cause harm – intentionally or unintentionally – we must repent and ask for forgiveness.
Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith was a cry from my heart and the hearts of my coauthors as we wrestled with what it means to be the church of “Good News” in the 21st century. So many people do not see the evangelical church from that perspective. The church – rather than being Good News – is often a painful place where broken people, judgment, and criticisms prevail.