It is hard to make mistakes. Hard to hurt people you care about, no matter how big or small the infraction. It’s hard to grow and change. Maybe that is why communion is a meal of grace and perhaps this is why our faith is woven through with treads of forgiveness, transformation, repentance, and peace.
Repent… it is all over the Bible. We might hear the word and shutter; unless we are talking about someone else, of course. Then we are quite good at figuring out what other people should confess. We have such a good eye for the sins… when they belong to someone else, and we know the things they should do differently or better or not at all. We can pity their low self-awareness or lament their lack of compassion. If knowing how much other people should change was a competitive sport, most of us would be pro. If we are really honest, some of those things that drive us the most crazy are probably things that we project and drive us crazy about ourselves.
In Luke Chapter 3, John tells people to repent and he starts his sermon by calling people a “brood of vipers” (Lk 3:7), and I can’t think of one culture where calling people a bunch of snakes has been a real compliment. He has a hard job teaching repentance. At least the way we hear it. We hear it like it is coming from an old time preacher, pounding on a pulpit or a stranger yelling at you as you walk across campus, “REPENT Sinner.” We hear it from a place of unworthiness, shame and guilt. We hear it used to make us feel small or force us to conform to someone’s boxes about behavior. The thing is, I don’t think that is what John is preaching.
Repentance is about changing, adjusting course, turning around. Turning that gaze inward and seeing how and what we ourselves need to change… not just consulting for others. It is what John the Baptist is out in the wilderness asking people to do. And the most critical thing about repentance is his reminder, of who they are. If they claim status as children of Abraham, they are a part of a people that make relationship with God. They are created in the image of a life-giving, all-loving, creative and powerful God, and they are called to show up in the word that way. John reminds them they are a people of covenants and promises written in stone and crossing the sky in rainbows, they are beloved, so beloved Jesus even calls God, “Daddy”. John the Baptist reminds them they are children of God and that that doesn't allow for easy or cheep repentance. This repentance is born out of worth, value and love. It is completely opposite of trembling with shame, just feeling lucky God would glance at our unworthy, messy lives.
Maybe that is why people are actually coming out to see John. They don’t have to, he is kind of a strange man, eating bugs and honey, out on the margins of society and people come to repent. They come to take that step of changing and they can do it because they are so beloved and they are so worthy and they are reflections of a life-giving, creative God.
They ask John what is the next step and each one must answer with their lives. Sharing. Sharing food, sharing coats, and not exploiting people with one’s power and authority. This must be what he meant when he said, “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8) Change is hard and it must be real. It must be lived. That is why, I suspect, practice is important. One strategy I have learned is call Life-Centered Prayer by Ben Campbell Johnson (slightly adapted from Marjorie Thompson in her book, Soul Feast).
1. Gather the Day. Identify the ten or twelve major events of your day… prayers, conversations, meetings, meals, work and activities. Make a list.
2. Review the Day. Reflect on each item in your list, without judging yourself, avoiding feeling, or making excuses. How did you feel? How were you present?
3. Give thanks for the day. Thank God for each part, person, moment, and celebrate God’s loving presence in the midst of it all.
4. Confess your sin. Sin is brokenness. Acknowledge your faults in thought, word, and action toward God, neighbor, self and creation.
5. Seek the meaning of the events. Reflect on the larger significance of each event. Ponder: What is God saying to me? What am I being called to do? How do I want to be present?
Give it a try? Change and growth are hard and the gift is the grace to do it in community, fueled by a God that seeded resilience, love and passion in our very souls. We can change. WE can even repent and it’s not because we have to or be punished, it’s because we are so deeply loved that we can change.
Blessings from you friendly, local Abbot
(Who would never start a sermon by calling anyone a bunch of snakes but may have to publicly apologize to her Mentor.)