I haven’t written for a while. Excuse me while I ramble for a bit.
Each morning (well, most mornings… sometimes afternoons… sometimes I skip it because I’m busy or lazy or in a mood or whatever), I dig into JD Walt’s Seedbed Daily Text. I highly recommend it as a Biblically rich devotional written by a servant of God with a broad intellectual skillset and the heart of a poet.
We’re in the Gospel of Matthew right now, as John the Baptist cries out, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is near!” As I process some of my thoughts on his thoughts on God’s thoughts, I’m going to piggyback on some of what he said this morning. I’m just saying that this is mostly me, but he deserves credit (or blame, if you disagree) for the direction and it’s only fair that he get it. If you want to catch up, this particular devo is permalinked here.
Way back in the day (colloquially speaking – it was actually an evening), my youth pastor taught one of many lessons on repentance. This one stuck with me for a number of reasons. First, because it was a time in my life that I was in a weird tension that a lot of Christian teens go through… I had “given my life to Christ,” but had developed excellent compartmentalization skills. I’d given the part of my life that went to church and youth group to Christ, but the part of my life that smoked pot and was committed enough to take the time to download porn on a 28.8k modem and other bad stuff remained firmly separate. The tug of war that ebbs and flows and never seems to quite stop completely was at a high point, and I knew that I needed to “repent.”
I mean, I’d pented at least a few times before, and it obviously hadn’t stuck, so I apparently had to do it again.
Repent is a powerful word. It’s explosive, just in terms of its sound. It gains momentum coming off the lips, pulsing out in a way that leaves an impact. It hangs in the air waiting for a response. Even if you’ve heard it a million times, it sits there, slapping at your conscience, demanding acknowledgement, even it it’s just to turn it away again.
It’s also foreign to our modern language. It’s become the exclusive domain of religiousity, and so, while demanding, its also somewhat amorphous and confusing.
The second reason that his lesson sticks in my memory is that he gave a pithy, one sentence definition of repentance that was easy to grasp. He said that, “Repentance is a 180 degree turn from where you’ve been going,” and had kids demonstrate in an object lesson by walking in a straight line across the room and when he yelled, “Repent!” they’d have to turn around and go back in the other direction. It was a good lesson. It was simple and to the point and something a teenager could understand. And so I repented.
And no matter how many times I did that about-face and turned 180 degrees from where I was going, my course would slowly wander and I’d find myself heading back exactly the way I had been.
Because he was wrong.
And I was wrong when I taught the same thing.
The problem with viewing repentance as a 180 degree turn from the way you were going is that it still focuses on you and the way you were going. It’s like trying to drive by looking in the rearview mirror. It’s appealing to a self-absorbed, self-addicted people because it maintains our self direction – even if we’re directing ourselves by not going somewhere. It’s our direction – anchored by our former direction – dependent on our vision and our conscience and our experience. Our new direction is entirely dependent on our old direction. That doesn’t work well.
The whole idea of trying to navigate by going away from something is just profoundly stupid. And that’s kind of what John is saying.
The good news is that the true point of navigation is near. It’s not ephemeral. It’s not abstract. It’s among us now.
Yes, repentance is a firm re-orientation, but it’s not reorienting away from something, it’s changing direction to move towards something. As long as we’re moving towards it, it doesn’t matter what we’re moving away from. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter what we’re inclined to drift towards. It doesn’t matter what we… what we… what we… what I.
It matters what God.
Repentance isn’t about us. It’s about him. It’s about Emmanuel. It’s about God With Us. JD says it better than I can:
To be clear, behaviors will change but that change will come from a far deeper place than mere compliance with the rules. It will come from the deep wells of our transformed dispositions, affections, desires and from the Holy Spirit inspired dreams of the beautiful, good and powerfully loving lives we were created to live. To repent means to realign our entire lives to become the remarkable kind of people Jesus would be if he were you and me. Repentance does not start with a stinging self examination of our shame-filled selves. No, it begins by beholding the face of God in Jesus Christ, inhaling the Holy Spirit breathed Word of our own beloved-ness and exhaling the breathtaking beauty of the now-appearing-all-things-are-possible Kingdom of Heaven.
That’s probably enough for today. I’m not done thinking about it. It feels important.
Because there’s something in me that needs to be pent. It needs to be contained and constrained and confined because it has its way with me in a way I don’t like and I don’t like myself when it does. I’ve pent it. I’ve repented it. I’ve repented it again. The only way it’s going to stay pent-up is if God does it. To stop moving away and move towards. To stop being defined by it and get a new definition.
So that’s my prayer for me this morning. It’s my prayer for you. That we be defined not by our failing, but by our calling – by the one who succeeded on our behalf. That we be defined not by what we don’t want to be, but by what we were made to be, and the one who made us. That we be moving towards the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Right now I’m in class (Shhh). I graduated a while back, but as part of joining the “Wesleyan” church, I need to be instructed in the Wesleyan “Doctrine of Holiness”. That really has nothing to do with this post, but for some reason I feel the need to provide context. It’s given me the chance to get together with other people “in the ministry” and talk about things that matter, from the things we face in our chosen ministries, to the questions we have but can’t ask because we’re the people who are supposed to have the answers.
I had the chance to talk to other worship leaders and youth leaders, and we got to talking about hymns. We talked about updating hymns. We talked about changing lyrics to fit theology or to make them more singable, or to make them more understandable to contemporary listeners. We talked about how a lot of the people today didn’t understand what the poets were really saying when they wrote. The meaning is lost in archaic language, and sometimes trying to update it doesn’t help that much because it still has to fit the tune, rhyme scheme and meter (limiting our ability to be precise in adaptation). We also talked about how most of the best of the hymns were musical prayers.
I thought I’d take a crack at rewriting them, or translating them, as modern prayers. I’m throwing out the music, I’m throwing out the meter. Maybe then we can come back and sing the lyrics as the writers intended. I hope I’ll do more than just one.
Here’s the first:
1. Dear God, the source and provider of every good thing,
work in me so that the first inclination of my heart is to honour you for your grace;
You never stop forgiving, never stop offering mercy…
How can I not be constantly praising you at the top of my lungs?
I need a better song, God! Teach me to praise as the angels do!
Your love is like a mountain, Lord, rising above everything in my sight,
and I want to spend my life travelling towards it.
2. With your help, God, I’ve come a long way;
I can look back at my life and say that it’s only by your grace I’ve gotten here.
In fact, I’m raising a monument to testify to that.
By that same strength, I pray you keep me going the rest of the way,
to arrive at the destination you’ve laid before me.
Even when I was a complete stranger from Jesus,
living a life far outside of the life you made me for,
close to falling away from you completely, forever,
Jesus offered his holy blood to save me.
3. Every day I find myself in debt to your grace,
I’m constantly being made more and more aware of how dependant I am on it!
I’m sick of being in such need of it, though… Focus me on you.
Let me love your goodness so much that it keeps me from straying.
God, I love you, but I’m tempted away.
I feel my tendency to let my focus wander onto the things of this world.
I keep drifting away from where I wish I was staying.
I’ve had enough, God. Take my heart. Keep it.
Make my heart’s residence in heaven, make my heart ready for eternity now.
Can you name that tune?