Making the Change Part 1: Rethinking Repentance
Sometimes change comes softly to us. Sometimes we run after change like a gazelle in an open meadow. And sometimes change comes at you like a freight train to the face.
Who am I kidding? It’s never gentle and most of us rarely pursue it without serious discomfort. But for those who set their sights on a better way, it will require three things: courage, perseverance and vision.
It’s not just the pandemic. Our culture continues to move faster and faster. We cycle through everything from our latest summer outfit, the newest iPhone to the latest Megan and Harry scandal. I don’t even want to keep up anymore. However, the pandemic has been particularly disruptive to our lives. Over the past few years we’ve been on a quest for the new normal. I’m asking myself now, is this it? Have we made it back to normal yet?
The problem is that going back is never an option. There is no recapturing the way things used to be. Our goal is to reclaim an aggrandized version of how wonderful life was in 2019. I was there, it wasn’t all that and a bag of chips. At the end of February 2020 I took a much needed trip to Reno, recovering from a tough bout with depression. I sought mental health care long before it was trending. So there’s that.
Last week I listened to Brené Brown’s Podcast, Unlocking Us, where she interviewed Father Richard Rohr. (I’ll add the link at the bottom. Well worth a listen.) He talked about Jesus’ first words in the Gospel of Mark 1.15. Here they are: “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” He said that the word “repent” is a mistranslation. Really a better translation would be “Change.”
This idea sparked something in me. Substantively these two words aren’t that far apart. Except, repent feels very loaded with all kinds of baggage. Or maybe it’s just me? If someone tells me to repent, clearly I’ve done something seriously wrong. I also have an easier time dismissing the call to repentance, like I did that once. Now I’m good.
Change, on the other hand, could be wonderful, terrible or everything in between. Change is also a normal part of our lives.
Change isn’t the thing that gets us though. It’s transition. Moving from where you are to where you’re going to be. That’s the hard part. It also captures the real life challenge of repentance. I want to follow Christ. I want to be the best version of myself, but how do I get there?
This is the first of a few parts where I think through change, repentance and moving through transitions.
Hopefully you’ve heard of this guy named John the Baptist, or JB as I affectionately call him. He is mentioned in all four gospels and he’s a total badass. I aspire to be something like John the Baptist. Not that I’m going to start wearing camel’s hair or adopt a diet of locusts and wild honey. Actually the closest I get to living in the wilderness is a weekend stay in a two star hotel.
The gospel of Luke describes JB’s ministry this way:
He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” [Luke 3.3-9, NIV]
There’s a lot of symbolism here. John wasn’t the first to baptize. If you were a Gentile (AKA not born a Jew) and wanted to convert this was part of that ceremony. Even today the final step in conversion to Judaism is a ritual bath. The Jordan River was special. That was the final leg of their journey into the promised land that God had given them. John the Baptist was converting Jews into their own faith.
John’s message is clear. He’s calling on people to turn back to God. He’s not even being nice about it. He’s calling them children of snakes. You think you’re ok because you were born into the people of God, the “children of Abraham,” he says, but I’m telling you that the family tree is about to be cut down and burned up if you don’t do better.
This made some people very angry. In fact, his criticism of the governor’s morality would lead to his beheading.
But many people recognized the truth of his words and decided it was time to turn things around. They heard the invitation to change and they responded. Yes! I want that.
There’s something happening right now and I want to be a part of it. People are reflecting on their faith in new ways. Some of that is because church people are being called out for our inconsistency. Some of the moral principles we say we’re all about don’t align with the reality of our practice.
I believe we can do better.
A few weeks back in his newsletter, Ben Cremer wrote:
Roughly every five hundred years, the church goes through a major reformation. As of now, we are a little over five hundred and five years since Martin Luther sparked the protestant reformation in 1517. It is quite obvious that we are in a very similar moment of major transition and reform in every sector of human life today, much like what was happening in the world in 1517. Many people during the previous reformation felt painfully caught in between what the church was and what it would become. They were so hurt and disenchanted by all the scandals within the church, surrounding greed, spiritual abuse, and political idolatry, within both Protestant and Catholic circles alike. This sounds far too familiar to us right now.
I believe as a people we can hear the call to repentance and change. I believe God is gracious, and if we are willing to confess our sins and choose a new directions there’s forgiveness and redemption. That’s my prayer for the Christian church in America.
The questions is this: Will we spend time and energy being offended or will we stop? Stop and turn. Turn into humility. Turn into grace and empathy.
We are called to be a light to the world.
We are created with immeasurable potential.
Will we get stuck in defensiveness, finding reasons why it’s not me, not my fault? Or will we turn to the One who made each of us human beings, destined for goodness.
The kingdom of God has come near. Change. Believe the good news!
Brene Brown’s interview with Father Richard Rohr:
Sign up for Ben Cramer’s email list here: