A friend of St. Barts once came in to the church to discuss raising money. He suggested an ambitious plan, and we began talking about what people seek and need in their congregations.
He grew up in the parish (mid 40’s), but wandered before finding his own path. He said that he wished that the church had given stronger instruction about how to live and be transformed in a way to find peace and wholeness in the light of God’s presence. His comments were provocative and intriguing. He was talking about repentance.
He was not talking about repentance in the fashion of a street-corner preacher yelling in the public square. You jerk. Don’t you know that God despises your carnal thoughts and contemptible fashion sense? Most of us think that when we are asked to “repent” we’re asked first to feel bad and then obey what someone else, who is more perfect and uptight, tells us is good for us. And for a lot of Christians this means mainly rules about sex, tax cuts, and swearing.
This sort of repentance may be useful for some people. It can be exactly what they need to hear: stop drugging yourself, holding others accountable for your own actions, and get on the straight and narrow. Repentance in this sense means making verbal proclamations about what one believes and then changing what one does. You agree to what I, your priest and spiritual father, tell you and you are magically altered into a different, more holy, better person.
I wish I had that sort of magic wand some days, although I’d probably have to use it on myself.
But there is another way of understanding “repentance.” In fact, my friend used the word “transfiguration.” They fit neatly together. Repentance in the Greek is “metanoia” which is derived from the word for mind, thought and understanding. In some places scripture repentance is a conversion, and in others it suggests remorse.
I think that Episcopalians are wary of the part that emphasizes the total depravity of human consciousness that a few medieval theologians suggested. Rather, we rightly acknowledge that our conversion to the spirit is about joy and empowerment. It means sometimes saying “stop” or “no” so that we can better understand what the divine “Yes” means. It’s hard news sometimes.
I wonder if repentance means understanding two things that are very difficult in this day. The first is that we do have limits, and that limits are good. I encounter this fact when I get a bottle of wine at a local store: too many and I become disempowered. The human mind can often only handle a limited number of choices. It makes us more free when we do this to ourselves.
The second is that the good life is a committed life. It may be running, it may be music, it may be self-discipline, and it may be supporting a community of friends, but without commitment, life doesn’t happen. It just floats on by. It passes quickly. As the wisdom writer puts it, we become unmoored, like vapors.
And to be committed to each other often means a “changing of the mind” – a repentance. Especially in a day when it is the thoughtless God of convenience, inattention and immediate gratification that commands our lives so utterly. To make that conversion is hard work, and most of us will make it in fits and starts. It does require tenacity, self-examination, and vigilance (it sounds, perhaps, like dieting), but in a community of loving souls, all things are possible.
There are rewards. Saying no to some things means saying yes to others. I have spilled miso soup on my computer, which means that when I come home I am computerless, and yes generally it is a drag.
But for that reason, the other evening I had the unexpected opportunity to spend an evening in quiet meditation on my porch, with a cigar, just considering God, the world, and its utter beauty. I was given the opportunity to say “no” to the allures of the internet, and to say yes to the world.
Not that I will always be so wise to make that choice. But I slept better that night.