Thursday, February 23, 2012

Focus Forward

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1.14-15)

Between Here and There

I happened on a “Dr. Phil” show the other day that filled me with sorrow and angst. A woman who’d been repeatedly abused by her lover brought him to the good doctor, looking for help in her desire to change him. The man—who was shackled with a lifelong history of violence against schoolmates, strangers, his parents, and a previous wife—admitted he was helpless to control his rage. Still, the woman, like many battered spouses, couldn’t accept that she was powerless to heal his sickness. Dr. Phil all but begged her to let him go, stressing that she was in over her head and predicting if she stayed with him, the violence would worsen until one of them was dead. “You can’t keep living like this,” the doctor said. By program’s end, she seemed to wake up. Yet I wasn’t as convinced as I wanted to be. Her decision to move on lacked the conviction she voiced in her confidence she could mend her lover and undo their past. It saddened me think the dream of changing him held her with such force she’d never turn her back on it or him.

The woman’s distorted sense of reality—and real consequences—reminded me of a popular gospel tune from my youth. It was all about Heaven. Yet whether or not its composer realized it, the song belied a mournful existence that drove him to place his entire hope in a bright dream. “I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop,” the song said, “in that bright land where we’ll never grow old. Some day yonder we’ll never more wander, but walk on streets paved of purest gold.” The sorrowful and frustrating side of the song was—to me, at least—how it ignored the long road and hard climb the writer would undertake to reach his home beyond the hill. Between here and there, he will grow old, he will wander, and his road will be tedious and sometimes rough. That’s how life goes and that’s why life is what we make of it. What went missing from his picture were the joys of aging, discovery, and overcoming hardship. He’d adopted a victim mentality that crippled him. It’s sad that the dream of everlasting bliss had so captivated him he couldn’t turn his back on dismal influences shaping his concept of present life.

A New Narrative

In essence, Dr. Phil urged his guest to repent—to turn her sights from undoing the past and focus forward to a healthier, more hopeful, immediate future. It’s arguable that the song’s composer should have done the same. Most of all, however, I would entreat all of us to pause in these early days of Lent, during which the call to repent rings loudest, to ponder what repentance truly is. Too often repentance gets mixed up with penitence—i.e., profound regret for our shortcomings and failures. And that’s not what it is. To repent means turning around, looking in a new direction, going a different way. When we repent we drop the curtain on our old dramas and enter a new narrative that propels us toward a healthier, more hopeful, immediate future. It’s not about dragging past guilt and doubts into our current, renewed life. Nor is it about wandering through life on a wing and a prayer that we’ll find a better one in the Great Beyond. Repentance focuses us forward into the Great Big Messy and Marvelous Now, where what calls us ahead changes us so we can change what’s ahead.

Mark, the first Gospel written—hence, the one presumably closest in time to the actual events—reports that Jesus exits His wilderness experience declaring a new message that casts repentance in a brilliant new light. “The time is fulfilled,” He says, “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Jesus preaches a Here and Now Gospel, not one about There and Then, the gospel of a healthier, more hopeful, immediate future, not one of mansions tucked behind hills, eternal youth, and strolling golden boulevards.

Believing in the Good News

As Rob Bell writes in Love Wins, “[In] Jesus’s first-century, Jewish world, they didn’t talk about a future life somewhere else, because they anticipated a coming day when the world would be restored, renewed, and redeemed and there would be peace on earth.” When Jesus calls us to repentance, He urges us to get away from deadly ideas, far-sighted fantasies, and misguided belief that we should endure abuse and violence—not just physical harm, but also spiritual, emotional, and psychological trauma that seeks our destruction and undermines peace. Jesus says the time is now. The kingdom of God is within reach.

Believing in that irrevocably alters our understanding of repentance, and with it, how we regard Lent’s mission. We are walking into an immediate future—a soon-to-be present—that we shape in obedience to Christ’s teaching and example. We turn our backs on the dismal past to focus forward, believing in the Good News Jesus delivered and made available to all through boundless love splayed on a hateful cross. Lent’s repentance is guilt and grief-free. It’s a pilgrim’s progress that opens our eyes to greater health and truer hope every step of the way. That’s Good News we can believe in.

Lent’s call to repentance asks us to turn around and walk into a healthier, more hopeful, immediate future.

Podcast link:

Postscript: Question 2

What makes us so reluctant to turn around? I’ve put a few of my ideas in the comments and look forward to hearing yours.


Tim said...

I think one of the biggest reasons we struggle to repent is we don’t know what will be asked of us once we turn around. In many ways, it’s very much like Battered Spouse Syndrome—the enemy we know is better than one we don’t. So turning completely to focus on the Good News draws us into new territory, where our trust in God’s promises will be tested. And we’re just not sure how that will work and how we’ll respond. Yet Jesus is pretty clear here: without repentance, we can never fully believe—and experience—the Good News.

What do you think?

pam lee-miller said...

sometimes for me---it is admitting that I'm need to---I like to be right. Truth it--the journey called life is not about being right, it is about being changed and to borrow from our old language of childhood religions, repentance means to be saved...saved from even ourselves---to move to change to risk to believe life can be different, to behave as if it already is and to become the blossom God created us to become in our authentic self---Saved, Repented,
.....claimed, forgiven, and cherished by that which is so much deeper and richer than ourself...blessings this we all be saved a bit today.

Tim said...

Pam, I agree--this need of ours to be right can be a huge hindrance to turning around. Why is confessing we may have taken a less-than-perfect path so hard for us? Dare I say it? We're like the proverbial driver who'd rather travel for hours out of the way instead of pulling over to ask for directions!

I love what Job says (23.10): "God knows the path I take; when God has tested me, I will come forth as gold." That's the big cosmic joke built into the repentance equation. All of our insistence that we're right winds up for naught anyway, as God knows we've taken a bad route. But there's also great beauty there, as the call to turn comes from a loving, gentle God Who's less impressed with our being "right" than our becoming what grace entitles us to be.

Repentance does typically turn us headlong for the refinery, but the journey isn't defined by its start. The destination--what remains, the saving, the purity, the proven gold--is what matters. Not always fun, but invariably worth it!

I'm so delighted you're journeying this Lenten road through the refinery with us! I pray with you, and for you, "may we all be saved a bit today."

Many blessings,

Grant said...

Hi Tim, great article. For me the realization that repentance does not involve penitance was a significant moment. In fact, I now go so far as to think that penitance is actually a rejection of Christ's suffering - it is our attempt to pay for our own sin either by "feeling bad" or sometimes, in some cultures, by literal self-punishment. This is not to say that a realization of our sin, or need for changes, doesn't involve some sorrow, or heartbreak, or sense of our distance from God that we have created. But wallowing in such feelings becomes a rejection of the fact that in Christ, God has already removed that distance and we need only accept the fact, and re-turn our faces towards him - repent.

For me one thing that causes me to resist doing this is the "siren" call of the old ways and pleasures. Even though I now accept in my head that there are better ways to live, the old ways still hold sway over my desires. But, still when God grants the gift of repentance, I am amazed at how my desires for these old ways can suddenly evaporate. Until he grants full repentance, I get a chance to exercise choice, and self control, patience, etc...

For me the greatest image of all this is found in the story of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus (figuratively) picks her up from the dust, brushes her off, gives her a hug and says, "neither do I condemn you. Now go and leave your life of sin..." What an awesome God!

Tim said...

So much richness here, Grant. Thank you!

First, I couldn't agree more that penitence is a gateway for self-pity, which is really self-indulgence. It is essential, I think, for us to regret our failures (as that often leads us to true repentance), but to nurse those feelings with relentless woe-is-me, I'm-such-a-loser sentiment is counterintuitive to the Gospel's purpose. And understanding why such thinking is dangerous is particularly crucial in how we respond to the Cross.

Growing up, I often marveled at how some people in our church would habitually weep when we sang Calvary-related hymns. The rehearsal of Christ's suffering would set off emotions tied to a "What have I done" mentality which seemed to block their ability to recognize what Christ has done. Don't get me wrong: there is much to weep about when we think about the Cross. Yet at some point, our sorrow must turn to joy that God loves us so completely no sacrifice is too great. And, as I grew older, I started to sense many of these folks were grooving on the penitence thing and not making the turn into abundant life. I get the same feeling from folks who define their redemption as an undeserved rescue from Hell and/or an unmerited ticket to Heaven. All of these emotions get wound into the experience, but they miss the big point of repentance: the opportunity to go a new way, to accept newness of life and walk in it.

And perhaps that's because it's not always easy to deal with the tensions you and Pam describe: the constant lure of old ways and pleasures--and the reluctance to confess they're not the best way to go. Yet, as you say, with the turning, accepting God's gift of repentance, comes the grace to overcome our old ways and pursue a better path. That's exactly what we see with the adulterous woman.

As a friend of mine always says, our God is the God of the second chance. Repentance is the key that avails us to that opportunity. What an awesome God indeed!

Thanks for your thoughts on this. As always they illuminate the discussion greatly!

Many blessings,