A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, January 9, 2012

New Beginnings: Repentance

Despite what it says at the bottom, the below is written by Lynn.  I just posted it for her since she was away from computers today.  Thanks for the great thoughts, Lynn!

So it’s the start of a new year and like clockwork, my husband and I, along with millions of other Americans, are resolved to eat healthier and exercise more. To that end, we wolfed down as much of the junk food in the house as we could leading up to the start of this last week…in order to limit temptation of course. Heaven forbid we waste good food! And now I’ve been running up and down the stairs at home and Todd has been finding ways to walk more at work. We’ve purchased a Wii exercise video to use together in the evening. We are hopeful that this time our good intentions will carry us a little further down the permanent weight loss road, but I’ll admit, I’m not as optimistic as I used to be.
I listened to a sobering NPR report this week on Face the Nation that attempted to explain why it’s so difficult to lose weight. We are wired to like fatty, sugary foods and to avoid physical exertion if we can. It’s an evolutionary defense system deeply embedded in our genetic code. When we do attempt to eat less and exercise more, our body rises up against us sending us urgent messages to cease and desist. While it’s possible, it takes monumental effort to override this genetic code. Which explains this sad statistic I read online this week: 50% of all American adults will enter this new year with the intention to eat healthier and lose weight. By the end of January, 35% of us will have already given up the good fight.
Speaking of new beginnings…..our first scripture passage for the day happens to be the first five verses of the entire Bible. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” And so creation continues with God’s resounding declaration that all is “good!”.
Talk about the ultimate new beginning - the big bang that started it all! Can you imagine God’s hopes and dreams for this beautiful newness? The promise it all contained? So it’s interesting that only five chapters later God has changed his tune dramatically and declares the human part of creation not good, but rather very, very bad. So God wipes humanity out, holding back just a few lucky souls for reproductive purposes and decides to start fresh…..again. Does this ring a bell? Does it sound a little like a New Year’s resolution gone bad?
Continuing with the “new beginnings” theme, let’s skip over to the gospel of Mark. The book opens with the act of baptism. Baptism is a fresh start. It’s a turning over of the old life and a grateful and voluntary acceptance of a new life with God. Make no mistake, we all like fresh starts. In fact we long for them - for the opportunity to put down our burdens, confess our sins, be cleansed of all the weary old in exchange for the chance to be right and to get it right this time around. So it comes as no surprise that people are flocking to John to be baptized. And they come with all sorts of mixed motives, some pure, some very much less than. I don’t know how many of these people are really listening to what John has to say. I think a lot of folk get caught up in the spirit of the moment and join the parade. Months and years later they remember their baptism, but not the point.
And so we find Paul in Acts 19, catching up with some disciples in Ephesus. He asks them a question about the Holy Spirit and they respond with, “Huh? Who’s that?”
Paul is shocked. “But I thought you said you were baptized!”
They reply, “Well yeah, John dunked us in the water. That’s baptism, right?”
Shaking his head in disbelief, Paul takes them back to the beginning. “Okay fellows, do you know what repentance means? Have you heard about Jesus?”
Then Paul proceeds to baptize them, this time for real, and they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And maybe in part just to play it safe, Paul stays with them for two years, making sure everyone understands the point.
Repentance. That’s the point. Paul is simply echoing John the Baptist. Mark 1:4 - “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
This seems to be what is most often missing from our newbie resolutions - repentance. Even God repented. In Genesis following the flood God seems to feel bad for the destruction and devastation. He promises to never do it again and he completely turns around in his relationship with humanity and begins to do things differently. No longer God’s play things, following the flood we find a God who seeks each of us out to be with us in genuine relationship.
Theologian Marcus Borg offers some helpful words about repentance. He writes, “The biblical meaning of ‘repentance’ is quite different from an apology. In the Jewish Bible, the Christian Old Testament, ‘repentance’ means ‘to return’ – that is, to return from exile, to return to life in the presence of God, to a life centered in God.
In the Christian New Testament, the word ‘repentance’ carries this meaning, and one more. The roots of the Greek word for ‘repentance’ mean ‘to go beyond the mind that you have.’ So apology and repentance, forgiveness and repentance, are quite different. Apology and forgiveness do not in themselves imply change. Repentance does.”
Repentance means to return to a life centered in God and to do so by pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone into new ways of understanding and reverencing God.
I’m sure you’ve all heard about the park ranger who was shot and killed by a disturbed gunman at Mount Rainier last Sunday. Some speculate that Margaret may have intercepted the gunman on his way to the visitor’s center where over 100 people were seeking shelter and safety. Margaret was 34 years old, married and the mother of two very little girls. She also happened to have been a friend of my sister-in-law, Sheri and her late husband. They were all a part of Lutheran Campus Ministries together at K-State. Sheri spent some time writing on Margaret’s death in her blog post this last week and particularly the way in which Margaret lost her life serving as a barrier against the darkness, “putting her car and herself between a violent person and those he might harm.”
She then reflects on how we too can serve as barriers in our lives. Sheri writes, “What if we put our bulky bodies in between the darkness of greed and people who live in hunger? What if we changed the way we look at food and began to realize that our rich diets are a luxury that come at the cost of others? What if instead of spending money on diet programs we…..made the connection between our eating and the plight of the starving by sending a dollar to charity every time we managed to go a day without over indulging?”
What Sheri describes is repentance. Repentance is hard work. It’s a complete reorientation. It’s an acknowledgment that what we are doing now is not right - whether it be biting our fingernails, staying too busy or neglecting our relationship with God - accompanied by an earnest active will to make a change in order to think and do differently.
I think repentance must be wrapped around every true new beginning we seek to make. This is all good news and breathes hope back into our tired and predictable new year’s resolutions. Do we really want to bring God back into the center of our existence and stretch our minds to accommodate this reorientation? Are we ready for change? Can we do repentance? If so, new beginnings beckon…

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