(click above to listen along)
On Wednesday night this week about 25 of us gathered at one of those public pianos on 16th street mall and sang Vespers together. It was chilly and peaceful and we had some candles burning on the back of the piano. Then Meghan read the Gospel we just heard, and as soon as she said John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist saying repent for the kingdom of God has come near I swear to God at that exact moment an inebriated woman in stained and tattered clothes stumbled down the sidewalk near us shouting something indiscernible and I was like OMG is that him? It was like Joan the Baptist appeared on the 16th street mall a voice crying out in the wilderness and she wore a terrycloth bathrobe tied around her waist and ate whatever she could find in the garbage can outside the Popeye’s Chicken place shouting repent!
And I immediately thought: that is perfect. Our charming little wintery gathering to sing Vespers around a piano on the mall was interrupted by the screaming of a crazy person. It’s perfect because I think we always have a John the Baptist reading the 2nd Sunday of Advent – which means that any quiet, cozy feeling you might be having around this time in the Advent season is always going to be interrupted by John the completely crazy Baptist yelling Repent! at you as little unchewed bits of crickets come flying out of his unshaven mouth. Happy Advent.
I use to hate that word, repent. Maybe you feel that way too, like when I hear a preacher shouting “repent” what I really hear is he or she saying is Stop being bad and start being good or else God’s gonna be so mad at you that he’ll send you to burn in hell. Repent or burn! Which feels like more of a threat than anything else. And that just never worked on me. Who wants their spiritual arm twisted until they cry Uncle….it’s like… religious bullying or something.
And I just can’t imagine that it was religious bullying which brought all of Judea and Jerusalem to be baptized by John. I mean fear and threats can create change in behavior. No question about it. But fear and threats don’t really change your thinking. Threats don’t change your heart.
And that’s what God is up to. Changing our hearts and minds. I mean, after all, the Greek word for repentance is Metanoia which means changing your mind. – Changing how you think about something. We want to make repentance about changing our lifestyles and maybe sometimes that is what is called for. But I also just think God is after more than that. I mean changing things in our lives can of course be a holy thing, but repentance isn’t just about cleaning up your act. Because what metanoia means is to snap out of it, to think new thoughts… Which on the surface might seem pretty minor – changing our thoughts. Big deal, right?
But this week I realized just how amazing thinking new thoughts sounds to me. Because I honestly feel like I am a prisoner of about half a dozen neurological grooves that just funnel the same exact thoughts through my brain over and over year after year. Like I’m in bondage to a couple deeply worn grooves that funnel all the same thoughts about what’s good and bad about my life and about the world and about other people too.
And hey, since we are in the holiday season we might just go ahead and admit that it’s especially hard to think new thoughts when it comes to our familes. Like, I know it’s hard to imagine, but if our parents have actually changed as people – if they have grown and are not the same as who they were when they raised us– can we see that? Can we even allow for it? Same goes for our kids as they get older. I wonder if the quality of the relationship we are able to have with our children directly correlates to how quickly we can keep up with the ways they change – correlates to being able to think new thoughts about who they are. It’s so easy to get stuck on seeing our kids – or our friends or our siblings or our boss – really anyone in our lives in only one way. I mean, even when the things we think about other people might be true. Maybe your boss really is kind of stupid. Fine. But that’s not the only thing she is. Maybe your kid is a little selfish. Fine. But that’s not the only thing they are.
And for some of us, the set neural grooves that produce the same thoughts over and over about ourselves are the most entrenched and the most pernicious. I mean think for a moment about that. What thoughts do you think about yourself to yourself the most often. And would anyone who loves you ever think those same things? Are those the thoughts a God who loves you would have about you?
I mean, as someone who believes that we are all simultaneously sinner & saint, who believes that none of us are only ever just one thing – that there is bad in the best people and good in the worst people, I’m not suggesting that thinking only positive affirmations about how wonderful we are would be accurate or even healthy –but I’m suggesting that some of us tend to only allow the negative aspects of who we are to enter into the equation of how we view ourselves.
And I get it – I mean, some of these thoughts about ourselves may have come from our childhood when messages about who we are were so sticky, and clung to us like name tags like, “Hello, I’m selfish” or “hello I’m not worth sticking around for” or “hello I am the center of my parents whole universe”
But what if repentance means being freed from thinking these same thoughts over and over and that includes the thoughts we have about ourselves. I know it can feel like changing our thinking is just one more thing we ˆshould be able to pull off and just haven’t managed it yet.
But this week I started to think that maybe the call to repent – the call to change our thinking isn’t a threat – or even a command – maybe the call to repent is an invitation. It’s like God is saying to us, here, have some corrective lenses.
Maybe repentance means that God is offering us some brain spackle for those neural grooves.
I’d sign up for that. Because I find my mind exhausting.
Because when all I am left with are the same thoughts over and over, nothing ever gets to be new.
And we are told that Jesus Christ came to make all things new. Even us. Even our minds.
All I know is that I got sober almost 25 years ago but I only started getting healthy about 4 year into sobriety – which was when I was finally willing to re-think my old ideas about myself.
I don’t know about you but I could go for a thing like that again right about now.
John the Baptist says that Jesus has a winnowing fork in his hand and he will separate the chaff from the wheat and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. Now, the fire and brimstone street corner preachers might threaten us to repent or burn.
But tonight I’m saying let’s accept the invitation to repent AND burn.
Because maybe there is both wheat and chaff within us all. And maybe we are seriously not the best judges of which is which. And God is offering us metanoia… to separate the good from the bad and burn away that which does not serve us.
Our brother Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Rome:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed (not by the renewing of your lifestyle – not by the renewing of your workout – not by the renewing of your credit history – but) be transformed by the renewing of your minds.
Which is why my prayer for tonight, is that we turn AND burn. I pray that all of us here tonight be given new thoughts.
I pray the God who makes all things new, Help us let go of our old ideas. May God give us some divine spackle to fill in those worn neural grooves that produce thoughts that do not serve us and that do not serve God and that do not serve our neighbors. May God give us the strength to reach for those corrective lenses she’s wiping on her shirt and handing to us so we can see with new minds. Minds that see God’s glory amidst the chaos. Minds that perceive God’s hand at work in even the most annoying people in our lives. Minds that move more toward curiosity than judgment. May God burn away the old. And make us new.
Repent and burn, people of God. Repent and burn.
In God’s blessed and holy name,