Repentance – Not What You Think, Wait, Yes It Is
by Tim Mooney
Jonah proclaims the impending destruction of Nineveh. 40 days and God will level Nineveh. The message is you better get your act together or else. The people repent of their evil ways, and begin a fast. God did not destroy Nineveh. And for some odd reason Jonah was mad at God for being slow to anger and merciful. The German word, Schadenfreude, comes to mind here. We sometimes want people to suffer a bit for their bad deeds, before they are forgiven.
Paul proclaims the impending end of the world. Paul asks the Corinthians to not be concerned with any of the responsibilities that come with marriage, business, great joy or great loss. The message is you better get your act together or you’ll be on the wrong side of the rapture. Paul was wrong, and their change of behavior did not cause Jesus to return.
Jesus proclaims the good news: the nearness, the at-hand-ness, of the Kingdom of God. And while it seems that Jesus asks the people to repent, just like Jonah and Paul, he actually asks them to do something different. The word translated as “repent” is the Greek word “metanoia”, which literally means to go above mind, beyond mind, change the mind. It is not so much asking us to confess our wrongdoings, but to see and know differently. It’s an invitation to leave the dualistic mind behind, and move into the contemplative mind, which sees things in a whole way rather than an either/or way. Jesus asks us to go beyond mind, because the kingdom of God is not something we understand with our mind. We only understand it with the heart. Because we live in it, not just believe it is true and assent to it. The Kingdom of God is not coming because we get our act together, it is always and already here, we are invited to see it, recognize its reality, and live according to its principles.
We have this thing coming up called Lent. A period of “repentance.” But it’s not what we think. But then again, it is. What we think, how we think, how we see the world, makes a huge difference. It is a figure/ground shift of consciousness. It is what we call a contemplative mind. This kind of mind does not analyze, separate, objectify, and categorize. This kind of mind actively waits to receive what is there to be seen. We can see this in Jesus’ words: if you have eyes to see let them see, if you have ears to hear let them hear. Rather than us figuring it all out, we become open to receive a sense of the whole of life, and it comes as gift. We are shown. It dawns on us, it is an awakening. It is very akin to Jacob waking from his dream and saying, “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!” And I would add, not just in this place, but in all places, in all of creation, in every soul. Or, let’s hear how the Apostle Paul puts it: “God is the one in whom we live, move, and have our being.” Do we see what he’s saying? We are not ever separate from God. We are in God. So is all creation.
Marcus Borg, the recently deceased theologian, in his book “The Heart of Christianity”, offers us an example of what it means go beyond our dualistic mind, and – if you will – enter the mind of Christ. He talks about faith as Visio, as a way of seeing the whole, a way of seeing what is. And how we see the whole will affect how we respond to life. Borg says there are three ways we can see the whole, and each way affects how we respond to and experience life.
The first way of seeing the whole is as hostile and threatening. War, terrorists, disease, violence,
unemployment, poverty, accidents, and the inevitability of death for all of us – life can look quite threatening. If we see the whole of life this way, we will respond defensively. We will focus on security, defense systems, self-protection. Even religion call fall into this way of seeing. God is out to destroy us unless we behave right, make the right sacrifices, believe the right way. Jonah might have seen the whole this way a little bit.
The second way of seeing the whole is as indifferent to us. It’s not against us, but it’s not for us. It’s just random, chaotic, no purpose or meaning. This will not cause the type of paranoia of the first way, but we will tend to fall into caring only for ourselves and those like us, and defend ourselves against an uncaring and indifferent universe.
The third way of seeing the whole, Borg suggests, is as life-giving and nourishing. It has brought us and everything that is into existence. It sustains our lives. It is filled with wonder and beauty, even if sometimes a terrible beauty. This is seeing reality as gracious. It is the way Jesus spoke about the realm of God’s love. God feeds the birds of the air, clothes lilies of the field, and sends rain upon the just and unjust. God, the source of life, is generous. This way of seeing leads to a different response to life: one of radical trust. It frees us from anxiety, self-preoccupation, and defensiveness, and leads to the ability to love and to be present to the moment, present to life as it is. It generates a willingness to spend and be spent for the sake of the vision that goes beyond ourselves. It leads to the life we see in Jesus; it leads to a life marked by freedom, joy, peace, and love – the fruits of the Spirit.
When Jesus invites us to go beyond our mind, beyond the usual dualistic trap of either/or, it’s like having something in your head that you can’t get out of your head. So you try not to think about it, and you say to yourself, don’t think about it. But of course that just makes you think about it. Let me give you an example. If I told you not to think about, something random, like, I don’t know, maybe a “moist doughnut hole.” Just by saying “moist doughnut hole” your mind has already created an image of it, and the words “moist doughnut hole” are now being repeated in your mind, and suddenly you find you cannot not think about it, even if you try not to think about it! The tendency is to spend energy on not trying to think about it instead of thinking something entirely new and different.
In seminary I ran into my own struggle with repentance. I was raised in the Church of God, headquartered in Anderson, IN 46012, and they emphasized the human response to God. So I grew up subjected to altar calls on Sunday morning and Sunday night services. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “I Surrender All” or “Just As I Am” and I can’t tell you how many times I felt like such a sinner and went to kneel at the altar to repent of my sins and finally get it right. I was saved 30-40 times! At seminary I realized that I was trapped in a cathartic cycle of repentance. After I confessed my sins, asked God into my life even deeper, and promised I would try even harder to obey and love, I would soon find myself sullen and feeling guilty, and I’d reach a point of crisis, and would go through another cathartic experience of feeling like such a sinner, repenting with all my heart, and receiving God’s forgiveness again. But at seminary, I learned the Reformed tradition emphasized God’s unmerited grace. And it hit me one day what that meant, and what that felt like.
Let me demonstrate. This is how I used to think about who I was and who God was. I was at heart a sinner, and God loved me because that’s what God had to do, but he loved me like this: God hugs me with one hand, but with the other hand God is plugging his nose in disgust. But suddenly I saw it, experienced it, differently. A huge hug with no reservations! I realized I could repent all I wanted and it wouldn’t change anything because I was still seeing in an old, untrue way. Having an experience of unmerited Grace, of being loved, of being love, was going beyond my mind. I saw things in a new way, and the cathartic cycle ended right there. I saw. I knew, not so much in my mind, but in my heart.
I do hope, in this upcoming season of Lent, that you do repent. That you seek forgiveness for speaking ill of your relatives or neighbors, for treating others with disdain, for money laundering and fraud and arson and bigotry and trafficking in illegal contraband, and lusting after moist doughnut holes! But repentance is not enough. It doesn’t change us. We are invited to go beyond our minds, the dualistic way of seeing, and embrace the whole of the kingdom of God, and we will see in a new way. We will know we are not separate beings but one with all, know we are connected to the vine that is Christ, that we are all made of and by Love and will return to love. This reveals the kingdom of God to be right here in our midst, because it is who we all are. This we will know not only here, but here, in our hearts.