Growing And The Gift Of Repentance
A few weeks ago, I saw a review of a new book by Merle Miller entitled Lyndon: An Oral Biography. What the author has done is to combine statements made by the former President himself, impressions of him from hundreds of folk who knew him intimately, plus some interpretive narrative of his own. In the opinion of this particular reviewer, the result is "a coherent, sensitive, fascinating biography." I was particular struck by a reference to something Johnson said in 1969—after he had left office—as he reflected back on his handling of the Vietnam crisis. He simply said: "I never felt I had the luxury of re-examining my basic assumptions. Once the decision to commit military force was made, all our energies were turned to vindicating that choice and finding a way somehow to make it work." And therein, of course, says the biographer, is the heart of that tragedy in a nut shell.
This is an old and very pervasive notion—that re-examining one's basic assumptions is a luxury that busy, active people cannot afford. "You can put off making up your mind," they say, "but you cannot put off making up your life." It is like paddling down a stream in a canoe—you can deliberate only so long about whether to pull in at a certain point on the bank. There comes a moment when you have to act, one way or the other, "cut bait" or else, and so it is with life. Does not the Good Book say: "He that putteth his hand to the plow and then looketh back is not fit for the Kingdom of God?"
The answer, of course, is that those words do come straight from the lips of Jesus, but he never meant for them to be used as Johnson used them. I am rather going to argue this morning that the whole thrust of Jesus' ministry was in precisely the opposite direction. Instead of regarding the reexamining of basic assumptions as a frivolous luxury, Jesus saw it as an absolute necessity; in fact, the way God meant for humankind to grow toward their fulfillment.
Just a few minutes ago, I read as our text for the morning those familiar words that Jesus used to inaugurate his public ministry. After the thirty years of silence and preparation in Nazareth, his baptism, and the experience of temptation, he appeared in Galilee and said: "The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, repent and believe the Gospel." Exactly what did Jesus mean to convey by this dramatic announcement? I see it as a joyous invitation to do the very thing Lyndon Johnson felt he could not do in relation to his Vietnam policy. What is repentance actually, if not the power to go back and reexamine old assumptions and where ever needful, to undo and redo and set out in a new direction? The word itself literally means "to turn," and what Jesus does here is to say that such reassessing is a positive and not a negative thing. I imagine that such an interpretation came as quite a shock to those who first heard it. They had come to associate the act of repentance with condemnation and reprisal. When they heard it, the image that came to mind was that of an angry God standing over against them, demanding that they "come clean" so as to receive the punishment they so richly deserved. Undoubtedly, it was this vision of things that gave rise to the notion that one simply cannot afford to reexamine old decisions. But one way of understanding the uniqueness of Jesus lies in seeing what he did with this one concept of repentance. From the very first day, he imaged it as something we have to fear or evade. He dared to suggest that repentance is a gift bequeathed to us by the Father, and if we could ever grasp this fact and get it internalized in our being, what happened to Lyndon Johnson in relation to an old decision would not have to be repeated again and again.
But we have a right to ask: "On what did Jesus base this revolutionary interpretation of repentance, that reexamining old decisions is something good and not bad?" I see it growing out of two perceptions, really; first, the kind of creatures we human beings are, and secondly, the kind of Creator who stands behind this whole process. Jesus recognized very clearly that process is the law that characterizes all of nature. "First the seed, then the blade, then the flower is how plants came to be, and first the sperm and egg, then the fetus and the infant and the child and the adolescent and adult is the human track. This means that nothing starts out complete in this world. Growth is the way that everything comes to its fulfillment and Jesus went on to affirm that since God is the Author of such a process, inchbyinch incremental growth is not just something God merely tolerates or permits; it is something He blesses and encourages. This means very practically that God does not expect us to achieve perfection at the beginning or even in the middle of our pilgrimage. The rightful place for perfection is at the end of the process, and it is reached, not by some automatic emergency, like riding an escalator effortlessly into perfection, but by trial and error, falling down and getting up again and again, "falling forward" as someone has described the process of letting our mistakes teach us something, as the far country taught the prodigal and enabled him "to come to himself." Rudolf Driekers has pointed out that in the beginning of life our power to observe develops faster than our power to interpret correctly. Precisely because we have so little experience to draw on, it is not surprising that often we come to mistaken conclusions about certain realities. For example, I still remember vividly the night my father's mother died, and we went over to find the whole family in the throes of intense grief. I was eight or nine at the time and I had never seen any of these adults cry or show such emotion, and
frankly I was frightened. In the course of the evening, I remember asking my very favorite aunt a simple question, and she literally bit my head off. She told me in no uncertain tone to leave her alone, and quit bothering her, and I was personally crushed. She had never treated me that way before, and in my childish way, I concluded she did not love me anymore and went off to weep like the others, but for a different reason. Here is a good example of a child being a keen observer but poor interpreter. What I was not old enough to realize was that her curtness had nothing to do with me or her feelings toward me, but had everything to do with the trauma of her own grief. However, it took me several months to unlearn and relearn the truth about that moment, and it never would have occurred if I had felt that reexamining old assumptions was not allowed or permitted. How else can our kind of creature ever move closer to the truth except by such a process? If I had allowed the conclusion I came to that night be unmodified by subsequent experience, the truth of how that one really felt about me would never have been perceived and a beautiful relationship marred forever.
Jesus then not only recognized the kind of creatures we are and how we come to our truth, but linked this with the fact that because God is our Creator, he understands this process of growth by trial and error and instead of being disdainful of it, literally blesses and encourages it. It is in this sense that repentance can be regarded as a gift and understood positively. I do not have to live into fearful defensiveness in relation to my past. God does not take what has been as seriously as I seem to. God sees it as a part and by no means the only part of life. There is also the present and the future, both open and dynamic and alive. I can learn things today that shed a whole new light on yesterday's conclusions, and this is precisely what I hear Jesus encouraging us to do in his call for us to repent and believe the Good News. He is affirming that God is more interested in growth than innocency, in how much we have learned from our mistakes rather than how many mistakes we have made. Is not that the crucial point in the way the father of the prodigal son responded to his return from the far country? He was more concerned about what the lad had gained in terms of selfunderstanding than about the money and time he had lost in coming to that wisdom. This is Jesus' preeminent image of God. God is not like an austere Puritan, presiding over life as if it were an old fashioned spelling bee; that is, one mistake and you are out. No, God is like that merciful father who was more interested in growth than in service, and could celebrate wisdom and not begrudge the price that had to be paid for its attainment. I still remember when I first encountered this merciful sort of patience. It was in the first grade, in the person of a sixty year old teacher named Miss Ethel Moxley. She did not expect us to know everything that first day, and in my case that was fortunate. My family has always kidded me about my initial reaction to school. This was back in 1936, before nursery school and kindergartens were so prevalent. I had never been in any structured classroom setting, and on the first day when registration was over, my mother said we could leave, I reputedly said in protest, "But I can't go yet. She aiWYn't learned me nothing." That perfection was not a precondition was obviously my great good fortune! However, my point is that I was amazed at Miss Moxley's patience and calmness with all of us. She was more interested in how much you learned than how many mistakes you made. I never remember being ridiculed for not getting something right the first time. She had a very gentle way of pointing out what was wrong and then giving you a chance to do it over. Learning from mistakes rather than not making mistakes was her emphasis. This helps give form and shape to what I hear Jesus saying in those beginning words: "The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel." Growth and not innocency is really God's main concern. Given who we are and given how reality is structured, He does not expect us to get it right the first time, which is why the way of repentance really is a positive gift, and not a negative experience to be evaded.
Let me be personal for a moment and say that the last three months of my life would not have been spent as they were if I had not heard and believed this word of Jesus. You as a church gave me a tremendous gift in this sabbatical study leave and I tried to be a good steward of it by not evading my past decisions, but going back and reexamining old assumptions in light of new experiences. This is how Daniel Levinson describes the midadult growth challenge—daring to see how good or bad a fit are old lifechoices to newly perceived realities. I will not say it was always easy or that the task is anywhere near done, but it was enormously helpful to me to reexamine old assumptions and decisions. One of the ways I want to show my gratitude is by coming back and bearing witness that repentance—the process of going back and reexamining old decisions is not only very crucial, given our kind of creaturehood—it is the gift of God. This is the way we were meant to grow. What we have been is not the measure of what we can be. We are only in chapters one and two of our life story. The rest can be different and better if we will only believe the Good News Jesus brought; namely, that repentance is not only allowed, it is encouraged by God.
How I wish Lyndon Johnson had known this back in the sixties—the whole shape of our nation and world might have been different had this been so. Another man in his position of national leadership did understand it. I am referring now to Mahatma Ghandi. One day a belligerent young man said to him: "You have no integrity! Last week I heard you say one thing. Today you are saying something different. How do you justify such vacillation?" To which Ghandi answered quietly: "It is simple, really, my son, I have learned something since last week!"
How much wiser this is than thinking that re-examining old assumptions is merely a luxury. It is not; it is an absolute necessity, but ever more than that, it is the gift of God that enables us to grow. Carlyle Marney was right: "It's too late to worry about innocency." That never was a possibility or ever the issue anyway. Becoming a responsible steward of our mistakes and growing from them, that is the challenge. Listen, we can repent, given the Good News of who God is.
What a shame to get all the way through this life and not learn that!
John R. Claypool