Posts Tagged ‘repentance’

Sheep Having No Shepherd: a sermon

February 28, 2018

But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd. – Matthew 9:36, King James Version

I don’t usually wake up in panic. I did last Wednesday, having the idea that it was already Tuesday, March 6th, and I’d completely forgotten that I was supposed to come to Friends Fellowship Community on March 4th to lead worship. – What? it’s still February? . . . then I’m safe! Within a few minutes I was wondering why I might have dreamed that dream, about forgetting an obligation, letting a lot of people down, and going in a split-second from a normal state of mind to a horrified one. And then I thought: . . . They’ve all lived a long time. They’ll understand. And so I knew what it was I’d talk about today: that helpless feeling of being a sheep without a shepherd.

Actually, the whole world knows that feeling. It’s the feeling of the child separated from her mother in a strange city, the feeling of the flood victim, the refugee, and every person dying. Jesus came to be our Shepherd at such times of helplessness, and if we accept Him then, we’ll be shown that He’s available to guide and protect us at all times: both when we’re feeling strong and happy, and also when we’re feeling sick and confused and weak. Now when I say this, I’m not saying you have to have a certain type of belief about Jesus of Nazareth. It’s not about theology. It’s about crying out in times of desperate need, “Creator, if You exist, hear me and help me!” And about surrendering yourself, asking God’s forgiveness for all the selfish things you’ve said and done, and being willing to be given a new heart, a loving heart, in place of the old, selfish one.

And then you may come to realize that the Ancient Maker of quintillions of suns and planets has listened to you, tiny as you are, and answered you in love. God knows what it’s like to be human like you, because He lives in you and knows your every thought, and He has a way for you to go forward. Always.

Now what does Jesus have to do with all this? As I understand it, Jesus, the Man, experienced oneness with God, and having lived and walked in that oneness, has an eternal existence, as Christ, in which He can help other humans grow toward, and into, that same oneness. The apostle Paul describes Him as the head of a great human Organism, the body of Christ, of which we can function as members (hands, eyes, feet, voice) – if we can put aside living for self and live, instead, for the good of the whole creation. The Head of the body, the Shepherd of the sheep, the Vine from which we branches draw life – Scripture is full of metaphors for Jesus Christ’s relationship to us, His willing followers. Drawn into His life and enjoying the peace of clean consciences, we no longer have meaningless moments, no matter how empty, idle or fruitless they may look from outside, for we are participants in His life, as something inside us always knows.

I’m thinking, for example, of Jesus’ long walk to the cross, commemorated each year during Lent: up the long ascent from Jericho, into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, into the Garden where He was taken into custody by men whose fear-driven hearts were closed to His truth. Two crucifixion stories (Matt 27:51, Mark 15:38) tell of His crying out to God, “Why have You forsaken me?” before dying. But had God really forsaken Him? Were His six hours on the cross meaningless, did He die a failure? Did He and His way of loving enemies and forgiving His persecutors lose, while Caesar’s way of crushing all resistance to a cruel Empire won? Let your own heart tell you the answer. All glory be to Him, and to God His Father, and to the Holy Spirit which teaches our hearts the truth. Amen.

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A Christmastime Reflection

December 21, 2017

The story of Jesus begins and ends with forgiveness: Mark’s gospel begins with John the Baptist’s “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Luke’s ends with Christ’s parting words “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). Christ’s commission to Paul is to open the eyes of the Gentiles “so that they may turn from darkness to light… [and] receive forgiveness of sins” (Acts 26:18).We humans need forgiveness of sins terribly, not just of the “sins” that can be named and counted, but forgiveness and healing of anything that causes self-loathing in us and sends us looking for a scapegoat, because until then our self-unforgiveness and unforgiveness of others – however masked by denial – are toxic and infectious and keep the world mired in evil, false solutions, and consequent despair. Without real repentance and forgiveness, I believe, social and political action are but a band-aid, and religious programs off the mark; but with repentance and forgiveness, one finds the Pearl of Great Price and can help all come to repentance, which I believe is God’s own desire (2 Pet 3:9).

But cheap repentance and cheap forgiveness are dangerous counterfeits to be shunned. If one looks deeply enough into oneself, one may find an “I” so damaged by being sinned against (especially while the “I” was forming) that it cannot truly say either “I forgive” or “I repent.” Or a guilty soul may find such an overwhelming fear of exposure that self-confrontation is blocked and guilt must go unacknowledged. In such cases the only cure may be God’s intervention. One must invite and welcome it as best one can, however frightening or painful it may prove to be. It may help to reflect that it will probably be no more painful to ourselves than the pain suffered by the One who bore our sins on the Cross. He lives, and is will lend courage and endurance to any who lack it, I believe, as generously as He has lent them to me.

Welcome, Christ, through whom, in whom, and as whom only, I believe, can we recovering sinners discover how infinitely we are loved by our Creator. Amen.

Instructions from the Risen Christ

April 20, 2015

A sermon delivered to Manhattan Monthly Meeting on First Day, 4/19/2015

Friends, – Jesus had a lot to say to fallen, suffering humanity during His years of ministry, but, judging from the gospel records, very little to say during the short period between His resurrection and His ascension (traditionally forty days, though the number forty may have been picked more for its mythic associations than its historical accuracy). “Hereafter I will not talk much with you,” Jesus had said in the final minutes before His arrest (John 14:30), preparing His disciples for a future in which the Holy Spirit would provide the guidance they’d been looking to Him for up till then. – And then, less than twenty-four hours later, He’d said tetélestai, “It is finished,” and died on the cross (John 19:30). And that finished His conversation with them, His teaching, His ministry, His sacrifice, His work on earth. – Almost.

This morning I invite you to join me in unpacking the remainder of that “almost,” – that is, the teachings He gave us after His resurrection from the dead. Now, the written record is sketchy. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John disagree about what happened next: in John, Mary Magdalene meets Jesus outside the tomb, and He forbids her to touch Him; in Matthew, two women encounter the risen Christ, – and touch His feet. Mark and Luke mention no encounter with Christ by the empty sepulcher, but rather with one or two men in dazzlingly white clothing (one in Mark, two in Luke). But all agree that the first witnesses were women, or a woman, who came at dawn and found the stone rolled away from the mouth of an empty grave.

And then what? – Mark and Luke tell the story of an Easter-afternoon encounter on the road to Emmaus, with a nighttime sequel among the disciples in a room in Jerusalem. John mentions two meetings with the disciples, one with Thomas absent and the second with him present. Matthew mentions no meeting with the disciples in Jerusalem, but rather one that takes place on a mountain in Galilee. John also has Jesus arrange a final breakfast with the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. In all these encounters it seems as if no one recognizes Jesus until He wills it. He also enters rooms with locked doors without passing through them. He also… vanishes.

Paul, writing to the Corinthians, also tells of the Risen Lord’s meetings with His brother James, with five hundred brethren, and with Paul himself (1 Cor. 15:5-8). A Gospel to the Hebrews, known to the Church Fathers but now lost except for a fragment, also mentions an Easter-morning breaking of bread with James. Now what happened in all these encounters? What did Jesus have to say that He hadn’t said already, or couldn’t have said before rising from the dead? And – is there a common theme or central point to it?

Here are the essentials I’ve gleaned from the records that we have:

1. I am really alive among you, in a physical flesh-and-bones body that can eat, drink, and be touched.

2. Thus was it foretold, that the Messiah should suffer, die, and be raised again (Luke 24:35-37, 44-47).

3. All authority in heaven and on earth has now been given to me (Matthew 28:18), and I am with you always, even unto the end of the world (Matthew 28:20b).

4. Now “receive Holy Breath from me” (John 20:22), and “stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49b). In other words, an anointing of some sort is needed before you are ready to go out as disciples. (The Gospel of John says that Jesus “breathed on them,” but the original Greek says that He “blew into them” as a flute-player blows into a flute, using the verb from which we get our word “emphysema,” so He may have given them mouth-to-mouth artificial respiration, one by one.)

5. Thorough changes of heart and mind (metanoia) have now been made possible, a virtual rebirth that enables the discarding of sin (áphesis hamartiōn), which no longer clings to the sinner as it once did. This good and liberating news must now be announced to every nation (Luke 24:47).

6. You disciples must also feed My sheep (John 21:15-17), that is, live no longer for yourselves, but to tend lovingly to the people I send to you, and build community. I will equip you for your several missions with facility with new languages, immunity to snakebite and poisons, and the power of healing touch (Mark 16:17-18).

7. Peace be with you! I now send you forth, as my Father sent Me forth (John 20:19-21). Make disciples among all nations (Matt. 28:19), washing them clean in the power of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all the things that I have commanded (Mark 16:15).

Now to me, some of these parts of Jesus’ post-resurrection message have the look of the central teaching, and others, the look of a frame around the central teaching. As part of the “frame” I’d include the presentation of His credentials: He was and is the Messiah, He really died, He really is alive now, and He has authority over everything, forever. Also part of the frame would be His commission to spread His gospel, His anointing breath and charismatic empowerments, and His instruction to feed the sheep.

But what is this gospel, the central teaching in the middle?

It is, in a word, salvation. It’s the sin-eliminating metanoia, the “repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18), the birth of the new creature in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17, Gal. 6:15) within the shell of the old personality, the transformation made possible for all humankind, both before and after Jesus’ walk on earth, by the death and resurrection of its Savior Jesus.

Transformation, metamorphosis: we morph, and we do it merely by facing that Holy One, name Him however we will, and by letting Him reshape us into something more like Himself (2 Cor. 3:18). This transformation, this “morphing,” frees us from addictions to sin, frees us from our defenses against being aware that we’re addicts to sin, one of which is our habit of seeing faults in others that we can’t admit to having in ourselves, and frees us from identifying ourselves with our sins and so walking around in perpetual shame, guilt, and uneasy denial, over all the vile things we’ve ever said or thought or done.

Repentance, rightly understood, disconnects us from sin so that it falls away from us. This falling away, or removal of sins, áphesis hamartiōn, often translated “forgiveness of sins,” is something that we can feel – not when we die and go to heaven, but right here. Jesus confirmed that the prostitute that crashed the banquet and washed His feet with her tears was someone who’d felt her sins forgiven, and that’s why she acted so wildly generous and loving (Luke 7:36-50). It’s not something we can fake by glibly declaring ourselves sinless, and neither is it something we can get without first forgiving everyone else their sins against us (Matt. 6:15). Neither is it a blessing that God reserves only for His special darlings, for we are told in 2 Peter 3:9 that the Lord is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (You want it for yourself? Help everybody get it!)

We come to the heart of the matter when we ask what the connection is between repentance and salvation. Briefly, there is no salvation without repentance. Salvation, sōtēría, means “safety” or “making safe.” In our unchanged, unrepentant state we are not safe, we are in bondage where we can be jerked around by our chains. If you doubt that, think of how quickly anger can jerk you into a state of temporary insanity, where you suddenly become sure that you’re in the right and the other person is in the wrong, and not only that, you must immediately correct that wrong person by hurting or humiliating him. As we are in bondage to anger, so are we in bondage to fear, pain, hunger, thirst, and erotic attraction. But Christ will free us from bondage to these things for the asking, if we’ll only cooperate with His efforts to strengthen us against the temptations these things hold over us.

If we’ve experienced this transformation of repentance, or even started to feel it, let’s do all we can to share the glorious fruit of it. It is wonderful to feel bondage to sin gone from our lives! If we haven’t yet, then let’s pray to receive it, and do all we can to get the obstacles out of the way, for ourselves and for others! – for most people in bondage can’t feel how horrible it is until they’ve been freed. Salvation has been won for us, and the Lord Jesus Christ, now risen, holds it out to us as a free gift. All we have to do is say “yes,” reach for it, and accept it.

What Quakers Believe about… Repentance and Remission of Sins

September 20, 2014

And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. – Luke 24:47 (AV)

What Quakers believe about anything is, for better or for worse, conditioned by what they’ll allow themselves to believe. Those of little faith may believe some of what they read in the newspaper, some of the time, while those of great faith may be working major “signs and wonders” to the glory of God. One thing Friends tend to agree on, though, is that we ought to speak from personal experience, and be able to answer affirmatively to the query, “Is it inwardly from God?” If it’s simply an opinion – early Friend George Fox wrote, “We own not opinions.” What follows, I believe, is inwardly from God.

According to the author of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus left his followers with a commission to preach, that is, to announce the availability of, a changed state of mind (metanoia or “repentance”) that would allow one to know oneself to be sinless: in other words, that one’s previously acknowledged sins had been dismissed, forgiven, and declared null and void. The original Greek reads metanoia eis aphesin hamartiōn, literally “repentance into remission of sins, so we know that Jesus didn’t intend us to think that “repentance” and “remission of sins” were two separate and independent gifts, but one thing that led directly into the other.

And yes, they are gifts: repentance isn’t something we can achieve by ourselves, any more than we can lift ourselves by our own bootstraps. As the first generation of Christians recognized (Acts 11:18), it comes to us as a gift from outside ourselves, or not at all. Otherwise there’d be a huge industry peddling repentance like a drug, and how-to-forgive-yourself books would be on every combat veteran’s Kindle. Churches would be fitness centers of the soul, where moms and dads would put in a half hour on the treadmill after work to sweat out the day’s lies, white-collar crimes and adulterous fantasies, then go home to the kids fresh as a daisy. Of course there are preachers who’ll exhort you to repent as if you could do it at will: but I, who had to “repent” of smoking seven times before I could stay quit, can tell them otherwise: it was granted me to quit smoking.

How would we know that we ourselves, or another person, are in a genuine state of repentance and not in a mere mood or delusion? For there are people that do dreadful things without feeling the least bit sinful about them; we call them psychopaths. But “by their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:16-20). Jesus, in Luke 7:36-50, shows us the signs of a person who knows she’s been forgiven all her sins – she’s exuberant, loving, and generous, even to the point of letting herself look a little foolish: she weeps in public, she kisses Jesus’ feet. It’s a kind of behavior not easily counterfeited.

Moreover, repentant people who’ve experienced remission of sins should be able to describe how they know their sins were remitted. Since George Fox’s day, Quakers have been in the habit of asking claimants to religious truth, “What canst thou say?” I could answer you, for example, that I was sitting in meeting one day, obsessively berating myself for some past foolishness, when I heard an authoritative Voice in my mind say, “That sin is forgiven: put it away!” During another Quaker meeting I heard that Voice say “I will not let you fall into sin.” And there were other experiences, so that today I feel still temptable, but powerfully protected, and discouraged from worrying. But ask for your own convincing experience!

Luke records that remission of sins is to be preached in Jesus’ name, and it’s a fact that among North American Quakers today, some preach in Jesus’ name and some do not. Some might argue that, before Jesus’ time, the Buddha also taught a way to sinlessness that erases the karma and vāsanās of sin: of whether this way works I confess my ignorance, not having followed that path. I preach repentance and remission of sins in Jesus’ name for these reasons:

1. I’ve felt myself given “a mouth, and wisdom” (Luke 21:15) to do so by the Lord Jesus Himself, who has made me a member of Christ. In this work “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20). This is a condition available to everyone, though it requires a kind of voluntary dying to one’s old ways.

2. Only in the ministry of Jesus, for the first time in known history, do we find an instruction to forgive everyone everything, modeled perfectly for us by the Teacher’s own behavior, coupled with a declaration that God our Creator is of the same all-forgiving spirit. It is extremely important for men and women to know this about God. But to know this about God, we must practice that all-forgiving spirit ourselves, and ask God’s help with it.

One thing Quakers are rightly known for is their truthfulness, and I would be less than truthful if I claimed or even implied that what I’ve written here is typical of contemporary Quaker thought. But I do hope to help make it so.

Stopping Climate Change Will Take a Change of Heart

August 22, 2014

You and I know that these could be our last years on earth, and our children’s too. We’ve known since the 1970s that our greenhouse gas production is driving climate change. The nightmare sequels, we now know, may include global famine from cropland desertification and collapse of the marine food chain as CO2 sours the seas. To their credit, many men and women of good will are responding by innovating, protesting, going off-grid and eating more simply. Protest actions against a major coal-fired power plant have led to plans for its closure. But the mitigations put in place have consistently seemed too little, too late, and profiteers, enabled by an “anything goes” culture that cares little about truth-telling, are still generating PR claims that natural gas and plutonium are “green,” and elected officials are buying it. Global demand for an ever-higher standard of living, along with capital’s need to milk that demand for ever-higher levels of corporate profit and power, still trump any sustained and coordinated effort to intervene for the common good. Can a People’s Climate March hope to change this? Can any raising of voices or massing of numbers?

A man-made doomsday

How shall we name the situation? There are too many people on the planet saying Me first, or groups of people saying Us first. We’re choking on human selfishness. What’s looming ahead of us is a man-made doomsday attributable entirely to human greed, lying, willed inattention – let’s call it by its right name: human evil. And it’s not just the evil of bankers, fossil-fuel CEOs, and their hirelings in government that we’re looking at, but a spiritual sickness we all share: for we all try to tilt reality in our own favor, sometimes hiding the truth to protect our own skin, often turning a blind eye to the suffering of others. If we stand on moral ground no higher than the “culprits” of climate change, dare we hope to change their ways?

Another way of seeing the situation

But this scenario is built around fear, and the expectation of scarcity and death.

Scarcity and death are not God’s will for us, as the witness of God in your own heart will tell you if you will listen for it. The scriptural testimonies of humans who have known the heart of our Creator confirm this: in Isaiah 45:18, God declares that God created the world “not in vain, but to be inhabited.” The apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon makes the amazing assertion that God “did not create death, but the ungodly, with their hands and their words, drew death to them” (Wisdom 1:13-16), and the prophet Ezekiel records God as saying, “I have no pleasure in the death of him that dies” (Ez. 18:32, 33:11). In the Sermon of the Good Shepherd, Jesus declares, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10), contrasting His role with that of the sheep-rustler whose work is only to destroy. Jesus taught that it was God’s will not to judge and condemn, but only to forgive and heal, and Jesus modeled this divine love by laying down His life for souls gone astray, forgiving even His own murderers. How perfectly or imperfectly the Jesus of scripture reflects the actual character of the God who gave you life and consciousness, again, is something you can ask the witness of God in your own heart. Expect an answer.

The climate crisis will not be overcome by forcing or persuading the “sheep-rustlers” to stop destroying the environment. Neither is there any good done by punishing, condemning or scapegoating them, not even in your fantasies, for “with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged” (Matt. 7:2), and Jesus also taught that refusal to forgive our enemies keeps us unable to receive God’s forgiveness (Matt. 6:14-15).

Forgive and be forgiven

But there is a larger point to be made about forgiveness: it is the revolutionary principle that can change the world. It is the only revolutionary principle that can change the world. The social, economic and political world that is now cooking itself with greenhouse gases is one that runs on the principle of scapegoating: that is, morally imperfect persons with injured consciences (that’s all of us) seek the healing of their injured consciences by imputing evil to other people and then, to the best of their ability, driving those others out of society. This is the origin of war, slavery, the subjugation of women and countless other evils. Like an addictive drug, scapegoating numbs the pangs of conscience, but does not heal the injury. But extending universal forgiveness does, and the empowerment that comes with being healed and receiving divine forgiveness knows no limits.

Let us try, then, what love can do. Forgiveness is an act of will, not a matter of having the right feelings; anyone can do it. It does not require reconciliation with people who have hurt us, and whom we would rather have nothing more to do with. It asks of us only that we make the effort to wish them the same eternal happiness we would wish for ourselves.

The People’s Climate March as a Call to Prayer

August 12, 2014

You and I know that these could be our last years on earth, and our children’s too. Scientists have been warning us since the 1970s that our greenhouse gas production is driving climate change, with nightmare downstream effects that may include global famine from desertification of the world’s croplands and collapse of the marine food chain from souring of the ocean by carbon dioxide. Species now go extinct in ominous numbers, raising fears that nature’s pollinators may vanish, killing off the bread of life. As melting ice caps raise sea levels, coastal cities and island nations will sink beneath the waves like Atlantis of legend. Experts tell us that radical mitigation is essential to our survival, but the mitigations put in place are consistently too little, too late; and this, evidently, because mass demand for an ever-higher standard of living, and capital’s drive to milk that demand for ever-higher levels of profit and corporate power, trump any sustained effort to intervene for the common good. In a word, we’re choking on human selfishness: too many people saying Me first.

There will be an end of the world, astronomers predict, four billion years from now, when the sun grows into a red-giant star that swallows its nearest planets. But unlike that more distant, quick end of the world from natural causes, what we’re looking at now is a slow, gradual human-made doomsday, attributable entirely to human evil. Evil? Yes: we could agree to end war, reduce our footprint, and see that everyone’s fed; but we do not. No, it won’t do to blame a power elite of bankers, arms manufacturers, oil-company CEOs and their hirelings in the government and the media for this: that’s called scapegoating, and unforgiveness, and projecting of our own shadow, and judging our brother for the speck we see in his eye. Those power-elite folks are like us. We tell lies. We connive for our own advantage. We turn a blind eye to the sufferings of others. And often we do it, barely aware, on behalf of our employer, our country, or any other body to which loyalties bind us: there it’s “Us first.” Together we all combine to maintain this scapegoating Me-first and Us-first culture out of which this selfish ravaging of the earth rises unchecked by care for the common good.

But we have an all-powerful and loving Creator we can appeal to. True, we’re not used to thinking of God as a real Changer of things, for the science we learned in school left little room for the divine to act in. But our theories about reality don’t limit God to being what we think God is.

What if God intends to save us from this human-made doomsday? But first, I think, we have a lesson to learn – the one our parents tried to teach us, about not being selfish.

Yes, I know: the situation asks more of us than we can do by our own efforts. This is why there’s this process called repentance. When we can no longer bear going on being the way we are, but lack the means of changing our ways, we ask for help, and miraculously, a Higher Power grants us that help. Repentance – the Biblical words for it nachom and metanoia could also be translated “change of heart” – is not something we do, but something we receive as a gift from God: a cosmic heart that can no longer play favorites. To fully receive it, we must forgive everyone everything. Only then do we remove the blockage we installed – yes, we installed it – that prevents our receiving the unconditional love, and guiding wisdom, that the Author of Unconditional Love wishes to give us. That love and wisdom can forge us into the human community we need to be in order to serve as healers of the earth. Nothing else can.

Let’s take the day of the People’s Climate March as an opportunity to worship our One God together, asking God to remove the hardness from our own hearts and the blindness from our eyes, and make new people of us. Only then can we hope to inspire such repentance in the policy-makers, both the known and the hidden ones, whose intransigence is now cooking the planet.

Hiroshima Day 2014

August 6, 2014

I awoke at 5 and knelt in the darkness to pray. I seemed to see God in the likeness of an old man in a white robe, seated on a featureless white surface, turned away from me. Wordlessly I begged Him not to hide His face from me. He turned it toward me and all the skin and hair had been burned off by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My people had done this to Him. Inasmuch as we’d done it to our neighbors in these two cities, we’d done it to our God, our Source and Refuge. And by “my people” I understood not “the people of the United States” but all the people with hearts and minds like mine, a whole world of revenge-takers, scapegoaters, finger-pointers, grudge-holders and preemptive-strikers: the fallen, in short: the fallen, fear-dominated and ignorant, the projectors of what they despise in themselves onto other people. And now these are also the guilty before God, who the more desperately want to disbelieve in God the more faces they’ve burned off their neighbors and their neighbors’ children in their unspeakable acts of war: they and their proxies in military uniform, they and their proxies in the seats of government, they and their proxies in “defense” industries, which since our initiating wars of choice can no longer be called that. Did I say “they?” I mean “we,” because I too have worn a military uniform, financed nuclear weapons, napalm and white phosphorus with my taxes, voted a wartime commander-in-chief into office, had my retirement funds grow unscreened, and, more to the point, wished cruel and humiliating deaths on others.
O my God! How can I repent deeply enough to help my people repent? Can a man washed clean walk among the defiled, imparting Your cleanness as he goes and not merely taking on his companions’ dirt? Can a soul put her heart altogether into Your holy heart but leave her face and feet among her fellow guilty? Can she be made pure enough to convince those around her that You are a God that forgives everything? Why are my eyes still dry on this day, and my bones not on fire, having seen Your face with the skin burned away?

Plan C: World Repentance

July 19, 2014

Contingency planning for the end of the world

All life on earth is now threatened by man-made global warming. And the holders of the world’s political and economic power, as a whole, seem powerless or unwilling to stop it. Celebrated thinker Lester R. Brown published Plan B: Rescuing a Planet in Distress and a Civilization in Trouble in 2003 (now revised as Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, 2009); but instead of listening to Brown and adopting a plausible Plan B, the world continues with its suicidal Plan A, business as usual. Earthcare activists struggle valiantly to open the ears of willfully deaf policymakers while modeling low-impact life-ways themselves, but little is said by anyone about what we might do in case all these interventions prove too little and too late. This writing is to open that conversation. This writing is to suggest a Plan C – which perhaps our Creator may have had in mind all along for just such an occasion as this, a gradually-dawning man-made doomsday.

Plan C is World Repentance. It seems reasonable. An escapist drunken orgy is not reasonable. Genocide of all but a privileged few is not reasonable, though many who think God loves only the privileged may hope that a Rapture-event will achieve the genocide for them. Darkening the skies with megatons of charcoal to cool the earth’s surface is not reasonable, and even if it were, it would relieve only one of many environmental disorders we’ve caused. Scapegoating of designated “destroyers of the earth” is not reasonable, though I fear it may be widely resorted to. The problem is that we’re all among the destroyers of the earth.

Repentance: it’s not a popular word today, possibly because it’s so often used by religious bullies who want to make other people “repent,” that is – in their understanding of the word – grovel. Or perhaps because it’s confused with beating ourselves up. God never asks us to beat ourselves up; it hurts God’s child, and anyway, it does no good. Repentance is, rather, a God-initiated healing process that leaves the person wiser, more loving, and at peace. In the Hebrew Bible, repentance appears in forms of the verb nāḥám, literally “to sigh;” in the New Testament, of the verb metanoéō, literally “to change one’s mind or purpose.” First we exhale completely, letting go of all agendas, all defenses; then we let our purpose be changed. With purpose changed, everything changes. That’s why some speak of “repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18).

Plan C will not be a program instituted by executive order or act of congress. The Pope, the Dalai Lama and a panel of Nobel laureates may come to endorse it, but it will not begin with them. It will begin in millions of contrite human hearts when the numbness of collective denial wears off. They will whisper words of contrition in hundreds of tongues, make prayers according to every world-view and religious tradition on earth, and perhaps weep and groan in the Holy Spirit. Not everyone will; the seer of the Apocalypse anticipated that some would “gnaw their tongues for pain, and blaspheme the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repent not of their deeds” (Revelation 16:10-11) – as some men and women do in every crisis that tries their conscience. But the more people that do repent of their wrongdoings, the easier they make it for their unrepentant neighbors to have the needed change of heart.

Plan C is not magic: it is not a technique to achieve a desired objective. Neither is it offered here as a remedy for fear: let’s face it, nightmares are scary. It’s simply offered as a right thing to do when we see that it’s too late to do all the other right things we might have done. We don’t know what God will do, and whether or not World Repentance would change God’s mind. (Can anything change God’s mind? The philosophers’ jury is still out on that one.) We can see that God didn’t let us suddenly destroy life on earth with nuclear weapons – at least, not yet – but God may still let us slowly destroy life on earth with our wasteful, overconsuming and selfish ways. Or, God may not! There is no second-guessing God.

Are you feeling a call to repentance? It can be followed from within whatever religious tradition you claim as your own. If you’re a Jew, repent as a Jew. If you’re a Muslim or a Hindu, repent as a Muslim or a Hindu. If you’re confused about what to believe, repent as a confused person. The point is to ask your Creator to show you how to repent, and empower you to do it. Maybe it’s not too late to save the earth after all, if the world’s leaders repent! But there will be no repentance of world leaders unless we world citizens take the initiative and go first.

Repentance, the Comforting Gospel, and the Dying Earth

July 11, 2014
A friend who read my recent posts encouraging repentance called them “terrifying.” I wrote back:
“I’m grateful to you for telling me that my writing was ‘terrifying,’ because I realize that my objective should not be to terrify but to comfort, and to inspire hope and trust in a God who wishes us no evil, no pain, but desires to rescue us from evil and pain. I heard a voice some years ago, which I believe to have been the Holy Spirit’s, telling me ‘comfort thou the ones that are still asleep.’ I take that as my commission: to be a comforter rather than a terrifier. But before I can comfort, I first need to know that the persons I’m talking to can admit that the world around us is sometimes terrifying. If they can’t, then the comforting conversation isn’t ready to start.
“I believe that we’re all God’s darlings. Really. God sees us the way God made us: innocent, beautiful, sweet, like newborn babies, like Adam and Eve before their Great Disobedience, making up clever names for the animals, eating blueberries right off the bush, and delighting in delighting each other. All the bad crap, guns and waterboarding and debt-slavery, is what we made for ourselves, individually and collectively. And not just the obviously man-made bad stuff, but sickness and danger and death itself also, with the hurricanes, tsunamis and epidemics that plague a fallen world. This is the bad dream we made for ourselves, because we’ve chosen ‘darkness’ over ‘light,’ as Jesus puts it in John 3:19, and we’ve come to prefer the sin-hiding darkness, because it seduces us with false promises of making us happier than the light can. This means that we’ve developed perverted tastes, which lock us into being invested in ignorance and a fallen world. Hence we need to repent of our perverted tastes and be healed of our addiction to what’s not good for us.
“Is it ugly, is it painful, is it disappointing? Then it’s not something God created for us, but something God allowed us to create for ourselves – because God did create us in His image: to be creators, with free will, which allows us to make mistakes. But God also created us to be capable of learning, repenting, outgrowing mistakes, choosing the good over the evil. I say all this just to make the point that God’s not to blame for anything unpleasant in our lives, and therefore, is not someone to fear, but to turn to and trust, crying for help!
“I believe that Jesus revealed the character of God for us, both by serving as one of God’s prophets and declaring God’s intentions, and also by modeling Godlike behavior: laying down his life for us, forgiving all his own betrayers and murderers even when his pain, and therefore his temptation to curse his enemies, must have been almost unbearable. But Jesus is not just a prophet of God and a model for good behavior who lived two thousand years ago and then disappeared from this world; He is a Present Friend. ‘I am with you always, even unto the end of the world,’ He said (Matthew 28:20). So when you say, ‘I could never be like Jesus,’ He’s there to answer, ‘Sure you can; I’ll help you.’ All you have to do is want it. I think that’s the Gospel in a nutshell. I think it’s a comforting Gospel, tidings of great joy to all people.”

Now repentance is a change of heart. It doesn’t make the thorns drop off roses as we pass by, or the cruel around us lose their cruelty. Life in this world still hurts, and we may even follow Jesus into martyrdom. But repentance allows certain things to happen: one is that we come to know, inwardly, that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:39), who is making all things work together for good for us (Romans 8:28; this removes all cause for grief). Another is that, with a change of heart we become a new creature, and the new creature no longer hates itself – what a burden falls away then, and what works of love start streaming from us! A third thing is that we unlearn our deep-seated old habit of deciding what to do on the basis of its expected payoff for me, because the new question becomes “Is this what God is asking of me now?” – which immunizes us against the temptation to reason, “Let us do evil, that good may come” (Romans 3:8). This was the reasoning that got us into this present nasty situation.

This brings me to consider our present nasty situation. In addition to our having a world so militarized, so tyrannized, and so polarized between rich and poor, we are also killing life on earth. Our consumption habits, the political and economic choices we make to support them, and the perverted tastes behind them, are all hurtling us forward toward doomsday. At first we thought that the rising titer of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would simply raise temperatures and shift comfort- and growing-zones toward the earth’s poles. Then we realized that many species would become extinct in the process; island nations and coastal cities would go underwater as the icecaps melted; increased carbon dioxide in the water would turn the seas too sour to allow shelled creatures to form shells, sending famine up the marine food chain. Our horror mounted as we saw that the melting of polar ice and arctic permafrost would not only change ocean salinity patterns, killing the Gulf Stream and other vehicles of life, but would also be releasing megatons of methane into the upper atmosphere, turning up the flame under the cooking planet.

We’ve realized that the way we do things is unsustainable and called for a Plan B, and sensible Plan B’s have been rolled out. But now it’s evident that the rulers of the earth, both the visible ones and the invisible, lack the will, motivation and flexibility to implement any sort of Plan B. Of course we’ll join the march to the United Nations on September 21 to insist on it, but no doubt the heads of state assembled there will only be able to wring their hands and point fingers at one another. Great numbers of voluntary communities of urban and rural homesteaders may go off-grid and grow their own vegetables as the crisis worsens,  but I can’t believe that anyone will prove competent to make a general, global Plan B happen. So we’ll need a Plan C.

The only Plan C I can imagine saving life on earth is widespread repentance, a world epidemic of repentance – not merely a change of behaviors, though surely outward changes will accompany inward metamorphosis (the replacement of agribusiness and frankencrops with technologies like permaculture, the Wal-Mart trams-Pacific supply chain with a localized transition economy, global capitalism with its yet-unnamed successor).  I look with hope toward the only God,  the only Savior, the only Transformer of Hearts, for the only Plan C that can save life on earth.

Again, will you repent?

June 22, 2014

This is a sequel to my  posting of yesterday, “Will you repent?” This time I won’t merely write a comment on another Friend’s blog posting, but dip my pen, so to speak, into my own heart. (If this figure of speech is found disturbing, it was meant to be.)

I read in the Philokalia, years ago, that there is no salvation without repentance. At once I felt the truth of the statement, for it had already been made clear to me that the God of All Consciousness willed my salvation into everlasting peace, but my sense of myself as a sinner kept me from peace. What names of self-condemnation had I not called myself! Liar. Thief. Cheater. Hypocrite. Impostor. Betrayer of trust. Coward. Selfish. Moral weakling. Sex criminal. Adulterer. Pervert. Addict. Cruel. Loveless. Bully. Persecutor. Racist. Anti-Semite. Would-be rapist and murderer. Failure. Fool. If that person were to stand in a Light of Truth that exposed everything, I couldn’t bear it. I must, therefore, continue to keep certain memories of things I’d thought, said and done hidden and, as much as possible, forgotten. And I must defend the secrecy of my secrets until, mercifully, they died with me and could hurt me no more.

This sense of tainted self, which I sense afflicts most people here on earth, predated  my belief in an all-seeing God. But a Light of Truth that exposed everything could exist, theoretically, in the basement of a police station, the brain-decoder lab of a mad scientist, or the anal-probe room of a UFO. So long as our master strategy is to keep the shame of our tainted self hidden, we must mostly hope that no Light of Truth catches up with us anywhere, and that an all-seeing God does not exist – or, if one does, that He, She or It has no interest in turning souls inside-out to expose their interiors. I wonder whether this would explain the appeal, not only of atheist materialism and moral relativism, but also of religions of cheap grace (forgiveness of sins without having to name them), and spiritual disciplines promising cheap liberation, with a guaranteed destruction of the karmāśaya that requires no looking inside it.  Collectively, we have an enormous investment in keeping the darkness dark.

I like to call this state of consciousness I’ve just described “fallen,” having personally experienced glimmerings of another state that is “unfallen.” The fallen state is one of fear. I’ve seen how all the vices, anger, lust, greed, pride, envy and so on, can be traced back to fear, including that peculiar one that causes projection and scapegoating of all that we can’t bear to acknowledge in ourselves. It’s not yet known to me, at this stage in my life, whether death, danger, pain and evil result from our choice to dwell in a fallen spiritual state, or are independent God-established facts of life that justify our fear; but faith tells me that we may know this on the day that God “wipes away all tears from our eyes” (Rev. 21:4).

A society of humans in a fallen state is, not surprisingly, often cruel to its deviants, its outsiders, its scapegoats, and it typically institutes systems of domination and oppression to maintain itself, with myths and ideologies to justify the inequities of those systems, and payoffs of privilege to anesthetize those who enjoy what others lack. War, slavery, child abuse, violent entertainment, substance addiction, extremes of wealth and poverty, loan-sharking, prostitution, organized crime, and idolatrous exaltation of vain or evil things as “good” are all common features of fallen culture, now as in ancient Babylon. To what extent a society of fallen humans can be made kinder, gentler, and fairer without addressing  the root problem of fallenness is one of the great experimental questions of our time. I’ve seen marvelous improvements in child-rearing and race-relations in my day, but also very ugly developments in the technology of  torture and killing. Antibiotics have done wonders with bacterial diseases, but, as I write, medical equipment is being used to force-feed prisoners held without criminal charges by a government that promised their speedy release years ago. I look out the window and still see a fallen world, and fallen people that have a crying, screaming need for salvation from it. (I happen also to believe in hell: an after-death state in which the inner torment of fallen souls continues, but without the disguises and cushions that this world affords. But it’s not necessary to believe in hell to believe in a universal human need for salvation, for this world is hell enough: ask the man who’s falling forty storeys from an overturned platform.)

Now back to Theoliptus of Philadelphia, who wrote that there is no salvation without repentance. How will we be restored from our fallen state without a great transformation in our consciousness? And how will we allow such a transformation without a massive letting-go of hates, fears, grudges, prejudices, false beliefs, and  idolatrous attachments to things that can never save us? That is repentance. And it’s not something that we can do in our own power, like saying a polite “I’m sorry.” It must come to us as a gift from elsewhere or it will not happen at all,  for it requires something that we don’t have yet. We know when we’ve gotten it; it makes us feel good. We know we’ve been washed clean of all those former things.  The sinner, even the chief of sinners, as Paul called himself (1 Tim. 1:15), is no longer in bondage to sin (John 8:31-36).

“When they heard these things, they…  glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life,” Acts 11:18. I’m now ready to speak about the God who grants repentance and salvation. What can I know about God? I’m less than a worm next to the Creator of one hundred trillion trillion stars. However, I believe that I’ve been spoken to by the voice of God, not many times, but enough. And I’ve been shown that the character of  the all-forgiving Jesus of Nazareth, my Savior and the world’s, mirrors the character of God: God is love (1 John 4:8, 4:16) and it is not the will of God that a single one of these little ones should perish (Matt. 18:14) or turn wicked and die in its sins (Ezekiel 33:11), but though its sins be as scarlet, they should be made white as snow (Isaiah 1:18), and that soul should have everlasting life (John 3:16) in which it experiences righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17). I believe that Jesus’ laying down His life for us made these gifts of repentance and salvation possible for us, though I don’t yet know how. But I expect to be taught, once I’m made capable of understanding it.

The reader will note that I quote the Bible a lot, and may wonder why I choose the passages that make God seem easy to love, and not, say, those more troubling ones that liken God to a man in a drunken rage (Psalm 78:65), have God hardening Pharaoh’s heart and then punishing him for it (Exodus 4:21 ff), or having people cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 19-21). My answer is that these sweeter scriptures have been “opened” to me, and those that make God look capricious or cruel have not. The sheep of the Good Shepherd know their Shepherd’s voice from the voices of the hireling, the sheep-rustler and the wolf (John 10:1-14), and I recognize my Shepherd’s voice in Biblical passages that glorify the mercy and lovingkindness of God. I can believe in a Christ Jesus who freely lays down His life for me (John 10:15-17). I can’t believe in a God the Father who demands the torture-death of his innocent Son as payment for our sins; it can only be a lie invented by fallen theologians. God who planted the moral sense in me must have a far higher one than I do (Psalm 94:9).

Now it’s written in that Bible, “With the merciful thou wilt shew thyself merciful… and with the froward thou wilt shew thyself unsavory” (2 Samuel 22:26-27, Psalm 18:26).  This suggests an important epistemological principle, that the unmerciful cannot experience God as merciful, not because of any sulkiness or wrathfulness on God’s part but because of a psychological incapacity in the unmerciful person that inevitably accompanies his refusal to show mercy. In that vein, Jesus notes “if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” We are not to blame the Father for this, any more than we’re to blame the sun for appearing red when the atmosphere is heavily polluted. It is my conviction that all scriptures that put a fierce face on God represent the faith of fierce prophets or the experience of fierce times. The sun often appears red, and threatens soon to turn redder.

This brings me to the present situation of humankind, and the danger our overconsumption now presents to all life on earth. We have been bad stewards over the creatures, and it’s because we’ve been unrepentant fallen stewards.  Today there are people of faith who wish to shame, or bully, the most powerful-seeming of the bad stewards into changing their behavior.  But fear-based and adversarial actions are not appropriate behavior for people of faith,  whose every act should reflect the goodness of the God or dharma that they represent and serve as an advertisement to the evildoer to change his ways and enter into such a path of faith himself.  Until the CEOs of the fossil-fuel companies and their financiers are brought to repentance and a living relationship with God, the true mission of the environmental movement will remain unaccomplished. Until the earth itself is recognized not as a multi-use farm and recreation area for mortal creatures but as a staging-area for a life with God in eternity, our uses of it will continue to defile it. We who pray that God grant all creatures of the earth their daily bread, trustful that our Best of Fathers will not trick us by giving us a stone instead (Matt. 7:9), have a prophet’s assurance that God intends the earth to be inhabited (Isaiah 45:18). Ask your heart whether or not this is a message of God to you, and if it is, spread trust that God will turn the threatened dying of the earth around. While you are in communion with your heart, ask it whether or not your repentance is yet complete and perfect, and if it is not, whisper to God, “yes, perfect it.” God will do the rest.