Can we repent our dullness?
I am in my seventh decade. I live alone. I have plenty of time now to do things there was no time for when I had a spouse, a family and a job. I have the luxury of retrospection. I read, no longer for my work, but for pleasure and learning. Sometimes what I read startles me into new ways of thinking; sometimes it re-affirms what I already believe to be the truth. At a conference recently I bought Celtic Parables, a small book of stories, poems and prayers collected by Robert Van de Weyer, a lover of parables and all things Irish. In his introduction, Van de Weyer says that “parables are a kind of universal spiritual language,” so here’s a parable/poem that spoke to me and wouldn’t leave me alone for days after I read it:
I have never done anything deserving much blame.
I have not lied or cheated; I have been faithful to my spouse.
I have given alms to the poor, and food to the hungry.
I have won the respect of all upright citizens.
I have never done anything deserving much praise.
I have made no sacrifices; I have always been comfortable.
I have used only surplus wealth to help the needy.
I have not stood up against injustice.
I envy the sinner who repents.
Can I repent my dullness? (35)
The first thing that strikes me about these simple verses is their brutally honest self-assessment. I recall the words of one of my neighbours when I was canvassing for the Cancer Society: “I’m not giving nothing to nobody!” What if those words describe my life, or the life of my church – what has it all been for? If I and my community of Christians have made no difference to speak of, what can we say for ourselves? What if, after 70 plus years of living, I have nothing to show that is worthy? Paralyzing questions, but necessary: self-awareness is essential for a well-lived life.
Frederick Buechner points out that the Bible asks crucial questions too: What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? What does a man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? Churchgoers have always been aware that spiritual self-assessment is important – that if we don't internalize the joy and passion of the gospel of Christ, our church lives will becomes monotonous and predictable, and at worst meaningless – an endless parade of potluck suppers, sanctuary improvements, and minor changes to the liturgy to keep everyone happy. We know all this, and say it, and yet we find change so difficult! Our zones are so comforting! Just don't ask the hard questions! Like the rich young ruler Jesus confronted, it’s easier to turn away.
I believe we get in a rut because often our self-knowledge is theoretical, academic; we put it on a shelf like an old textbook, and forget we own it. Then one day, something happens – a son tells us he is gay, for example – and the textbook of our self-knowledge falls off the shelf. Suddenly it’s as if all the words it contains are jumbled and then re-configured into new information, and we have our epiphany, as it were. Like the archetypal Adam and Eve, we are naked and vulnerable before the truth of things. What were merely words before have now become knowledge, and such knowledge carries with it the need for change.
Now I'm not suggesting for a moment that, like Rob Ford, we all need a “Jesus moment,” or like Paul, a road to Damascus blinding so that we can see what’s what. We may not even need the kind of scolding the church members in Laodicea got from God via John about being lukewarm and lifeless (Rev. 3:16). Still, in both Testaments, there are stories of epiphanies that brought about radical change and renewal in people’s lives. Job, for example, understanding for the first time that he would never understand God; and Peter, seeing the vision of a sheet full of unclean animals and realizing he had to be inclusive rather than exclusive in his preaching.
I'm suggesting that it’s good for our metaphorical textbook to fall off the shelf from time to time, and I would suggest further that we might be in such a time now. Several issues are confronting us as a denomination, issues that will require us to re-examine who we are as a church, and what we should be doing. To wit: Do we need a more precise reading of the older Testament in view of scientific findings? Are we failing our younger members, or is it a sign of the times that they are leaving? Should we allow LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Questioning) persons to be part of the full communion of our church? How can we arrive at more informed communication with our Muslim neighbours? Rather than crisis-inducing, these issues are a challenge to us: they prod us to be alive and courageous, and give us the opportunity for a thorough self-diagnosis.
It is to be hoped that our stock-taking will not result in the paralysis portrayed by the speaker in our Celtic parable. Can we repent our dullness?