Repentance and Transformation

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.

Colossians 2: 6-8

These days the term “transformation” is strikingly ubiquitous. We hear of the need to transform our structures, of the need for “transformational” leadership, of the need for each person to be transformed. Today we are reminded by the author of Colossians that the transformation of humanity and of the world has occurred by the action of God in the coming of Jesus Christ. To the degree that we live our “lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith” as we were taught, “and overflowing with thankfulness” we are transformed. Hearing this injunction to “continue to live . . . [our] lives in him” must, however, give us pause. For all of our good-hearted efforts, we never really “succeed” in living our lives in Christ, in being fully rooted and built up in him.

In our own lives as in our world, we who are Christian believers live a powerful and painful paradox. God has transformed us and our world in Jesus, but to us things look pretty much the same as they always have. Chesterton has famously said that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and not tried.” I think we all understand what Chesterton is saying, as our lives are always an experience of trying and not trying, of really working hard at times of attempting to live our lives in Christ according to our lights and then of  forgetting to do so in the face of the more “urgent” demands of the world. We are forever experiencing the limits of our efforts, and so, consciously or not, we then cease trying and let the impulses and pulsations of the world and our own unconscious carry us along.

While undoubtedly true, the insight of Chesterton has always felt to me a bit problematic in its implication that the “end” of Christianity could be reached if we only tried harder. We could somehow transform ourselves and the world if our efforts were only stronger and more consistent. Yet, our difficulty in realizing the reality of Christ in the world and in our own lives is not merely one of insufficient effort. It is rather a matter of our very human being, and of our divided consciousness.

In the third chapter of Colossians (3:3) we read:  “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” The problem with recognizing and realizing the life in Christ that we are is that our work to do so not only draws us closer to that life but invariably also distances us from it. The Fundamental Principles remind us that in the course of our lives we shall come increasingly to discover the truth spoken by the Prophet Isaiah. “At times you will discover/ that God’s ways are not your ways,/ and God’s thoughts are not your thoughts.” Often, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts because God’s ends are not our ends. When we feel most assured of ourselves and our efforts is the very place we may find ourselves not living our lives in Christ.

I am often drawn back in memory to the highly confrontational scene from the Elia Kazan film On the Waterfront. In it Terry, played by Marlon Brando, is speaking with his brother Charley, played by Rod Steiger. Terry famously says to him: “You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Charley.” We all have a burning desire to be somebody. It is rare that our work is not, at least in good part, motivated by our desire to make “our” mark in the world. This self that is attempting to prove its worth, to be recognized and successful, is always “in the way” of our hidden life.

In a recent interchange a confrere posed the question of why, as we considered the call of the Congregation to transformation, we were not dwelling more on our many successes. He asked why we were spending so much time on the negative experiences when we had many accomplishments of which to be proud. The reason is actually described in the Magnificat. “God gives the hungry good things and sends the rich away empty. God casts down the mighty from their thrones and raises up the lowly.” The life that is hidden with Christ in God is a life that is an openness born of its need for God. It is not a servant of the poor; it is the poor. As Soren Kierkegaard puts it: “The sinner repents himself back into himself.” The Risen Jesus in whom we live, as the historical Jesus, comes “not to save the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)

The transformation, then, that is a living out of our life in Christ is not so much a matter of our ambitions, even to be good and to be faithful or holy, but rather a profound change of consciousness. We begin to turn our gaze not primarily on ourselves as the center of the universe, but rather to see ourselves as the small participant in creation that we are. We enter into our daily tasks and duties, as rightfully important as they are to us, with the transformed view of their relatively small place in the unfolding of creation. The place is not insignificant. The drop of water, the mustard seed, the leaven in the dough, the mite of the widow, when it is all we have to give, can have a powerful hidden effect. There is no need to become “somebody” in the eyes of the world. In fact, we are called to die to that ambition, so that the hidden life of Christ in us might become manifest.

At the core of the spirituality of Jan van Ruusbroec is the summons to become ordinary that we might know our common place with others. Becoming ordinary is to come to be the one that God created us to be. The closer we come to that, the more we realize that we are unique, but with a uniqueness we hold “in common” with all others. This is the contrary to what our usual consciousness and the world value. There, we think we have to be “somebody” rather than the “bum” we can self-depreciatingly feel ourselves to be. In the scriptures we see that it is the nobodies that God makes somebody, through whom God’s work is done. It is as we decrease in our need to be “somebody” that the life of Jesus in us increases.

Anyone I have hurt along the way in my life has been the victim of my attempt to be “somebody” that I thought I wanted and needed to be. It was at those moments when I forgot my place that I became dangerous to others. The good news is that when we realize our propensity to become bigger than we are, then we begin to repent ourselves back into ourselves. When we come back into ourselves in that way, we make the most marvelous and joyous discovery, that our true life is hidden here in our true place with Christ in God. In what seems so paradoxical to us, transformation is the gift waiting to be given to us by God when we forsake what is false and prideful and come back to ourselves in all that is ordinary and common about us.

To Lutheran ways of thinking the self-satisfaction and general contentment to which our works are liable to incline us hides from us our need for God. Even our conception of God will, in our quest for independence, be used to serve our own ends. Reason is but another form of pride; it blinds us to the God revealed in Christ. It is alone the recognition of our neediness that opens us up to hearing the gospel. The gospel speaks to whom? To the self-assured? No: to the one who is heavy-laden. The attempt to be good of our own account must always fail. In Kierkegaardian language, it is only as the “ethical” person falls down before his or her own eyes that he or she is able to hear the gospel message that God accepts sinners. As he will put it, the sinner “repents himself back into himself” until he finds himself in God.

Daphne Hampson, Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique, pp. 23-4

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