Thursday, December 13, 2007

Thoughts on repentance

"On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry ... " At the beginning of the week we were confronted again with that powerful scene of St. John the Baptist confronting the Pharisees and scribes, the "brood of vipers" for whom the ax is about to cut the root ...

What brings about repentance? I share below some thoughts from an email I wrote, correspondence between a seminarian friend and myself.

I always wonder: what brings about repentance? What actually causes change? How is someone predisposed to hearing the Good News? And what ways and methods work? I'm sure there are methods and ways suited to different times and places. For instance, one needs a bold and public proclamation of the Truth, especially in places that are resistant to hearing it, or where it has been distorted and twisted. Challenging the powers that be, and risking all, being willing to give all up, in the service of truth ... But there are other times -- and in dealing with other aspects of things -- that when all one has is a proclamation of this sort, without, as you rightly see, any love in it, we do a disservice to the truth. Real love, lived love, the love that actually is willing to suffer for the other (and not just be a martyr to a cause or an ideology -- for do recall, despite our best intentions, even truth itself, can simply become an ideology). Love that suffers with [that is what "compassion" means], that tries and imagines how it is like in the other's shoes,you know, as Christ did, who became like us in all things but sin, who was tempted like us in all things. Without this love, people are tuned out. They hear the condemnation, and they turn away, and are closed off from the Truth. As Christians, I think, we cannot be satisfied with just this.

Condemnation does not change hearts (It can shatter things open [as you've rightly articulated], at times). Love does however. And love pursues, and goes after the one lost sheep, ignoring the ninety nine, and is not satisfied having simply said, "this is sinful." That, if you see, is just the Law. The Law makes us aware that we are sinners, but it gives us no ability to actually change our lives. Only love does. The love of Christ, poured out into us, by the grace -- the free, unearned gift -- of God. "For while we were still sinners, Christ died for us!"

Of course, we don't have God's cosmic vision, nor do we know really what is in mens' hearts. We do what we can, for, as the Apostle puts it, "the love of Christ compels us."

Ministry is first and foremost relational -- establishing trusting relations of love. Christ calls us friends after all, not slaves. This is, I am convinced (and I've seen and experienced) what invites people into an encounter with Christ. It is what leads them to experience His love, and that is what brings faith to life, and leads to conversion. Without that encounter with Christ we are a hollow shell, of beautiful ritual (and gosh, the way the "reforms" have gone, it's not even that half the time!), and sublime dogmas, and a fine exterior, but, as St. Paul said, that is only as good as a clashing cymbal or a sounding gong.

One can be completely orthodox, and faithful to the Church on the outside, and have a heart of stone. Not everyone who says "Lord, Lord" will enter the Kingdom.

We are called always to proclaim, to embody, "the truth in love."

Love causes repentance and conversion. And, St. Paul tells us, Love never fails.

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