Monday, August 29, 2016

Why as a pastor I'm committed to saying I'm sorry, and why it's so hard to do so

If the movement we know as Lutheranism has a center to it, it is repentance. The first thesis of Luther's famous 95 reads, 

Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.

Jesus said: repent (Matthew 4:17, echoing John the Baptist in Matthew 3:2). In other words:

Do penance. πένητες διάγετε. Live life poor.

This is very hard. Metanoia (another word closely related to repentance, indicating a change of heart and mind, a turning around to new life) is never easy. 

But for Luther, and therefore Lutherans, and really all Christians, it is the whole of our life.

If we are called to repentance, then it should be fairly obvious that we have something we need to repent of. We are going to fail. We will mess up. We will fail one another.

I will fail you as a blogger. I will fail my people as pastor. I will fail my family as father or husband.

Then Jesus will say to me once again, "Repent."

I've been pondering this call to repentance while reading a couple of fascinating posts this past week. The first is from the Pew Forum, Choosing a New Church or House of Worship. People switch churches for all kinds of reasons (although a significant percentage of people, 50%, never switch churches). 

On first look, the Pew Forum article on choosing a new church is not much, or at least not primarily, about repentance. The primary reason people change churches is because they move. It's hard to say how moving is a form of repentance, although in some instances it might be.

But if you dig down into the study more deeply, you find some fascinating trends. A not insignificant number of respondents find that they disagree with the pastor. So they change their heart and commit to a new community because of differences of perspective/faith.

I think sometimes the best thing you can do is change churches. Not every community is a match for every person. However, I think most Christians, and most faith communities, need to learn true repentance a bit better first, before they switch, because at least some church switching is a way to avoid the hard work of repentance.

Lots of pastors just move around from church to church to avoid repenting. Lots of church members do also. Avoidance gets you away from the context where repentance is necessary, but it doesn't contribute to maturity and new life.

Notice Jesus did not say: Run away. For the kingdom of God is at hand.

The other article that has had me thinking about repentance is by Alan Jacobs, what became of Christian intellectuals? It's a fascinating read, with one sentence in particular that stood out: "The social value of the intellectual derives from his or her acknowledgment of multiple, not always harmonious, allegiances, and potentially competing values."

It seems to me that this is something Christianity in particular might contribute to the intellectual life, even if it isn't doing so as publicly as the Niebuhr's of old: a life centered in repentance is always acknowledging multiple, not always harmonious, values, even within the individual, and noticing how they are competing with one another. 

I wonder if the decline of Christian intellectuals is a corollary to the avoidance of repentance. The Christian intellectual life is hard work. It challenges faith, requires study, shuns quick and easy answers, offers profound challenges to status quo and bumper sticker theology. Repentance and the intellectual life are close cousins, both involving the mind and the change of mind that can occur through real repentance or true intellectual inquiry.

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