When I was a child, I was one of those daydreamers who could get lost in a world of my own. If I were reading a book, I might surface from it to find my mother standing in front of me with her hands on her hips, lips pursed, “If I’ve called you once, I’ve called you ten times,” she might say, and it was probably true. Lost in a world of imagination, I wouldn’t hear her, until I came back to this dimension, this reality, with a bump.
In the distracted times in which we live now, I sometimes wish I could reclaim that single-mindedness, that total immersion in other worlds, or even in the tasks of this one. But there was a time that detachment almost killed me.
We used to travel, every year, to St David’s, a jewel on the coast of west Wales, a city by designation but a fishing village by design. We were walking on the coastal path, a national heritage trail that wound around the cliffsides overlooking the sandy bays with their seals and seagulls. I was skipping ahead, off in my own world again, some story running through my head, when from a great distance I heard not one but both of my parents, and my brother, call my name, and then, “STOP!”
Thus rudely awakened from my daydream, I paused, looked up, saw nothing but seagulls and sky; looked down, and discovered that my foot was on the edge of the cliff, hundreds of feet above the rockfall at the top of the beach. The path behind me made a ninety-degree turn. I, lost again, had failed to turn with it.
We hear the word, “repent,” in two out of three readings today. You have probably heard before that the word means to turn, to change direction, although Frederick Buechner, in his ABC of religious words, writes that,
“To repent is to come to your senses.”*
To come to your senses: to return to reality, to see things as they really are, rather than continuing blindly, or blunderingly, in a dangerous direction.
When Jonah went to Nineveh, to tell them to repent and return to the Lord, the instruction was pretty straightforward. Nineveh had a reputation for sinful living. It was the city that never slept, the city of a thousand idols, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, the subject of oodles of oracles of doom; the sin of the city was straightforward and well known and their need for repentance obvious in Israel.
Nineveh was so sunk in its own sin that it took the voice of an outsider, an individual prophet with a strange accent and a sulky demeanour, to attract the attention of the citizens and bring them to their senses. Perhaps it was the smell of fish guts that cut through the perfume of their parties and got them to pay attention to the word of God spoken among them. Whatever it was, they responded, they repented, as a community, as a city, as an empire, of their wickedness, their ungodliness, their vanity and their vaingloriousness; they repented before God, and God relented, and restored them to God’s good favours.
On the other end of the spectrum we find a handful of fishermen, going about their daily business, nothing much to see here, no great evil, no great shakes. Still, Jesus spoke to them, and it was the ones who were paying attention to the words of God, the wind of God, which way the Holy Spirit was blowing today, the ones with a weather-eye, who kept their senses alert and to hand, who were able to recognize the call, and change direction, change their lives on a dime, and follow Jesus.
“True repentance,” says Buechner, “spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’”*
Wow, because when we come to our senses, when we really begin to see things clearly: not through the fog of sin or disgrace, shame or discouragement, but through the sixth sense of grace, encouragement, forgiveness, acceptance, love; then we begin to see all that God has done for us, all that God has created for us to live into, all that God is to us, and wants for us, and offers us.
Paul, to the Corinthians, writes that the present form of this world is passing away; he encourages them to see through the distractions of daily living, to give up the drugs of distraction with which we dull our senses; to come to our sense of grace, of God’s power, of glory.
That is what repentance can do: restore our souls to grace, free our hearts from shame, open our minds to wonder.
The second promise of our Baptismal covenant reads,
“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? I will, with God’s help.” (BCP)
The avoidance of evil is not passive but an active and persistent job of work. We know that too well in these days of media coverage and interconnectedness. But the spiritual work of repentance and returning, that is an undercurrent of daily life, a rhythm of fall and return, suspense and resolution, lost and found we come to our senses with one foot in the air, and God and our community calling us to turn, return, come back to reality.
The spiritual work of repentance and return is continual, and it is about living in the real world; not the world of illusions and disillusions, but the world created by God, redeemed and sustained by the God in whom we live and move and have our being. It is about seeing ourselves and one another through the lens of a loving God, the only reality. William Temple once wrote,
“To repent is to adopt God’s viewpoint in place of your own. There need not be any sorrow about it. In itself, far from being sorrowful, it is the most joyful thing in the world, because when you have done it you have adopted the viewpoint of truth itself, and you are in fellowship with God.”**
We don’t do it alone. We can’t do it alone.
To Nineveh, the city so loud that it could be heard across the sea, God sent Jonah, one grumpy and recalcitrant little prophet with a chip on his shoulder and horrible stench of fish guts. To the Corinthians he sent Paul. To the fishermen he sent Jesus.
We get to hear them all. Left to ourselves, lost in our own little worlds of individuality, illusion, self-delusion we might be lost, we might even fall. But we are not left alone.
We have one another. We have the voices, perhaps, of our parents, or our godparents, calling us back from the edge of the cliff, calling us back to our senses. We have our faith community, to help us work out together where the path should go, when we are lost. We have one another, to help each other along the way, when someone needs help to turn around, or move forward, or go back.
When repentance happens – and it can, it should happen every day that our senses are alive – when repentance happens, it should stop us in our tracks. It should bring us to our knees. It should lift us to the skies. It should restore our souls to grace and to glory, offering us a God’s-eye view of our lives and the lives of those we are called to love, with God’s help.
*Frederick Buechner, Wishful thinking: a seeker’s ABC, revised and expanded edition (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 96
**William Temple, Christian Faith and Life, 67, quoted in L. William Countryman, Forgiven and Forgiving (Morehouse Publishing, 1998), 2