Return, not repent

I frequently drive by this train trestle on my way to centering prayer. I finally decided to take the time to stop and photograph it. This required that I drive past it and park at the entrance to a neighborhood and walk back.  There is no shoulder to the bridge I stood on so I had to be very mindful of traffic, and pray they would notice me.  I had not planned to do this so I wasn’t wearing bright clothing.  Army green is a neutral in my world.

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I admire the effort required to write this, and I love the colors and font. The word on it – repent – is problematic. The English word “Repent” has such weight. The original Hebrew word is “tshuvah”, which means “to return”. It isn’t about “paying for your sins” but turning away from them and walking towards life. Every moment of every day we have a choice – to choose life or choose death. And every time we make an unhealthy choice, we get the opportunity once again to turn around and get going in the right direction again. It isn’t about penance at all.

Consider when the Psalmist says in Psalm 103:12 –

“As far as the east is from the west / So far has He removed our transgressions from us.”

– that the distance from east and west is simply a matter of direction, instead of distance.  If you are walking east, all you have to do to walk west is turn around.

God doesn’t care how far you are along the path of life – just as long as you are walking along it.  God cares which direction you are pointed.

When you notice that you’ve gotten turned around and are headed in the wrong direction (this is part of being human and happens to all of us) then all you have to do is turn back around towards Light and Life and the Lord.

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Unconditional God

Jacob, not yet Israel, said to God in Genesis 28:20-21:

20 Then Jacob made a vow: “If God will be with me and watch over me on this journey, if He provides me with food to eat and clothing to wear, 21 and if I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God. 22 This stone that I have set up as a marker will be God’s house, and I will give to You a tenth of all that You give me.”

He’s just had his amazing dream in the desert, and set up a small rock as a reminder that this is where God spoke with him.

Note all the conditions he gives. If you do this, then I’ll do this. He’s making demands of God.

Moses said to the family of Israel in Deuteronomy 30:1-6:

“When all these things happen to you—the blessings and curses I have set before you—and you come to your senses while you are in all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, 2 and you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey Him with all your heart and all your soul by doing everything I am giving you today, 3 then He will restore your fortunes, have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. 4 Even if your exiles are at the ends of the earth, He will gather you and bring you back from there. 5 The LORD your God will bring you into the land your fathers possessed, and you will take possession of it. He will cause you to prosper and multiply you more than He did your fathers. 6 The LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your descendants, and you will love Him with all your heart and all your soul so that you will live.

This is the other way around. If you, as a people, do these things, then God will do these things for you.

In the first section, God has to do the work first. In the second, the people have to do the work.

It isn’t unconditional in these stories, but it is interesting to see that the focus has changed. Instead of us demanding more from God, they are demanding more from themselves. It is more mature, but it is still conditional. It is if-then. Not that God loves you anyway, but that love is dependent on another’s actions – even if that other is God.

What chutzpah to demand anything of God! And how sad to think that God won’t love you regardless.

But then Jesus says in Luke 15:11-2 (the story of the prodigal son)

11 He also said: “A man had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate I have coming to me.’ So he distributed the assets to them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered together all he had and traveled to a distant country, where he squandered his estate in foolish living. 14 After he had spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he had nothing. 15 Then he went to work for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to eat his fill from the carob pods the pigs were eating, but no one would give him any. 17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, and here I am dying of hunger! 18 I’ll get up, go to my father, and say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. 19 I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired hands.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father. But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. 21 The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 “But the father told his slaves, ‘Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.23 Then bring the fattened calf and slaughter it, and let’s celebrate with feast, 24 because this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ So they began to celebrate.

The father had never given up on him. All he had to do was return, and the father ran to him. Note verse 20 – “…while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him.”

This is how our Heavenly Father is. We have to return and all is forgiven.

Likewise, we are to forgive others in the same way. Peter asked Jesus in Matthew 18:21-22 – how often must we forgive someone? And Jesus said that as many times as they ask for forgiveness, you must forgive them.

God gives us unconditional love. We are to share this love with the world. In the same way that we are forgiven, we are to forgive.

This is Heaven on Earth.

(All Bible translations are HCSB)

Blessing and a curse

Deuteronomy 11:26a
26 Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse:

Later on, we read

Deuteronomy 30:15
15 See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil.

Every day, every hour, every moment we have a choice to do what we know to be right. It isn’t a religious guilt-trip thing either. It is actually very freeing.

We have a choice to get up on time or sleep in. We have a choice to eat well, to exercise, to speak kindly to people.

The past doesn’t matter. Our family or personal history doesn’t matter.

Every day, hour, moment we have a choice. Just because we ate a piece of pie doesn’t mean we have to eat a second one. Just because we have never gone for a walk around the neighborhood doesn’t mean that now isn’t a great time for it. Just because we have never gotten along with this person doesn’t mean that today isn’t the day to give it a try.

Every moment is a new chance. Now is a new chance, a new choice.

And if we do make a bad choice, we aren’t stuck. We get another chance to turn it around.

God doubles our energy when we turn back to what we know to be right. Just like in the story of the prodigal son, God comes running to us to make up the distance when we return.

I leave you with the entire text of chapter 18 of the book of Ezekiel.

The word of the LORD came to me again: 2 “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? 3 As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4 Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sins shall die.
5 “If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right— 6 if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of impurity, 7 does not oppress any one, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 8 does not lend at interest or take any increase, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between man and man,9 walks in my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances—he is righteous, he shall surely live, says the Lord GOD.
10 “If he begets a son who is a robber, a shedder of blood, 11 who does none of these duties, but eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, 12 oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, 13 lends at interest, and takes increase; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominable things; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.
14 “But if this man begets a son who sees all the sins which his father has done, and fears, and does not do likewise, 15 who does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, 16 does not wrong any one, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 17 withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no interest or increase, observes my ordinances, and walks in my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. 18 As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, behold, he shall die for his iniquity.
19 “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20 The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
21 “But if a wicked man turns away from all his sins which he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die.22 None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness which he has done he shall live. 23 Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? 24 But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity and does the same abominable things that the wicked man does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds which he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, he shall die.
25 “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? 26 When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, he shall die for it; for the iniquity which he has committed he shall die. 27 Again, when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is lawful and right, he shall save his life.28 Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions which he had committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?
30 “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, says the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. 31 Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of any one, says the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.” (RSV)