We began our liturgy today with a prayer that comes from Psalm 51: “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts….” The prayer presumes how our hearts are prone to be troubled, or how our hearts can be broken, or how our hearts can become hard. “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts” is not a prayer for a heart bypass procedure; this prayer is for a heart transplant, a new heart pumping afresh with the light and life and love of God.
There’s a word for this heart procedure that shows up continually in the scriptures: repent. The Greek word literally means “to think or observe in retrospect.” Repentance is to realize, in hindsight, where we had it wrong: something we have done or left undone, said or left unsaid that was wrong. It might have been wrong speech, or wrong action, or a wrong judgment about something or someone, which we now realize. It may be a whole pattern of wrong conduct, brazenly in the open or in the secrecy of darkness; and it may have snowballed out of control. Repentance is hindsight tempered by regret for where we had it or have it wrong. Repentance is both better and worse than you might imagine.
We will hear about repentance continually during the season of Lent, as if to say we must get it wrong on a regular basis, in small and big ways. (Momentarily we will be led in a confession of sin. There will be no show of hands in advance, where we’re asked if any of us needs to make a confession of sin. We will simply move ahead with the confession, presuming that all of us here are in need. That’s why repentance is worse than you might imagine. It’s such a pervasive problem in life: getting it wrong, in big ways and small ways. That’s the bad news. The good news is this is what Jesus is all about. Jesus presumes that we’re like lost sheep needing to be rescued, again and again. Jesus has come to seek and to save the lost, and he’s talking about all of us. Repentance is an intervention, God’s intervention. Repentance is not some kind of spiritual calisthenics, where we’re working ourselves out to get better. Repentance is simply laying open our heart to God, a heart procedure where God operates and where we co-operate.
Not long ago I listened to a man talk about his life. A lot of good things going on, he said, and then some bad things: some interactions with loved ones and colleagues where, as he said, he had completely blown it. Most troubling to him were his character flaws, certain damaging habits of the heart that were relentless and unmanageable. He said, in his despair, “I don’t think I’ll ever change.” There was lots of sorrow, quite a few tears. “I don’t think I’ll ever change,” he said again, quite hopelessly. And he asked me what I thought. I told him I thought he had chosen the wrong religion. Christianity, at its core, presumes both that we need to change and that we can. That’s Jesus’ message to us all, and it comes with his power to make it possible. We need to change (that’s repentance), and we can change (and that’s by God’s grace). C. S. Lewis says that repentance is not something God demands of you before God will take you back and lets you off the hook. Repentance is simply a description of what going back is like. That’s the good news coming out of the bad news. We’ll keep hearing this call for repentance throughout Lent, most every day.
You might find this a helpful lenten discipline. At the end of each day, stop; review your day. Be thankful in every way you can be thankful; pay attention to where you need to repent. (That’s to observe in retrospect where you had it wrong and with whom, and to resolve to make amends where you can.) And then claim Jesus’ promise that he is with us to create in us a new and contrite heart, a new way in a new day how we relate to our own self and to others and to God. This is a heart procedure. For some of us most every day – certainly for me – it’s an essential heart procedure. Where it is necessary, it is possible, by God’s grace. Change is possible. Absolutely.
Come Lord Jesus: supply what you command.
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