Repentance and Renewal in the Contemporary Church
Writing in a recent issue of The Lutheran, David Miller laments the “moralistic” cast of the Lenten worship and piety he grew up with. “Each year Lent came as a nagging killjoy,” Miller writes, “pointing out failures to be what God wants.” This is not what Lent should be about. “It’s a time for drawing close to the river where one is more easily drawn into the currents of unspeakable grace,” he contends, “there to forget every sadness and despair, there to have every haunting failure and preoccupation with self and image swept away in the endlessness of an eternal mercy.”
One may be forgiven for asking what, then, we are doing with the other 46 weeks of the liturgical year–seasons in which we modern Lutherans are not known for bestowing God’s mercy with parsimony. Lent has long attracted a constellation of words–repentance, returning, conversion, lamenting, mortification, fasting, almsgiving, self-denial, and the like–which represent means of rejuvenating our engagement with the living God that are as old as our faith itself. Lent is an opportunity for the church to imaginatively identify with the experience of conversion, which is marked by a separation of some kind from old habits of mind and action. As virtuous as the currently popular “additive” practice of Lent may be, it is not desirable, or perhaps even possible, to move fully beyond the language of conversion and the rending of stubborn hearts that marks the liturgical life of this increasingly countercultural season.
In our last issue we explored the topic of evangelism, asking how and whether Lutherans may rightly share the gospel. In this Lenten issue of Let’s Talk, we are asking about individual and corporate repentance and conversion: What does it mean to “turn around” and be converted, again, to the life of faith?
Carol Breimeier calls us to re-examine our congregational practices around evangelism. Her contribution describes the theory and practice of the Turnaround Synod Initiative, a renewal program with an inescapably theological label. “In the process of opening our eyes to the world around us,” she writes of the 20th century turn toward this-worldly concerns among American Lutherans, “we began to conflate the both/and of kerygma and diakonia and to use terms like “outreach” and “missional” for activities devoid of verbal communication of the Gospel.” Not that these worthy activities should be abandoned, Breimeier continues. “But the ELCA — and probably the whole Mainline — needs to turn about 90 degrees, to the vantage point from which we can see both the needs of the world for food and shelter and justice and the need of each person in the world to know the truth about the God of love and the loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ.”
Chris Hanley gives us valuable perspective by explaining the three different senses in which communities were called to repent or return to God in the Bible. “Regret and confession were insufficient to remove the guilt of sinning against the holy God” in priestly Old Testament practice, Hanley writes; “a sacrifice had to be made” that would restore the worshipper to a right relationship with God. The prophetic tradition addresses the issue of guilt with different terms and different emphases, urging a turning or returning to the ways of God’s justice. The New Testament authors take up this sense of repentance and place it in the context of the preached Word: “It becomes a feeling of deep remorse, a reorientation, a changing of one’s mind and life, a response to sin, and a response to Jesus as the Christ,” Hanley writes, concluding with the provocative question of how we, in our own circumstances, will translate this profound and mysterious concept.
Conversion and Catechesis
Lent is also the traditional prelude to the full incorporation of catechumens in the life of the church. Long neglected through the age of Christendom, the practices and principles of the catechumenate have a new meaning and urgency in our more secular age. What does it mean to go through a conversion experience today, and how can that experience enrich and critique the life of the wider community of believers?
Mark Williamson gives one answer in describing the Brothers and Sisters in Christ (BASIC) catechumenate program at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wheaton. Part adult confirmation program (a word they avoid) and part catechumenate (one they embrace), the BASIC program “account[s] for the reality that the majority of our mission field is populated (paradoxically) by the already incorporated, baptized men and women with prior involvement of some sort with church life and yet who exist in a peripheral, sometimes ambivalent or damaged relationship to it. Thus,” Williamson writes, “they require an intentional, practical process of unlearning, learning, healing, and dwelling in community that restores them to baptismal living.”
Jackie Posek adds an ecumenical perspective in her essay on the Rites of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in the Roman Catholic Church. Years of working in Catholic institutions of higher education have given Posek a unique perspective on the motivations and hesitations that characterize Catholic converts. Most converts are engaged or married to a Catholic, but by no means all. “I myself was surprised by the number of people who came to RCIA by way of their own personal spiritual exploration, and the variety of their backgrounds and experiences with Catholicism prior to their decision to convert,” Posek tells us. “A young woman in her mid-twenties with no prior religious upbringing was inspired by reading Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory in college. A former heroin addict had been drawn to the Catholic faith in the course of his rehabilitation and recovery.” These newcomers and their challenging preparations for initiation are a gift to those who received the sacraments in the usual way, Posek concludes.
Finally, our regular columnists take up the meaning of ongoing repentance as part of the life of faith. Frank Senn looks at the history of confession and forgiveness, from the ancient order of penitents to modern corporate confession. However useful the latter rites may be, they “do not provide the ritual means of facilitating the return of the sinners to God, or specifically ritualizing a Christian’s dying and rising with Christ, which Martin Luther taught is the significance of baptism,” Senn writes. The proclamation of general forgiveness needs a particular ritual act, Senn argues. “Because sin is ever trying to get us back in its power, and often succeeds, we need, as Luther never tired of reiterating, confession and absolution.”
Benjamin Dueholm considers T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday in light of the eponymous holiday and the ongoing role of innovative, even radical thinkers in prolonging a weary church into a new age. “Our great parents and teachers in the faith have left us not only their highest thoughts and purest words of devotion, but also their universal conviction that the world had grown old, that its force was spent, that only the swift and final intervention of God could stop its slide into chaos and oblivion,” Dueholm writes. “We are accustomed to looking ahead with trepidation at a churchly future rife with narcissistic theology, empty pews, and disgraceful clothing choices. It would do us some good to turn around, as it were, and look back at the highly unlikely Christian past we have inherited.”
As always, we hope you find this issue edifying and we invite you to continue the conversation through our response feature or the Let’s Talk Facebook page.