Tag Archives: repentance

pruning, abiding and bearing fruit: repentance and the days of awe*


I remember, after I had been ordained–three years ago this October–though there were many emotions present, there was one with a very particular outlet.

I was excited, finally, to be able to have something to say that I ‘do’ when crossing the  border from Mexico to the US and being questioned by the border guards. Up until that point I had tried to describe it–well, I’m in the process of becoming a Presbyterian minister, but I’m also a photographer and a writer and I travel a lot–but now I could just say “I’m a Presbyterian minister.” Easy. Done.


My first time crossing, after being ‘official’ as a minister I drove up to the gate (this was pre-SENTRI pass for those who pay attention to such details) ready to give my answer.

Sure enough the guard asked me, “What do you do?” Almost too proudly I responded, “I’m a Presbyterian minister” to which his immediate response was, “Recite the 23rd Psalm.”

I blanked. Totally blanked. This was not what I was expecting from the US Border Guard.

“Yea though I walk thru the shadow of death…” I tried, starting in the middle and stopping far short of the end.

“Keep going,” he said.

“Well, I don’t have it memorized,” I had to admit to him. “Do you?” I asked him in return.

“Yep,” he responded.

“Well, you must be Catholic,” I replied, to which he, smiling, answered in the affirmative.

“I’m Presbyterian, we don’t have to memorize Psalm 23,” I responded, rather pathetically, I can admit.

He, smiling, waved me through as I, in my shame, crossed over to the other side.

The very next time I crossed, not to be dissuaded, I planned on the same answer–though I still hadn’t memorized the 23rd Psalm.

“What do you do?” the border guard asked me. “I’m a Presbyterian minister,” I responded.

“Do you have any drugs, tobacco or alcohol with you?” he responded.

Oh, so you must be Presbyterian too…

This month our Not Church theme is the Days of Awe. It is a phrase that references the Jewish calendar, a ten day period beginning with Rosh Hashanah, and ending with Yom Kippur.

It is said that on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, God writes each person’s fate for the coming year into the Book of Life, and on Yom Kippur those records are sealed. The time between, then, is a sort of ‘purgatory’ if you will in which one can, if necessary, attempt to change the outcome.

What is interesting is that the two days are not back to back, one right after the other.  They are separated by ten days, what are known as the Days of Awe. This ‘grace period’ in a sense, is a time of penitence, of repentance, of considering what one has done that is not exactly what might have been best, and what one might do, in the coming year, to change that.

The new year begins with repentance. Ten days of repentance. It’s not unlike the New Year, the January 1st one, being a time of making resolutions. Though with the Days of Awe there is more of a focus on this need to cleanse that which has kept one distant.

Many of you know that I like to work in my garden. I’ve given you a break from garden stories for the past few months, but you know that can last only so long…

Lately I’ve been planting fruit trees. Many fruit trees. At last count I’ve got 15. You name the fruit, I’ve likely got it. except for Quince, which I had to look up when the plant guys were trying to sell me a membrillo to see what that meant. Even having the translation, knowing that the tree was a quince didn’t help me much. I’m not sure what to do with a quince.

But mango, apple (yes, I do have both mango and apple planted in the same yard…we’ll see how that goes) peach, nectarine, plum, avocado, guava, pomegranate, pear, tangerine, lemon, lime, grapefruit and, most recently, orange. I’ve also got an almond tree, a pistachio bush, and two grape vines.

Not that long ago I posted a photo of my grape vine, newly purchased, and captioned it ‘grapes!’ A friend on facebook correctly pointed out that, in fact, this was not a photo of grapes, but of a grape vine (with not even a flower at this point) and that by calling it grapes I was expressing something that I ‘saw’ but that clearly was not yet realized.

Which, of course, is what I think the ‘Days of Awe’ are all about…

Jesus, himself a Jew, who, it happens, liked to tell stories from the garden, is said to have put it this way in the book of John–the most poetic and mystical of the four gospels:

I am the vine and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit. (John 15:1-5)

Pruning, abiding, and bearing fruit.

It seems to me that the word ‘repentance‘ has got a bit of a PR problem.  I think that the idea ‘repentance’ can be a word we don’t necessarily like talking about. It too easily can bring up images of hate mongers, standing on the corner spewing vitriol, or protesting whatever they see as the current threat, while waving signs that say “Repent!”

If that’s what ‘repent’ is, I want nothing to do with it.

But in Hebrew, which is the language of the Jewish Scriptures, the word translated as repent is most often the Hebrew word Shoov, which, literally, means to turn. When I was in seminary, studying Hebrew one summer, my friends and I had to memorize something in the range of 40 words a day. The mnemonic which we used to remember Shoov was the image of your shoe, turning around. That’s free of charge. There was also another word, Ohell, which we remembered as “Ohell there’s a bear in the tent” but I can’t remember if the word means ‘tent’ or ‘bear.’ Since there are more tents than bears in the Bible, I’m guessing it was the former…

I also took Greek, which is the language of the Christian Scriptures, known often as the New Testament. In Greek the word for repent is most often metanoia, or to change ones mind.

So repent literally means to turn around–to stop going in one direction and turn, or return, in the opposite direction. It is a changing of ones mind.

It is not so much about “Horrible me, I’m an awful person, what must I do to rid myself of my horrible-ness.” It is more like ‘pruning’ which is an entirely different concept altogether. I’ve seen it primarily in my bougainvillea.

Last winter I gave the bougainvillea what I would call a good haircut. So good, in fact, that people who saw it wondered if it would ever come back. It had been a few years since I had pruned it, and in the intervening time it had gotten rather ‘leggy’ and not very full. So I pruned it. It was not because I was mad at it, or because it is an awful plant and needed to be punished–I pruned it because I wanted it to grow well.  And this summer? The blossoms are abundant, the foliage is dense and green.

The Days of Awe give us an opportunity to reflect, to prune.

But the thing about pruning, and about bearing fruit is that they both, of course, assume planting. There is a Chinese proverb–the best time to plant a tree is 100 years ago. The second best time is today.

The thing is, if you want to eat grapes now, you don’t plant a grape vine. If you want to eat grapes now you go to the fruteria and, provided they are in season, which they are currently, you buy yourself some grapes.

Planting a grape vine is something different entirely.

Though I have 15 fruit trees, this summer I can tell you exactly how much fruit I ate from them: three nectarines and one plum. That’s it. Four pieces of fruit. Granted, they were delicious. The best nectarine you’ve ever eaten. A plum that was sweet beyond anything that you’d buy at the store. But, that’s something in the range of $50 per piece of fruit, if you do the math.

It’s not exactly a great deal. At least not yet.

Right now, in fact, it seems a bit absurd, really.

But give it time. It will most definitely seem absurd. But, I trust, for entirely different reasons.

For I remember, as a kid growing up, we had a plum tree in our back yard. There were three of us–my mom, my dad and I–and we could not possibly eat all of the plums that came from that tree in a given summer, making jam with some, and giving the rest away. In fact, I was born in June, and that summer the plum tree on Snug Harbor Road had a bumper crop. Let’s just say, my mom learned the hard way that what she ate, I ate. But, I like to think that the love of plums, fresh from the tree, was instilled within me from the very milk that I feasted on when I was only weeks old.

That was one tree, with three people. I’ve planted 15 trees. I hope you all like fruit…

The Days of Awe invite us into a time of reflection, of repentance, of turning away from certain ways of being, pruning if you will, and turning toward that which bears fruit, abiding.

We are invited to consider that which we need to let go of, that which binds us, that which keeps us from being who we already are.

The fundamental question asked, in the ten day period represented by the Days of Awe, is ‘will my name be written in the book of life?’

We are called to turn, to change our minds, to repent.

But, at the end of the day, the point is not the pruning. The point is to bear fruit.

Jesus, when he preached among the people, put it this way: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Turn. Return. Change your mind. That which you are seeking, it is not ‘out there’ distant in some far off place or for some future time. Believe. It is right here, now, among you, within you.

You are already who you are still becoming–like a Presbyterian minister who doesn’t know the 23rd Psalm. Like a fruit tree. Like a grape vine.  This process doesn’t happen over night or immediately. It is not instantaneous. There is a time, a grace period–the Days of Awe–a space between the New Year and the Day of Atonement.

It’s like seeing that young vine, still only a plant, no fruit yet to speak of, and proclaiming, “grapes!”


*presented at Not Church September 9, 2012

What Now?

What Now?     It’s a question, that, over the past week, I haven’t been able to get out of my mind.

I had the incredible fortune on Tuesday of attending the inauguration of our 44th President in Washington DC.  Not only did I attend the inauguration, I had a ticket. Not only did I have a ticket, but I actually was able to make it, through security, to my seat. That’s right, not only did I have a ticket, but it was a ticket to a seat!

Being amongst some two million people extending from the Capitol Building toward the Lincoln Memorial was an awe inspiring and humbling experience. Have you ever heard the stillness of two million people as they draw in a collective breath of expectant anticipation? It was both eerie in its quiet, and at the same time, sacred.

Wednesday I had quite a long journey back to California, first driving four and a half hours from Washington DC to New York’s La Guardia airport, then a flight to Houston, and finally from Houston to Orange County where I arrived some 15 hours after the journey began.  And what kept going through my head was the thought, the question really, “What Now?”

Our text comes from the book of Jonah, the third chapter. But before we read it, I need to give you a bit of background.

Odds are, no matter who you are, you’ve heard about Jonah before.  You know, the guy who gets swallowed up by a large fish.  Jonah, son of Amittai, literally meaning “son of faithfulness,” which, it seems, is a bit of a pun that the narrator shares with us, right at the beginning of the story, because Jonah is not exactly the most faithful of prophets.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah and said “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.”

And Jonah, son of faithfulness, goes in the opposite direction…

Instead of going up to Nineveh Jonah goes down toward Joppa and buys a ticket on a ship sailing down to Tarshish to flee the presence of the Lord. The image of an ostrich with its head in the sand comes to mind…

Everything is going fine with Jonah’s plan, he’s even napping through a mighty storm that the Lord sent upon the sea, a storm so intense that the sailors have begun to throw cargo overboard.  The sailors cast lots and determine that Jonah is the cause of the storm.  Jonah confirms that yes, this is true, he is the cause, for he is fleeing from the Lord. Terrified, they ask what needs to be done to quiet the sea. “Throw me overboard,” says Jonah, which they end up doing, reluctantly, only to have the sea calmed instantly.  Now, instead of fearing the sea, the sailors feared the Lord, and were in awe.

Jonah, meanwhile, wound up in the belly of a large fish, where he stayed for three days until the Lord commanded it to literally vomit him up on dry land, which is where our texts picks up.  “Jonah, Go to Nineveh, take 2…”

Listen to the Word of God, found in Jonah, chapter 3:

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.

Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

The story of Jonah is one that has been the subject of much debate. Is it true? Did Jonah really exist, and if he did, did he really get swallowed up by a fish? Was it a whale? How in the world could someone live for three days in the belly of a fish? I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for you. But I do have a suggestion. The most shocking, unbelievable, and even scandalous part of this story has nothing to do with the fish.

Jonah, the reluctant prophet, utters what is in Hebrew five words. He says them once. From those five words an entire city, one of the most powerful and most notoriously vicious in the Biblical record, Nineveh, repented. Nineveh, within the Assyrian Empire, believed the word that Jonah spoke.  It was a five-word sermon and it inspired total conversion, not even the animals were left out. Everyone, great and small, fasted and put on sackcloth as a symbol of their repentance.

The estimate is that something in the range of 2 million people converged on the mall in Washington DC to witness the inauguration of Barack Obama.  Steven Spielberg is said to have looked out onto the flag-waving crowd on the mall, amazed, saying, “Look at all the people. They are real. They are not even computer generated!”

Many have been quoting the fact that in spite of the massive crowd and the difficulties in moving amongst so many people, there was not a single inauguration related arrest.  But the most shocking and unbelievable, and even scandalous part of this story has nothing to do with the law-abiding nature of the crowds.

People gathered from near and far. They were from all walks of life, rich and poor, white, black, brown and everything in between, Democrats, Republicans and Independents.   It was a coming together across those borders which normally keep us walled off from one another and isolated. People stopped to let others pass, said excuse me, and smiled. My friend Erica and I shared our honey-roasted peanuts with the man in front of us, who shared a bottle of water with us. We found out later that man was Bill Bradley, retired basketball player and US Senator who ran for president in 2000 and who happens to have also been a Sunday school teacher at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey.  There was a spirit of open friendliness amongst strangers, a spirit that seems to be so often absent in our world today.

If only the book of Jonah ended with chapter 3.  It really would make a great movie.  Sweeping vistas of repentant Nineveh—120,000 people, plus animals, is no small number back in Jonah’s time.  Even the king bowing down, in ashes, covered in sackcloth, humbled, and seeking to help the nation turn from its wicked ways.  A humble king? It seems almost absurd, doesn’t it?  Cue the epic song for the soundtrack, maybe something along the lines of Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, or the Lord of the Rings… slowly fade to black and roll the credits…it’s a great ending.

Except for the slightly inconvenient fact that the book of Jonah has a fourth chapter, a chapter that opens with the words, “But this all was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became furious, lost his temper, and yelled at God.” Why in the world would Jonah be angry? He was a success. In fact, he was much more successful than the big time prophets of old…Moses, for one. No other prophet in the history of the people of Israel had tried so little and yet accomplished so much as Jonah, son of faithfulness.

The name Jonah, most often is taken to mean ‘dove.’ But, it can also be translated as ‘complainer.’  Jonah the complainer lashes out at God: “You see?! This is why I did not want to leave home in the first place! I knew that you are a gracious God, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing.” Weird, somehow I have always thought those were good things…

Why in the world would Jonah be angry with God for being gracious? Why would Jonah stand against God being merciful? The text does not say it in so many words, but we can only assume that Jonah did not want Nineveh to be saved.  Nineveh did not deserve to be saved. Nineveh, because of its wickedness, deserved to be punished. Nineveh deserved to pay for its evil ways. Nineveh did not deserve grace. And yet, there was Nineveh, repentant, listening to God, and obedient…better at listening to the word of God and more obedient, actually, than the prophet Jonah.

The question is, what now?  It is a question being asked of us as a nation, and of us as individuals. What now? The word repentance literally means a turning, to turn around. And we seem, at this particular point in time, to be in the midst of what can only be described as a sort of national turning, a turning toward service, a turning toward something larger than ourselves.  Have you seen it? Have you noticed?

•    Starbucks is offering a free tall coffee to those who would pledge to donate 5 hours of service to their community.

•    Oprah Winfrey on a recent show, promoted a campaign called “I pledge” which asks all Americans to make a pledge for how they will, in the words of Gandhi, be the change that we wish to see in the world.

•    A glance at the covers that line the magazine racks conveys this sense of opportunity and responsibility being presented to us as a nation.

The now President Barack Obama, in his campaign and since the election has repeatedly said that this turning must come from all of us, it is not something that can happen simply by coming from the top down.

So, I think it is appropriate for us as individuals, for us as a nation, but also for us as the church, people who are striving to follow Jesus, to ask ourselves, what now?

The Starbucks offer of a free cup of coffee for pledging 5 hours of community service ends today. Why not stop by after church and pledge your five hours? There are over 100 different opportunities available, just in the Placentia area. If you go to the Starbucks website you can see the list which includes everything from working with children, landscaping assistance, office support, or leading a Habitat for Humanity work crew. As of earlier this morning, over 1,240,640 hours had been pledged.

I am a part of the presbytery’s Odyssey Group. Eight of us have been meeting together for the past year to help discern what it means for us as churches within the Los Ranchos Presbytery, to be the church in our changing world.  The mission statement that we’ve been working on for the Presbytery begins like this…

The Mission of Los Ranchos Presbytery is

to further the Kingdom of God

by serving our congregations through

cultivating partnerships,

brokering resources, and

securing and nurturing effective missional leadership,

This is just one way that our presbytery is seeking to discern, how can we best further the Kingdom of God, through service? Just a plug, if you’re interested in this you can come to Refresh and Renew on February 7th at Trinity Presbytery Church to hear more.

MTV is hosting a campaign called “I pledge” asking every American to pledge what each of us will do. If you watch the video (you can search for it on google or on YouTube) the pledges are as simple as “I pledge to turn off the lights when I leave the room” to as complex and profound as “I pledge to help end human trafficking.” “I pledge to help end hunger by volunteering at a food back” and “I pledge to be a great mother, to be a great father.”

So, I think it is appropriate for us as individuals, for us as a nation, but also for us as the church, people who are striving to follow Jesus, to ask ourselves, what now?

For this message of service, of a calling beyond ourselves, to something more, this is not a new message for the church, is it?  Isn’t this the message that we have been based upon? Isn’t this the message that we have been called to proclaim from the beginning?  That we are all equal.

That we are all loved by God and called by God. That we gain something in the giving of ourselves, rather than the storing up for ourselves.

That God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love?

That no matter who we are, whether a disobedient prophet, repentant evil doers, a nation in crisis, or someone who is  cynical of what might seem to be an empty promise of change, conservative, liberal or apathetic, formerly enslaved or formerly the enslaver…that God’s grace is for us all, unmerited, undeserved, and unconditional.

We don’t know how things turned out for Jonah. Or for Nineveh, for that matter. The story doesn’t tell us. Instead of the epic ending we were left with at the close of chapter 3, at the end of chapter 4, the end of the book of Jonah we are left with a sort of disjointed  ambiguity.

Will Jonah be angry forever?

Will Nineveh’s repentance stick?

What’s next?

The text gives us no assurances.

The question we are left to ask ourselves, each other, our church and our nation is,

What Now?