‘Til By Turning

Repentance isn’t normally viewed as a happy word.

It has associations of grief and tears, overtones of sorrow and abasement and owning up to your own crap. “I was wrong” is one of the hardest things in the world to say.

We don’t like it. I don’t like it. My ongoing life’s quest has been to be right; admitting that I wasn’t strikes directly at the core of that. And that’s what repentance is about.

The New Testament uses the Greek word metanoia, deriving from the roots nous, meaning mind or thoughts, and meta, meaning to change or to go beyond.

The Old Testament frequently couches calls to repent in the language of navigation: turn from your wicked ways and turn back to the Lord.

“Changing your thoughts” sounds better, but the essence is the same. You have to change your mind about what you did, stop justifying it to yourself, admit that you were in the wrong.

More, though: the examples of repentance we’re shown in the pages of Scripture are distinctly uncomfortable. Sackcloth and ashes feature prominently; the idea being to demonstrate the depth of your sorrow over what you had done by putting aside creature comforts and embracing discomfort and misery.

The purpose of the sackcloth and ashes was twofold. Firstly, it was a demonstration of seriousness. In a time in which the lives of common people were, to coin a phrase, “nasty, brutish and short”, sackcloth was itchy, uncomfortable, scratchy and common, and ashes were a regularly-encountered form of dirt. Taking off your smooth, comfortable clothes and putting away the cleanliness that only the rich could afford was a way of underlining the seriousness of what you were doing. Repentance isn’t something you can just mouth comfortable words over and then move along; if you’re going to take it seriously, you have to take it seriously. It’s not really something you can do at the same time that you’re stuffing your face with chocolate or watching your favourite film.

Secondly, the sackcloth and ashes provided a break from the normal routine that encouraged and abetted the sin you’re in the dock for. You had a continual reminder in the itchy clothes and feeling of being filthy that you weren’t going to live that way any more; that things were going to be different. It ought to be a positive thing, even in its discomfort.

The trouble is that in our humanness we too easily connect the symbols of internal spiritual realities with the realities themselves. Instead of being a symbolic act and aide-memoire, the act becomes a mortification of the flesh, a false, pagan idea that you can somehow appease the wrath of the God by inflicting upon yourself an amount of suffering equal to the offence.

Instead of being a process through which we change our minds to agree with God’s view of our behaviour and attitudes, in which new agreement we appeal to His mercy and receive His forgiveness as a free gift and an act of pure grace, repentance becomes a sort of sacrifice or payment by which we try to purchase God’s forgiveness.

We can get an idea that “that wasn’t real repentance; I didn’t feel sorry enough”. “I should have really felt how awful what I did was”. “If I suffer some, then God will have to forgive me”.

This isn’t repentance. At best it’s a mistaken idea that we really need to do something so we can get forgiven. Like Naaman, we get offended by the prophet’s simple remedy for our spiritual uncleanness. We think we should have to do some huge important task by which we can look big and important, a committer of big and important sins. Or not even that; part of us won’t believe it’s real if it wasn’t difficult. The simple truth of grace is offensive to us.

Metanoia communicates “changing of mind”. These days we use “I’ve changed my mind” very lightly and almost cavalierly, but the Greek word nous denotes the totality of your thoughts. You aren’t just changing your mind like you do when you decide to have chicken rather than beef for supper; you’re changing your basic, fundamental mental attitudes and decisions. The language of turning in the Old Testament communicates turning your back on something and walking away. You’re not going to continue in that old life any more.

The idea is that it’s a permanent change. A frog can’t unmetamorphose back into a tadpole; it’s unnatural. In the same way, it’s unnatural for someone who has genuinely come to repentance to revert. They have changed their minds, and the Lord has changed their heart. How can they go back again?

It happens, though, or appears to. I’m not in the place of God to know whether anyone’s repentance is or was genuine, but the implication is that if it’s real it will stick. People do fall away, people do genuinely come to repentance over a particular sin and then do it again from habit. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in danger of hellfire just because they relapsed back into an old habit, nor that they’re necessarily guaranteed entry to the Kingdom because they used to sort-of believe, once.

But the point is that repentance is a change. It’s no good mouthing the words of the Sinner’s Prayer if our life doesn’t change as a result. All that does is add a few meaningless words into your life, and what use is that?

The title of this post is taken from the song When True Simplicity Is Gained, a song made famous as the melody around which Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring is built. Specifically the second stanza:

When true simplicity is gained,

To bow and to bend we will not be ashamed

And to turn, turn will be our delight

‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.

I talked about this song in one of my earliest posts, and it’s appropriate again now, but for a different reason.

Then, I was talking about complexity and the need to return to the simple focus of serving the Lord.

Now, I’m remembering that one of the meanings of “simplicity” is “singleness of focus”.

To bow and to bend is inextricably part of repentance – we have to acknowledge God’s right to say what’s right; we have to bend to His judgment of how things really are. And with the language of turning, we really do seem to be in repentance territory.

But “to turn, turn will be our delight“? What could possibly make repentance delightful?

Well, even the invitation to repent is supposed to be Good News. God isn’t writing you off. You are valuable enough to Him to be given another chance.

But it’s “when true simplicity is gained” that turning becomes a delight. When we have such singleness of focus on the Lord that we align our thinking to His because it’s so much better than ours. When all of the things that get in the way – our pride, our attraction to foolish things, our love of sinning – wither in the laserlike intensity of devotion to Him.

It’s a process. We’re probably not going to get all the way there in one jump. If God does a major work and leaps you over years of painful struggle, don’t dismiss it, but many of us do struggle for years. But in the end, “by turning, turning” we will come round right. He’s staked His word on it. He’s going to transform us into His image with ever-increasing glory, beginning in this world and continuing to the next.

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Retro Week: When True Simplicity Is Gained

As I mentioned last time, next Monday makes six months of blogging for me.

Both in honour of this momentous occasion (tongue firmly in cheek) and because I’m kind of thin on the ground as far as inspiration goes at the moment, I’m declaring this week to be “Retro Week”.

I will be reposting some of my personal selections from the archives, beginning with this one:


‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be;
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we will not be ashamed;
And to turn, turn will be our delight,
‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.

I recently heard the words of this early American hymn for the first time. The tune was made famous by being included in Aaron Copeland’s Classical work Appalachian Spring; not knowing what it actually came from, the music always sounded like Lord of the Dance to me.

Hearing the words for the first time fairly recently, and having a background in another country and another century, it took a little while to really understand and appreciate the message of the hymn. It doesn’t help that “simple” has come to mean “lacking understanding”, “ignorant” or “witless”. It’s a gift to be lacking understanding… It’s a gift to be ignorant… What?

To paraphrase Winnie the Pooh: This is the Wrong Sort of Simple.

Winnie the Pooh is a pretty good metaphor for what I mean, actually.  I always want to make things so complicated. Like Owl, I admire learning and intellect, particularly, being painfully honest, my own.  I use huge words where small ones would do. I say “The flood waters have reached an unprecedented height” when I mean “there’s a lot of water about”.  I’m more than a little bit pompous.  I have, to use A. A. Milne’s term, Brain.

There is, of course, in the world of Pooh Bear, a drawback to having Brain. “Rabbit’s clever,” Pooh says to Piglet at one point.  Piglet agrees. “Yes, Rabbit’s clever”.  “And he has Brain.”  Again, Piglet agrees.  Rabbit indeed has Brain.  “I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”

Education and cleverness are wonderful things (rather like Tiggers), but there can come a point when all of our cleverness and learning just makes things more complicated than they need to be.

I recognise this trait in myself. I’ve been pedantic about knowledge since I first started to get any, and I can, like Owl, easily slip into a rather superior sort of mould.

Part of me wants complication, particularly in ideas. “There’s more going on here than meets the eye” is becoming a common statement from me about various Scripture passages. Sometimes it’s true. Sometimes we could all do with digging a little deeper. But I recognise a tendency in myself to over-complicate. To get so caught up in sifting through the complexities that I miss the simple truth that’s staring me in the face. Like Martha, I’m worried and concerned about many things. Though in my case, they are less the tasks and chores of the everyday than the spiritual knowledge and in-depth insight of my own particular brand of complication.

Sometimes, it truly is a gift to be simple. To be free of all the mental clutter that scatters our thoughts into a million different places, when all we really need is to focus in on the One thing that is needed. In my case, the Marys that have chosen what is better are those on the ground, who are right there with the Lord in the place of service.

As an educated man and self-confessed intellectual, it’s humbling to admit. I’ve spent my entire life filling my mind. I’m proud of my intellectual powers. I’ll accept almost any insult short of “you are stupid”. I like the “Wow, I never thought of that” comments I sometimes get.  I like being able to see and grasp things others sometimes can’t.

Ah, pride. First of the seven sins called “deadly” by the Catholics because they beget other sins. The arrogance of standing before God and thinking we have something of our own and in ourselves. Of taking a superior position with respect to our brothers. Of thinking that We Deserve Something.

To come down from our high intellectual tower to where we ought to be, in the press of the world, serving as our Lord before us… Truly, a gift.

Because it’s there that we find Jesus. “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to Me.” He’s in those we minister to, and He’s right there already ministering to them. He does what He sees the Father doing, and invites us to come and do it with Him.

And when we find Jesus, and join Him in His work, serving the least of these, we find ourselves.

Ourselves without the complicated knots we tie ourselves in, the arrogance and hiding and shame. Ourselves as we were meant to be. And we find joy, because what the Lord has for us truly is “the place just right”. The valley of love, where we find ourselves loving Him with all our heart and our neighbour as ourself. Where we turn and turn with Him in a whirl of delight. Not that it isn’t hard, nor that it won’t be painful. But it’s far more real and more satisfying to the soul than the cold, barren complexities we hide ourselves away in.

It’s paradoxical. We find true wisdom in simplicity, in laying aside our pride in our own cleverness. We find honour in being numbered along with our Lord, in the heat and dust of the place of service. We grasp a higher truth by abandoning the quest for More Knowledge and using what we have for others.

And as the song says, when we find this true simplicity, not the simplicity of the fool but the simplicity of the truly wise, then “to bow and to bend we will not be ashamed”. Because being the top dog, or the intellectual genius, or whatever, won’t matter any more. We will be able to bow and bend to one another in grace, not concerned for position or status or our pride in our own cleverness, no shame, no reason to hide,no reason to refuse to bend. Able to say those fateful words: I don’t know. Or “You were right; I was wrong.”

Delighted to turn from our self-absorbtion toward those we should be serving. From our fear of being exposed as frauds to the freedom of humility. To the delight of service. With nary so much as a “look at me; I’m so humble”. Made like our Lord, who for the joy set before Him endured the Cross, scorning its shame. Able to take positions that look shameful or scornful, because our joy is found there in the Person of Christ.

‘Til by turning, turning, we come round right.

When True Simplicity Is Gained

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be;
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
 
When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we will not be ashamed;
And to turn, turn will be our delight,
‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.

I recently heard the words of this early American hymn for the first time. The tune was made famous by being included in Aaron Copeland’s Classical work Appalachian Spring; not knowing what it actually came from, the music always sounded like Lord of the Dance to me.

Hearing the words for the first time fairly recently, and having a background in another country and another century, it took a little while to really understand and appreciate the message of the hymn. It doesn’t help that “simple” has come to mean “lacking understanding”, “ignorant” or “witless”. It’s a gift to be lacking understanding… It’s a gift to be ignorant… What?

To paraphrase Winnie the Pooh: This is the Wrong Sort of Simple.

Winnie the Pooh is a pretty good metaphor for what I mean, actually.  I always want to make things so complicated. Like Owl, I admire learning and intellect, particularly, being painfully honest, my own.  I use huge words where small ones would do. I say “The flood waters have reached an unprecedented height” when I mean “there’s a lot of water about”.  I’m more than a little bit pompous.  I have, to use A. A. Milne’s term, Brain.

There is, of course, in the world of Pooh Bear, a drawback to having Brain. “Rabbit’s clever,” Pooh says to Piglet at one point.  Piglet agrees. “Yes, Rabbit’s clever”.  “And he has Brain.”  Again, Piglet agrees.  Rabbit indeed has Brain.  “I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”

Education and cleverness are wonderful things (rather like Tiggers), but there can come a point when all of our cleverness and learning just makes things more complicated than they need to be.

I recognise this trait in myself. I’ve been pedantic about knowledge since I first started to get any, and I can, like Owl, easily slip into a rather superior sort of mould.

Part of me wants complication, particularly in ideas. “There’s more going on here than meets the eye” is becoming a common statement from me about various Scripture passages. Sometimes it’s true. Sometimes we could all do with digging a little deeper. But I recognise a tendency in myself to over-complicate. To get so caught up in sifting through the complexities that I miss the simple truth that’s staring me in the face. Like Martha, I’m worried and concerned about many things. Though in my case, they are less the tasks and chores of the everyday than the spiritual knowledge and in-depth insight of my own particular brand of complication.

Sometimes, it truly is a gift to be simple. To be free of all the mental clutter that scatters our thoughts into a million different places, when all we really need is to focus in on the One thing that is needed. In my case, the Marys that have chosen what is better are those on the ground, who are right there with the Lord in the place of service.

As an educated man and self-confessed intellectual, it’s humbling to admit. I’ve spent my entire life filling my mind. I’m proud of my intellectual powers. I’ll accept almost any insult short of “you are stupid”. I like the “Wow, I never thought of that” comments I sometimes get.  I like being able to see and grasp things others sometimes can’t.

Ah, pride. First of the seven sins called “deadly” by the Catholics because they beget other sins. The arrogance of standing before God and thinking we have something of our own and in ourselves. Of taking a superior position with respect to our brothers. Of thinking that We Deserve Something.

To come down from our high intellectual tower to where we ought to be, in the press of the world, serving as our Lord before us… Truly, a gift.

Because it’s there that we find Jesus. “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to Me.” He’s in those we minister to, and He’s right there already ministering to them. He does what He sees the Father doing, and invites us to come and do it with Him.

And when we find Jesus, and join Him in His work, serving the least of these, we find ourselves.

Ourselves without the complicated knots we tie ourselves in, the arrogance and hiding and shame. Ourselves as we were meant to be. And we find joy, because what the Lord has for us truly is “the place just right”. The valley of love, where we find ourselves loving Him with all our heart and our neighbour as ourself. Where we turn and turn with Him in a whirl of delight. Not that it isn’t hard, nor that it won’t be painful. But it’s far more real and more satisfying to the soul than the cold, barren complexities we hide ourselves away in.

It’s paradoxical. We find true wisdom in simplicity, in laying aside our pride in our own cleverness. We find honour in being numbered along with our Lord, in the heat and dust of the place of service. We grasp a higher truth by abandoning the quest for More Knowledge and using what we have for others.

And as the song says, when we find this true simplicity, not the simplicity of the fool but the simplicity of the truly wise, then “to bow and to bend we will not be ashamed”. Because being the top dog, or the intellectual genius, or whatever, won’t matter any more. We will be able to bow and bend to one another in grace, not concerned for position or status or our pride in our own cleverness, no shame, no reason to hide,no reason to refuse to bend. Able to say those fateful words: I don’t know. Or “You were right; I was wrong.”

Delighted to turn from our self-absorbtion toward those we should be serving. From our fear of being exposed as frauds to the freedom of humility. To the delight of service. With nary so much as a “look at me; I’m so humble”. Made like our Lord, who for the joy set before Him endured the Cross, scorning its shame. Able to take positions that look shameful or scornful, because our joy is found there in the Person of Christ.

‘Til by turning, turning, we come round right.