Renunciation and Repentance
Presentation to National Council of Churches Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
Hsi Lai Temple
Hacienda Heights, CA
5 November 2019
Good morning, everyone. It is an honor and a joy to have the opportunity to speak with you this morning on the topics of renunciation and repentance. These are topics of enormous importance, but we only have a short time together. So I will begin by setting the frame and focus for my brief remarks.
Renunciation and repentance are spiritual practices that save my life. For me, they are important not as abstract theological concepts but as concrete actions. As theological concepts, renunciation and repentance in Buddhism and Christianity are in many ways worlds apart. But they intersect in profound ways in my personal spiritual practice. I would like to show you those intersection points by sharing with you a little of my spiritual journey.
I was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan and baptized as an infant in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). The CRC is a small, conservative, Evangelical denomination of Dutch immigrants based primarily in the Midwest and Canada. For generations all of my family on both my mother’s and my father’s side have been CRC. When I was in high school, my mom left the CRC to become and ordained minister in another denomination. She left because at that time the CRC did not allow women to become ordained ministers. At about that same time my dad came out as a gay man. He also left the CRC because the CRC, like many conservative Christian denominations, is not supportive of LGBTQ people. After my parents left, I left the CRC, and I seriously considered leaving Christianity altogether.
Instead, I decided to study theology at the graduate level. First, I moved to Germany and studied there for a year. I then returned to the U.S. and studied theology at the University of Chicago with the intent of becoming an academic theologian. But God called, and I answered. So instead of pursuing a Ph.D. I ordained in the United Church of Christ (UCC) and have been serving as a pastor for the past 23 years. The United Church of Christ is a Protestant Christian denomination that shares many of the theological roots of the church of my childhood, but they have taken those roots and grown in some very different directions, the most important of which for me are that the UCC ordains women and supports the equality of women in every aspect of church life. The UCC also welcomes LGBTQ to serve equally in all aspects of church life, including ordination. The UCC is also very active in ecumenical and interfaith work, which will become important later in my spiritual journey.
The CRC placed a heavy emphasis on renunciation and repentance. Every Sunday worship featured a reading of God’s law and a call to repentance, which each of us made individually and silently sitting in pews, our heads bowed, our eyes closed. There were many things we were expected to renounce as Christians. Sex outside of marriage was a big one. Also dancing, swearing, and secular music–especially rock and roll. Working, shopping, playing with friends, or any other kind of “secular” activity were forbidden on Sunday. Renunciation was about resisting temptation. Repentance was the remedy for succumbing to it. Renunciation and repentance were the twin practices for maintaining the behavioral norms and cultural boundaries of the community.
My understanding of renunciation and repentance have changed since I was a child. It’s not that I have rejected the practices of my childhood. Rather, my spiritual journey has challenged me to expand them. Let me explain.
One of the things I really appreciate about my upbringing was its emphasis on what we called “personal devotions” or “quiet time.” The idea was that as Christians we were to extend the practices of renunciation and repentance into our daily lives. I took this very seriously as a child. I would set aside 10-20 minutes a day to read my children’s Bible and then to pray. The Bible reading I found difficult but doable. We were taught that prayer was “talking to God.” So I would fold my hands, close my eyes, kneel next to my bed and say what was on my mind. It would take maybe two or three minutes before I would run out of things to say. I found the procedure spiritually unsatisfying, but I wasn’t offered any alternatives, so I kept at it for many years until eventually as a teenager I just stopped. I longed to develop myself spiritually, but nothing in the narrow range of options available to me made that connection. The practices I was taught didn’t offer enough “quiet” (since most of the “noise” was coming from my chatty brain) and not enough “time” (since once I was done “talking to God,” I didn’t know what to do.)
Fast forward many years. I am serving my first call as an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. I am the solo pastor a small church in a small town in the Chicago area. It is not going well. The church is dying. The parishioners are fighting with each other and with me. One day I’m pacing my office looking for answers to some church problem or another. I don’t remember what, exactly. I find myself absent-mindedly looking at the books on my bookshelf and I spot one entitled Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. When my wife and I married, we put our books together. This was one of hers. I pulled it off the shelf, started reading, and that began my Zen meditation practice, which I’ve maintained for the past 20 years. I’m currently a member of the Boundless Way Zen Temple in Worcester, MA. My teacher is David Dae An Rynick, Roshi. I received lay ordination in the Boundless Way Zen lineage in 2018.
What does this have to do with renunciation and repentance? Let’s take renunciation first. In my current understanding renunciation is a process of self-emptying. I find that in the practice of renunciation the Jesus way and the Zen way intersect at profound levels. Self-emptying in the Christian tradition is often talked about using the Greek term, kenosis. This word appears in the famous text from Philippians 2: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied (ekenosin) himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.”
Self-emptying in this context goes far beyond the understanding of renunciation as avoiding certain behaviors. In fact, my early experience of renunciation as primarily avoiding sex, swearing, and “bad thoughts,” whatever that meant, only served to reinforce my ego and self-consciousness. I had continual anxiety that I was being a “bad Christian.” My Zen practice has invited me to step beyond judgments of good and bad and into a practice of unconditional availability, letting go of self-concern so that I can be more effectively present and helpful in whatever circumstances I find myself.
Repentance is the spiritual practice of changing one’s mind (Gk: metanoia) or “turning around.” St. Paul famously described it thus: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2). Jesus’ first sermon was a call to repentance: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” In my upbringing, repentance was closely linked to renunciation. One repented indulgence in things one was supposed to have renounced. For me, it took a form something like this: sitting in worship, head bowed, I silently pray, “God, I’m sorry for fighting with my brother this week. Amen.” One is supposed to feel remorse and vow never to do the repented-of thing ever again. But much of the time I did. There were always more sibling conflicts to work through, sexual thoughts to arise, or sweets to sneak from the cupboard. Repentance was a repetitive, guilt-inducing grind that once again only reinforced my ego-centric consciousness. The Kingdom of Heaven was not near. As far as I could tell, I was far, far from it.
What are we turning from and what we are turning toward in repentence? Christian teaching focuses on turning away from “sin” and turning toward God and toward our fellow human beings. Sin is often defined as anything that separates us from God or from our neighbor. When asked about the “greatest commandment,” Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, there are sins that harm our relationship to God (this is called “idolatry” in Christian theology) and sins that harm our neighbors, or put us out of right relationship with them. The root of all of these sins is the tendancy of human beings to prioritize the wants and needs of the individual ego above all else. This is how repentance in the Christian context can be understood as self-emptying. Turning away from the focus on self and turning toward a focus on God and neighbor.
Zen repentance can also be understood as self-emptying, but it is rooted in the understanding that there is no such thing as a separate self. The individual “I” is a construct of habitual thinking that if observed very closely in the process of meditation slowly begins to deconstruct itself. The turning in Zen involves noticing how we get caught up in our thinking processes and then returning attention to the breath over and over again without judgment. Over time this creates an expansiveness of spirit born of an experiential knowledge that in the view of absolute reality, we are one.
Repentance in Zen involves acknowledging our mistakes for the simple purpose of seeing clearly how we get carried away again and again by our thoughts: our thoughts of separation, our thoughts of oneness, our thoughts of good, our thoughts of evil, our thoughts of God, our thoughts of no God. The power of awareness is that it gives us the opportunity to get ‘street-smart’ (as my teacher puts it) in the ways of the mind. The point is not to eliminate thought. That is a common mistake. Our brains are thought producing organs. It’s just what they do. The point is simply not to mistake our thoughts for reality. Christian mystic Meister Eckhart famously said, “Let us pray to God that we may be free of God.” His point being that the word “God” itself can become an idol if we attach an idea of reality to it. God, in this mystical convergence, is simply the bare present manifesting moment after moment. Just this. Repentance is seeing with compassion how we continually “miss the mark” and returning to just this.
The practice of zazen has taught me in profound ways that the Kingdom of Heaven is indeed very near, in fact, right here, right now, just this. Repentance is nothing more and nothing less than reconnecting with right now. I have found that repentance practiced in this way leads to exactly the kind of spiritual development St. Paul was writing about when he warned Christians, “Do not be conformed to this world,” and exhorted them to instead “be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
Renunciation and repentance tend to have negative associations in modern, Western cultures. This is understandable. For centuries Christian institutions have used the practices of renunciation and repentance as tools for social control. I don’t think my parents or the Christian Reformed Church had any bad intent in raising me to practice their particular forms of repentance and renunciation. They truly believed that they were loving me by saving me from hell. Unfortunately, the practices themselves plunged me into my own personal hell realms of anxiety and depression that to this day I visit from time to time. The difference for me now is that a new understanding of repentance and renunciation gained through meditation practice means that whether I find myself in the hell of suffering or the heaven of bliss, I have the tools to engage the present moment whole-heartedly. This whole-hearted engagement with reality is the fruit of renunciation and repentance. Whole-hearted engagement produces salvation for me and perhaps even for the entire world.