A Time for Re-thinking

We are approaching Advent, the beginning of the Christian liturgical year.  You would never guess it by the red cups at Starbucks and commercial hubbub proclaiming the holiday shopping season, but Advent is traditionally a penitential season.  It is a time for reflecting on the past year and deciding what course corrections we need, not unlike Elul in the Jewish tradition.

The Jewish tradition offers a framework for pursuing this re-thinking of past choices, and the Hebrew name for it is teshuvah.  Literally it means “turning back” to God.  Participants in my Reconciliation Workshop for Episcopalians rank the teshuvah discussion highest.  Many Christians wondering how to repent find teshuvah to be a useful framework.  Although highly individual, teshuvah nominally consists of five elements.

Recognition:  Recognizing sin as sin requires intellectual assent to a moral compass, or awareness of right and wrong.  Awareness is key.  Someone who grew up in a house full of gossip may not immediately recognize the sinfulness of the evil tongue.  When undertaken seriously, introspection involves not only recognizing wrongdoing but also delving into the motives that drive patterns of action.

Remorse:  Once we see the moral failure in our thoughts and actions, after we have cast aside blame and have assumed full responsibility for our own acts, it is natural to feel regret for them.  We might feel a separation from God.  We might even feel a separation from ourselves, or the self we hope to be.  Actions count more than feelings in the Jewish tradition, so it is significant that this feeling finds such a prominent place in this process.  Remorse is important because it signals a change of heart.  It’s the very seed of transformation, and God plants it.

Restitution:  An apology expresses regret whereas restitution restores justice.  Restitution may be as simple as an earnest apology.  If a pattern of destruction caused repeated or serious harm, restitution may require concerted effort and expense.  Leviticus 6:5 established restitution as the amount of damages plus 20%.  In Luke 19:8, notorious Jericho tax collector Zacchaeus turns to Jesus and declares, “If I have defrauded anyone of anything I will pay back four times as much.”  His declaration would have impressed hearers in his day as extraordinary restitution.

Resisting Wrongdoing:  The single action that can do the most to mend fractured relationships is to stop causing harm.  Sometimes this step is delineated as two separate steps, with resolving never to commit the offense in the future as a separate step, much as the Twelve Steps delineate readiness for Gods help to change as a separate step from asking for God’s help to change.  Although all the elements of teshuvah are required, desisting from wrongdoing is regarded as the most difficult and most important.

Confession:  There are many rabbinic traditions for confession.  Some recognize inserting one’s personal confession of sins into the liturgy at the proper moments in the community ritual.  Others encourage a private confession to God in prayer in addition to ritual confession.  Some insist on speaking the confession aloud, as our thoughts crystalize when articulated verbally, and words take on weight or their own when spoken.  Christians also recognize several traditions for confession, including confession in community before communion and individual private confession spoken aloud to another person. Many traditions recognize profound healing power in confession.

Join the conversation.  When do you make time for re-thinking the year gone by?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Learn more at http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.