When I was tween I suckered my parents into letting me get a lizard terrarium, and in my own bed room even! The whole thing was sort of a mess. Each week I’d get mom or dad to take me down to the local pet store so that I could purchase a plastic bag of crickets, which were what my Green Anole or Brown Skink would eat. They’d be stored in a container next to the reptile tank and chirp all night. Some would inevitably escape their insect death-row and be discovered later around the house. When feeding time came my prepubescent eyes would would widen as I watched nature do its thing and my pets would transform from harmless creatures into ferocious dinosaur descendants, consuming those squeaking little protein-nuggets as I looked on in delight.
Though it was a fun aspect of my youth, I wasn’t a very good lizard keeper. The cage would often go weeks without being cleaned, something that should have been done consistently and repeatability, which would in turn create a not so subtle smell-region of our house. One of the reasons most reptile terrariums need to be cleaned often is because the tenants do this thing called moulting. Basically moulting is when the animal sheds its skin and emerges fresh and new. In my lizard tanks, the shed skin would be left sitting around way too long. I still remember avoiding my responsibility to clean out the tank and reset the environment, which was to the detriment of both my pets and my family.
So what does that all have to do with the second part of this post’s title? With repentance?
The easy metaphor is that like reptiles shed their skin and are made new every so often, we need to shed our “skin”, the parts of our being that hold us back or don’t reflect the God of love.
That’s a great image.
But in this illustration the church isn’t the reptile, but the reptile keeper.
Just like I was irresponsible when it came to what maintaining the life of those creatures took, I think the church is similarly guilty.
We enjoy the show of church, the way it makes us feel, the shallow and entertaining elements. We like to watch from the sidelines as both spectators and critics, but when it comes to actually cleaning out the whole tank, we’re nowhere to be found. Meanwhile things are literally rotting.
That’s the way the church-landscape often feels to me. I read yesterday that white evangelical support of President Trump is at an all time high, even though the his words and actions couldn’t be more antithetical to the gospel of Jesus. Though some of us are deeply engaged in the hard work of community, compassion, justice, and being people of good news, most of us aren’t. Sure we notice the smells and sounds that tell us change is needed, but we’re not very comfortable getting messy to the detriment of ourselves and our message. My experience is that because of our neglect and apathy, we don’t smell that great to those around us.
I think there are many, many elements of our faith ecosystems that need to be cleaned out. We’ve sold out to marketing and flashiness. We’ve largely worked in silos building our own brands. We’ve turned the grace of Jesus into an us-or-them ultimatum, leaving entire communities who don’t meet our standards on the outside. We’ve wed ourselves to corrupt politicians. We’ve neglected the poor. We’ve worshiped at the idol of nationalism, when we should be people of a backwards kingdom. We’ve lost our first love. Meanwhile things are literally rotting.
Thankfully, there is this thing called repentance. It’s one of those things Jesus preached often. It means to reverse direction- to acknowledge our need for change, and turn. It means that we take the time to clean out our tanks, something that we must continue to do over and over, and in the process we’re transformed into something completely new.
There are a myriad of examples of this sort of change in the gospels. One example is of Zacheus, a tax collector who made loads of money fleecing the people of Jesus’ homeland. In one encounter with Jesus he went from working for the occupying empire of Rome, to following a radical religious leader from the sticks. He even gave back all the wealth he had accumulated and then some.
My prayer is that our churches would become known not for the shows or products that we offer, but for this very process. That we would be communities of repentance, where we consistently confess our shortcomings and do the work of change. It can happen, I’ve seen it. Maybe then we wouldn’t smell as bad.
Confession of Sin
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name.