Where we celebrate that of God in all people

The Repentant Heart

By Leigh Tolton

A young man named Jacob received a parrot from his uncle.His uncle said that even around the sailors, the language of the parrot was just horribly offensive. When Jacob brought the parrot home, he realized that the parrot had the vocabulary to match this terrible reputation. Every word out of the bird’s mouth was rude, obnoxious and peppered with profanity.

Jacob tried and tried to change the bird’s behavior by consistently saying only polite words around him. Finally, Jacob was fed up, and he yelled at the parrot, “Stop talking like that!” The parrot yelled back in an even more offensive manner and continued in a string of vulgarity. Jacob, finally past his breaking point, shook the parrot that was out of control. The shaking only made the parrot angrier and even ruder, squawking vulgarity at Jacob.

Jacob, in desperation, threw up his hands, grabbed the bird and put him in the freezer, and told him, “You need to stay in here until you chill out!” For a few minutes the parrot squawked swearwords through the freezer door. Then suddenly there was total quiet. Not a peep was heard for over a minute. Fearing that he’d hurt the parrot, Jacob quickly opened the door.

The parrot calmly stepped out onto Jacob’s outstretched arms and said “I believe I may have offended you with my rude language and actions. I’m sincerely remorseful for my inappropriate transgressions, and I fully intend to do everything I can to correct my rude and unforgivable behavior.”

Jacob was stunned at the change in the bird’s attitude. As he was about to ask the parrot what had made such a dramatic change in his behavior, the bird continued, “May I ask what the turkey did?” The parrot had a change of heart, but I am not sure he truly had a repentant heart. We tend to think of repentance or a change of heart as happening as a result of a life changing event, something threatened our health or our sense of well-being. Scared straight. People do seem nicer after the hurricanes in life. Shared fear can create community and closeness, even brotherhood, for a short amount of time. Sometimes those changes happen and it is a long-lasting change but not always. Generally, as long as the parrot in us believes that the turkey received justice, then we might have a better attitude and speak better words, live a little more cleanly with our lives. But as soon as the parrot in us knows the truth about the turkey, it’s vulgarity again. Why you change makes a big difference. These reasons bear fruit. We all know that true change does not come from threat or even habit, but from the kind of heart that the actions flow from. A repentant heart bares repentant fruit. Love, hope, grace, and goodness come from a softened heart that allows God’s guidance and is motivated not from the stick but the carrot, such as working for a world that is on earth as it is in Heaven.

So how does one have a truly repentant or changed heart? It can’t be religion alone. It can’t be wealth or power. All of the power and the knowledge of the Pharisees and Sadducees did not bring those groups to repentance.

And Matthew tells us that John didn’t want to hear just words about how someone has a change of heart. God, like John, wants to see the fruit of repentance. What has changed?

All of us have a weak spot or something that entangles us and ties us to a rock of our past. Sometimes it is a teaching that worked for us in the past, but now it just gets in the way. It could come from being taught the wrong way to think about life or ourselves. For the Pharisees and Sadducees, they thought they were better than everyone else, that the poor people and the Samaritans were less than them, and that God was sending a literal king to overthrow the Roman government. They were taught this in their homes and in the synagogues and this was supported in their culture. In their culture women were lower than men, children were expendable, and anyone who wasn’t from their area was less than them. Pesky immigrants in the area were really low to them. Not only the society, but their religion had taught them this.

Other things that hold us back are things we believe that might have been fed to us by life or by significant people in our lives. For instance, do you think you deserve more than you do? Do you feel that there is something owed to you? Or perhaps you see yourself as a victim instead of a wonderful piece of art made in the image of God.

Feeling too worthy or too unworthy are two feelings that make us falter the most and create anvils that hold us to the ground on life’s spiritual journey. Some of the teachings of children in the 1940’s -1970’s could leave a child with a feeling of “I deserve better” or “I don’t deserve a good life.”

Whatever is the block that is entangled around your foot, you can cut the anvil loose and leave it behind. Think of your foot being held down in the middle of the road. If you don’t cut the foot loose, you end up doing the same thing over and over again, just going in a circle or just not progressing spiritually.

We see examples of these kinds of repeat offenses all of the time. Joe and I watched a film called Silence about Portuguese missionaries to Japan in the early 1600’s. A young Japanese man first came to the missionaries to ask for repentance when he had turned in his family to the Japanese authorities. He did this because they were Christian, and he was afraid for his life and afraid of the shame of being a Christian. They were all burned in front of him as repayment for his actions and he was made to watch. He felt a tremendous amount of guilt. Then later he ran to the missionary again, and asked for forgiveness yet again, and he seemed very contrite. This time it was for turning in the priest’s partner. They were all drowned, and he knew the priest was in mourning over the loss of his friend. He cried and said he would change. Later, the same young man turned in the priest, and came to the priest while the priest was locked away to ask for forgiveness. He had a contrite heart but not a repentant heart. He had a feeling of sadness for his actions, but he had no want to really change his ways. And being willing to change is the difference. Instead of turning to God to help him, he simply didn’t want to feel guilt or shame. That is why the fruit of repentance is more important than how you feel. God is not about the emotions. They matter, but what matters most is the willingness to open your heart and make the necessary changes.

A man was praying with his pastor. The pastor was familiar with the man’s ways and the man’s sins. He was also familiar with the man’s prayer when he had strayed. The man always prayed the same prayer: “Lord, take the spiderwebs that entangle me, take them out of my life.” Just as the man was about to say it for the hundredth time, the pastor interrupted, “Lord God, please kill the spider, please, please kill the spider!”’

The spider represents the source of the spider web, or the source of sin. We shouldn’t ask God to remove the spiderwebs and if we plan on leaving the spiders. Whatever is the source of the deficiency in our characters has to be replaced with the Love of God and compassion for others. True repentance, or forgiveness of others and forgiveness of our selves are necessary first steps making changes in our lives. Many times, we ask the Lord to forgive us of some sin, yet we leave the source of temptation, or the source of bitterness, or the source of hard heartedness in our lives, and we have to be willing to remove it and leave it behind. That is so very hard to do especially if it has been a big part of who we are or how we have seen ourselves. Most of the time
we just want the craving, not the source of the hunger to go away.

What is it that is within us that could lead us to live differently and to live with more humility and grace? God’s love, the spark of the Divine that is within you and me. As “Quakers” we got our name because the Friends who were worshipping in Lancashire, England were said to seek the Light of God to look for the impurities in their own lives, and then “trembled in the sight of the Lord.” So if we seek the Light of God, it will show us where the deficits are in our lives. If we allow God’s grace to be the encourager that we can go forward without this old way of being or thinking, then we can move forward into a life the is less burdened, and is full of more joy, more humility and more graciousness, more bravery and more kindness. But how do we invite this Light into our souls and how do we listen for the Divine?

A soap peddler and a pastor were walking together down a street in a large city past all the brothels and bars in the city. Trash was on the road side. An inebriated man laid in the gutter. Starving children were in boxes under the bridge they walked under. You could hear people swearing and treating each other with disrespect. The soap peddler casually said, “The love of God you preach hasn’t done much good has it? Just look and listen. There is still a lot of wickedness in the world, and a lot of wicked people, too!”

The pastor made no reply until they passed a dirty little child making mud pies in the gutter. The pastor pointed. Then they passed a farmer cleaning out a horse’s stall. It smelled terrible, and the farmer had managed to get it on himself. The pastor
pointed again and said, “I see that soap hasn’t done much good in the world either. There is a lot of grime, and many filthy people around. They are always getting dirty, aren’t they?”

The soap peddler said, “Oh, well, soap is only useful when it is applied.”

And the pastor said, “Exactly, so it is with the love of God.” So many times, we know what to do and we know to do good, but we just don’t always do it. We make excuses or we simply don’t want to change old habits. There will be fruit from all of our endeavors. All of them, good and bad. They might not show up now or in our lifetime, but they will raise their heads at some point in the world as part of the future and part of your children’s lives or their children’s lives. All of your actions and attitudes plants seeds, and whether they are fruit of a good and repentant heart is up to you.

May all of our seeds we plant be ones of contrite and repentant hearts, ready not just to change, but to depend on God for guidance and direction, and a reflection of God’s uncompromising but unconditional love and acceptance.

Hymns
185 – Amazing Grace
261 I Would Be True
209 Softly and Tenderly

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