I love the Christian Holy Week. For me, it’s an invitation to contemplate the reality of suffering and death, and then to rejoice at the prospects of new life in the celebration of Easter. And nature cooperates in this invitation, acting as our teacher. The cycles of our earth embrace dying as a way to bring forth and nurture new life. This time of year, we can feel life springing up all around us in surprising and hopeful ways.
For some reason, I was surprised while enjoying the recent general conference of the church that our 94-year-old leader seemed as sharp and vibrant as he ever has. As if he’s being continually renewed. There’s something very hopeful and miraculous about that.
Watching and listening to President Nelson reminded me of something I read in Adam Miller’s book An Early Resurrection: Life in Christ Before You Die. I love that little book. Miller writes this of the Christian life:
My job is to live, right now, as if I had already passed through death’s veil and into the presence of God. My job is to live my promised redemption in the present tense. . . .
Living in Christ changes what it means to be alive. Living in Christ, I carry myself differently. I desire differently. I love differently. I greet pain and loss differently. I fail differently. I succeed differently. . . . Rather than just storing up salvation for the future, life in Christ saves my life as I’m living it. In Christ, the veil grows thin and eternity starts to bleed into time. The next life, a life lived in the presence of God, gets underway before I’ve even died. Living in Christ, I experience a kind of early resurrection.
I see this in President Nelson. I sometimes see the world a little differently than he does, but I love him. He is a person whose “confidence has waxed strong in the presence of the Lord.” Leading a worldwide church at any age would be a heavy burden. But his burdens seem to be light, all things considered, and he always seems to find reason to rejoice.
To him, the gospel truly is the “good news.” Maybe rejoicing is his fountain of youth. (Of course, It doesn’t hurt to have someone like Wendy Nelson at your side.)
Last Saturday evening, President Nelson delivered a joyful message to the worldwide priesthood audience. To an audience that often defines devotion in terms of “activity” (we are either “active” or “less active” rather than “devout”), President Nelson first stressed the importance of “being” in addition to “doing.”
He then proceeded to do what prophets of God are supposed to do. He challenged us to repent. Nothing new here—except that he did it in a way that made repenting sound like rejoicing. He made repentance sound like a joyful invitation.
He then went on to offer some fresh perspectives on the whole idea of repentance. He started by exploring the etymology of the word repentance:
The word for repentance in the Greek New Testament is metanoeo. The prefix meta- means “change.” The suffix -noeo is related to Greek words that mean “mind,” “knowledge,” “spirit,” and “breath.” Thus, when Jesus asks you and me to “repent,” He is inviting us to change our mind, our knowledge, our spirit—even the way we breathe.
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a prophet teach that real repentance extends to way we breathe. That, of course, is a wisdom often associated with Buddhist teaching, but it is deeply embedded in Judaism and early Christianity as well.
Bringing our attention to our breathing can still the mind and be a gateway into our souls—a gateway into being present, as opposed to being absorbed in the world of our thoughts. It can be a gateway to meditation and prayer. In an age of constant noise, maybe we need to discover a spiritual practice that is more about stillness than constant doing. More about “being” than about “thinking.” Maybe President Nelson is pointing to something really important here.
Repentance, as Russell M. Nelson teaches it, is a joyful and expansive invitation rather than a mere commandment. It is the good news.
Thousands of Jews were drawn to the message of repentance preached by John the Baptist. They found the idea of repentance so compelling that they journeyed into the desert in droves to hear and receive John’s invitation. What would it have felt like to be there among them? I imagine a scene of great renewal and rejoicing among these people as they entered a new path toward spiritual growth.
A few years later, as related in the 8th chapter of Acts, the apostle Philip was led to a desert road where he bumped into a high official in service to the Queen of Ethiopia. He was on his way to Jerusalem. In the ensuing conversation the Ethiopian was invited to repent and be baptized. He enthusiastically accepted. His experience with “metanoeo” was exhilarating. We are told he went away “rejoicing.” He had “died” to his old life as he was born into an eternal present in Christ. Everything about his world was different now.
Today, I think a lot of people are drawn to the good news from a remarkable 94-year-old prophet preaching a joyful message of repentance and growth through life in Christ.
Many of us struggle through life hoping for some distant future in which we return to our heavenly parents. President Nelson reminds us that we may be missing the feast in the present. We are living beneath our privileges. We can let go of the stories and thoughts and behaviors that anchor us in the past and keep us from that feast. We can let that old self die so that new life can emerge right now. Life in Christ.