Tassajara Hot Springs is not an easy place get to. You head inland from Highway One up the valley of the Carmel River until the road narrows and starts to wind. Then you keep driving, slowly climbing through miles of sparsely-settled ranchland, until just about that point where you start to head down again toward the towns of the Salinas Valley, where you take a right turn. And that’s where the journey really starts. After a mile or two the pavement ends, and you start climbing again, steeply this time, for five or six miles and 3,000 feet to the top of Chew’s Ridge, where you can see the granite peaks of the Santa Lucia Mountains all around, and then you start down. Down and down the steep side of a deep canyon, for another five more narrow, twisting, dusty miles, until the road ends at the front gate of a Zen Buddhist monastery, on the site of an old hot springs resort on Tassajara Creek.
It’s the perfect kind of place to hide out from the world. I was living there when the First Gulf War started in early 1992, and somehow the United States Selective Service Board got my address, and sent me a letter. It said that I had thirty days to register for the draft or they’d refer my case to the Justice Department. But I wasn’t really worried. Somehow I just couldn’t see the FBI making the trip to Tassajara to knock on my door. It was also the perfect refuge for a young man who’d spent twenty-odd years playing hide-and-go-seek with Jesus. Or so you would think. I was at the bottom of a canyon at the dead end of a dirt road in the middle of a wilderness, with no one around for miles but Buddhists. Every day from 4:00 in the morning to 9:00 at night I was doing Buddhist practices and studying Buddhist texts, wearing Buddhist clothes, and eating Buddhist food. But it was there that Jesus caught me. It was there that I finally had to stop running, and turn around to face the person that I really am.
The English words “sinner” and “repentance” are so loaded for us that it’s helpful to know something about the Greek words that they translate in our Bibles. “Sinner” comes from a Greek word that means a person whose aim is off, someone who is missing the mark. It implies that there is a right goal or purpose or object of desire for a person’s life. To “sin” means simply to think or say or do something that misses the mark, because it’s directed at the wrong target, or maybe because of a simple break in concentration, or a lack of skill. And “repentance” simply means to turn one’s mind around. To “repent” is to turn around and face what you’ve been running from.
The Buddha way is a path of wisdom and compassion, and I’m a better person for the years I spent following it. But it’s not my path. And that only became clear when I was given the chance to get onto it all the way. When I was at Tassajara the abbot of the monastery offered to ordain me a priest, giving me the chance to dedicate my life to studying and practicing and teaching in that tradition. It was only then that I could see that my shot was off the mark. It was only then that I could finally see that I had just been playing Buddhist, and I’d been running from my real life’s work and the truest longings of my heart.
As conversion stories go, I don't mind saying it’s a pretty good one. But it’s not nearly as good as Paul’s. Paul’s turnaround, from enemy and persecutor of the church to tireless missionary and apostle of Christ, is the great Christian story of repentance. Because if anyone ever should have been immune to the grace of Jesus Christ, if anyone ever was constitutionally incapable of admitting he was off the mark, if anyone ever deserved to be given up for lost, it was him. If this man, the foremost of sinners, could be proved faithful and appointed for the service of God, then is there anyone at all of whom we can say, “don’t even bother with that one.” “He is too far gone.” “She will never change.”
Which is a pretty hopeful message, and it’s hard not to notice the contrast between that hope and the gloom and doom that we find in today’s reading from Jeremiah and the Psalms. One way that people in the church have traditionally tried to explain that contrast is as the difference between the angry and vengeful God of the “Old Testament”, and the forgiving and compassionate God of the New. But there’s something a little self-serving about that interpretation, and it’s not, strictly speaking, accurate. There are plenty of scriptures in the Hebrew Bible that praise the patience and long-suffering love of God towards his people, and lots of places in the Greek Bible that talk about God’s wrath and the well-deserved destruction of sinners.
I think it’s more helpful to talk about collective and individual understandings of sin. We’re used to hearing the harsh judgments and curses and threats of people like Jeremiah as if they were talking about our behaviors and our mistakes as individual persons. But that’s not exactly what they meant. The prophets were social critics, or, as one author I read recently put it, dissident public intellectuals. They spoke on behalf of the God who had called his people out of slavery and led them through the wilderness and given them a holy and righteous law. He’d driven out other nations before them and settled them on their own land. He had made a dwelling place for his name among them. The prophet gave voice to the hurt and the anger of God that now that whole people was missing the mark.
The violence of the prophet’s language is directed against a false sense of security. His harsh cry pierces through the soothing noises of the official spokespersons and dispensers of conventional wisdom, who love to say that nothing bad can happen to God’s chosen people. But the prophet says the people are deceiving themselves, because they have forgotten the real purpose for which God chose them, and he threatens the worst if they don’t remember it. They need to stop running, and turn around and face the truth, the truth about their indifference to the poor and their corruption of justice, the truth about their idolatrous worship of wealth and power, and the institutionalized violence of their society; the truth of their weakness and duplicity on the international stage. They need to face these things because only then will they be found by the real God, the God whose covenant was to make them a nation where such things don’t happen.
The Jews remembered the words of Jeremiah because they came true. They treasured them, because after their temple had been burned, and their city destroyed, and they’d been carried away into exile in Babylon, those words said that the horror that had befallen them was not some cruel joke of history. It was not meaningless, but it was the consequence of their betrayal of God’s covenant with them. And if this catastrophe could be a moral and religious lesson, then maybe they could learn it. Maybe they could still repent, and if they did, maybe they would find that God had not abandoned them. Maybe He would seek and find them, even in the land of exile, even without their temple and their sacrifices. Maybe they weren’t really lost.
In the 3rd Chapter of Genesis, after Adam has eaten the fruit of which it was forbidden to eat, God comes looking for him in the garden, calling out “Where are you?” And the man answers “I was afraid, because I was naked. So I hid.” This story, which is so foundational for Judeo-Christian ethics, has both personal and collective interpretations. But either way, it suggests that the only remedy for our constant failure to hit the mark is the goodness of God, the patience of God, the persistence of God in seeking and finding us. We can’t will ourselves to be perfect. Half the time we don’t even understand what we’re doing. But we can start to break the habit of running and hiding. We can learn a new habit, that of stopping, and turning around. We can learn to admit that we’re naked, and allow ourselves to be found.