Dr. Scott W. Sunquist
“Repetition is the mother of learning,” I used to repeat to my students when I taught 9th grade geography. Nancy and I also repeated this many times to our children. It is true. Repetition is the mother of learning.
Rhythms of life are a type of repetition. Morning devotions. Prayer at mealtime. Evening prayers with the children. Sunday worship.
This past Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent. When I was young, I used to think, “Here we go again. A whole month talking about a few chapters of the Bible. This doesn’t seem fair to the other parts of the Bible that we seldom talk about.”
I was wrong.
The repetition of the Advent and Incarnation story bears repeating over, and over again. We need to hear it over, and over again. We need to look at it from the many different angles in Scripture.
It is the story of something high and holy and deep and powerful: “The Word became flesh.” It is something very earthy. A young woman deals with an unwanted and unplanned pregnancy. It is a story about empires, power, and violence: the slaughter of innocents. It is the story of the lowly and oppressed being lifted up, and those in power being brought down (if they do not humble themselves): Mary’s Magnificat.
It is a story that is clear, beautiful, and attractive on one level: God has come to earth to show his love for humanity. But on another level, it took centuries to understand and to explain what this story actually means. Christians discussed, argued, explained, and then confessed what actually happened. “Well, Jesus was a prophet, but a really, really, good prophet. God adopted him as his son, and so he is the best representative of God.” No, that did not work at all.
“Well, Jesus was God in the flesh, but the human fleshly part stayed separate from the Divine part, and so on the cross it was the human part that suffered and not the Divine part. And it was the Divine part that healed blindness and leprosy.” No, no. That doesn’t work either. Such a strange person is not really a single person but a schizophrenic savior.
So, we need to reflect on this mystery over, and over, and over again. All of time and all of humanity was changed by the incarnation, so we need a lifetime to deepen our understanding of the God in human flesh who was humbled and suffered.
Which brings us to the idea of repetition and rhythms of life. Liturgical seasons provide rhythms of life that shape us more into the likeness of our God. We reflect again on the announcement, the angels, the shepherds, the Magi from the East.
Many churches have lost this tradition of remembering the major salvific events each year. The major events of incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit need to be reflected upon over and over again to remind us of who we are. Our identity is found in these historic events, and we are less than we can and should be without coming back again, and again, and again to these stories which are cosmic stories.
This is also why we celebrate the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper over, and over, and over again. We need to take time to reflect and meditate. These rhythms remind us again and again of our need to confess and ask for forgiveness, and to receive the gift of life that comes through death.
One final note: I do believe the lack of deeply rooted rhythms of life in Christ is the major reason for the decline of Christianity in the West. Our culture, with its powerful technology and ubiquitous materialism, is shaping us. And so, I do not put my hope in strategies, plans, or programs. More important than all of these, or to be more positive, the value of any program is only revealed in the lives of people who are consistent and have deeply formed patterns in their lives.
Repetition is the mother of learning. Rhythms of repetition with meditation around the story of Jesus can save a church, or a young adult, or even a pastor.
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
Scott W. Sunquist, the President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes a weekly blog, “Attentiveness” which is posted each Tuesday on the Gordon-Conwell web site. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.