And Max said “No!” – A Reflection on Repentance

My daughter and I usually read two or three short books every night before bedtime. One of our favorite books is Maurice Sendak’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are. For those unfamiliar the story, it tells the tale of Max, a mildly recalcitrant and lovable young boy who, after an episode involving mischief and an angry retort to his mother, is sent to his room without any supper. Max’s room transforms into a mythical world of dense forests, vast oceans, and mysterious lands “where the wild things are.” Max emerges as king of the Wild Things and inaugurates a great “rumpus” throughout the land, only to realize how much he longs for home, for love, for belonging. I love reading this book with my daughter. I love how it inspires imagination and adventure, as well as love, belonging, and the grace of returning home.

Another book we’ve been reading is Sally Lloyd-Jones’ The Jesus Story Book Bible. We’ve actually read all the way through it once together, and so we’re now back at the beginning. Over the past few nights, we’ve read about creation, the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, and the story of Noah’s family and the flood. Reading these biblical stories in conjunction with Where The Wild Things are has been illuminating for me. While it is highly unlikely that Sendak, an atheist, was seeking to create connections between this story and the biblical story, he nevertheless penned 335 words that penetrate into our common human experience of imagining worlds for ourselves while ultimately longing for little more to be home and to be loved. In this way, Max’s odyssey provides a glimpse into the biblical narrative of fall, separation, exile, return, and redemption.

Having rebelled in an act of mischief, followed with an outburst directed at his mother, “I’ll eat you up!” Max forfeits his parents gracious provision of supper and shifts his appetite toward the prospect of a new world where he can become king and exert mischief and control as he pleases. Like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, Max is lured by the temptation of becoming like a God. And he wastes no time succumbing to this temptation. Upon his arrival to the land of the wild things, Max mimics God’s creative power. Like God’s Spirit hovering over creation and Jesus calming the stormy seas, Max tames the chaos of the Wild Things with the simple command, “Be still!” The wild things then make him king, and his first act as king is to commence the “wild rumpus,” a mischief-filled scene of dancing, swinging from the trees, and howling at the moon. In this moment of supreme power, Max, exhibiting a certain air of arbitrariness, taketh away with the words “Now stop!” And then with a cruel twist of irony he sends the wild things to bed without any supper, the same consequence he himself had suffered.  

The next line is as abrupt as it is poignant.

“And Max the king of all Wild Things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.”

Max had become like a God. Yet he found himself alone, longing for love, longing for home. And then Max smells something good to eat, something from a great distance, the food which he had long ago abandoned but which was still prepared for him, there for him, waiting for him. In a moment reminiscent of the prodigal son in Luke 15, Max comes to himself. He is awakened to the enduring love that awaits him, a table prepared for him. He is Israel in the wilderness of exile hearing the echoes of God’s merciful call to come home. He is you and me in the land of the wild things that we inhabit every day, catching glimpses of God’s truth, goodness, and beauty that call us back to him.

And so Max gives up being king and gets in a boat to go home. But not without the protest of the Wild Things who cry out, “Oh please don’t go. We’ll eat you up-we love you so!”

And then, in an act of repentance, “Max said, ‘No!’”

With this, “no” Max resolutely turns from one way of life to another, from the way of ruling his own kingdom of the wild things to the way of love and belonging. To interpret this as repentance may seem odd, but only if we limit the notion of repentance to turning away from particular acts of moral failure or sinful behavior. And while Max might have also repented of some of his mischievous behavior, the more important repentance is captured in his turning from one world and its stories back to the one where he ultimately belonged. The world of the wild things provided for Max satisfaction and fulfillment and, for a time, a sense of belonging. But eventually it proved wanting. It was not home. It was not love. It was not the feast for which his soul hungered.  

Perhaps I’ve taken the connection between Max and biblical theme of repentance and return from exile far enough, if not too far. And to be clear, I don’t intend to demonize Max or his wonderful imagination and adventuresome spirit, qualities which I believe we should nurture in all children and adults alike.

Nevertheless we would do well to consider the worlds, stories, and forces that shape our everyday lives. To what do we need to say “no,” and then embark on our return home to the grace of Christ? This question is less clear than it may seem at face value, because the stories we inhabit – whether it be the story of our family, our community, our professional life – are incredibly complex, with a mix of good, bad, and everything between. Like each of us individually, the systems and stories we inhabit are shot through with contradictions. More difficult still is the fact that we create so many of these worlds ourselves – worlds of ambition, success, power, influence, worldly significance, worlds that allow us to become complicit with forces of oppression, apathetic toward injustice, indifferent to the suffering of others, swept up into the distraction of technology and entertainment. For many of us, myself included, we find these worlds incredibly comfortable, convenient, and satisfying. We often hear the siren call of these worlds, “Please don’t go! We’ll eat you up-we love you so!” But in the face of this siren call, God calls us and empowers us by the Holy Spirit to say “no.”

During this Lenten season of repentance, we focus upon the enduring truth that in Christ, God freely extends his mercy to us, that the grace of God is such that we are always welcome to return from our places of exile, that the forgiveness of sins is unconditional, and that God’s love is our home.

The only question is, to what will you say “no”?

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