May the Lord of all,
the very real and present Saviour,
the very quick,
the very vital,
breath God’s health in you and fill you with divine breath;
may God hold your mind in stillness,
quicken your thoughts,
speak with your tongue and listen with your ear;
may God give you the impulse of the moment
that you may hold it, illumined.
I invite you to take an imaginative journey. Go back, if you will, to your childhood, to those moments when you can first remember thinking about what you thought you might be like as an adult. Remember the sidewalks or fields that you played on–the warm sun on your face, the wind in your hair. And take some time to recapture the fantasies that filled your mind.
You would not have used these categories then, but using them now, ask yourself–what were your visions like? Were your visions of adulthood marked by dreams of acquisition? The acquisition of new capacities, new power, new prestige? The acquisition of new roles and recognition? Or were they visions of exchange, trading a child’s capacities and strengths for an adult’s–the exchange of a child’s dependence for independence–the exchange of vulnerability (albeit apparent) for adult invulnerability, even the trappings of childhood for the trappings of adult existence?
I suspect that the vast majority of us are prepared psychologically and culturally for one of these two visions, although we might differ in the way we describe them. We are nurtured on both from an early age. The more prominent one, on display almost everywhere is the acquisitive vision. Not long ago a colleague of mine went shopping at the grocery and noticed a mother and her small child shopping together. The little girl pushed her own diminutive grocery cart, proudly displaying a flag, announcing “consumer in training.” And by the end of the 1970s advertisers were already spending $600 million a year to sell one thing and another to children.
I am confident that the figure is far higher today, but the point is the same.As if part of some Orwellian nightmare, we are cultivated as customers, consumers, and acquisitive machines destined to feed the economy from the cradle to the grave. General motors used to remind its workers, we take you from cradle to grave. You grow up in a Chevrolet and you’re buried in a Cadillac. And, as if that were not enough, we have now begun to “commodify” the whole of our culture, treating everything from education to spirituality as something to be bought and sold, the subject matter of customer satisfaction. The commercial and technological power focused on this enterprise is so mammoth and pervasive, that it is often only the tragedies of life that break the hypnotic power of this self-induced trance.
Of course life as acquisition is not entirely distinguishable from life as exchange. But the latter has its own early influence on our spirits as well. Educator David Elkind cites one magazine article describing a child’s birthday party:
It was a party like any other: ice cream and cake, a donkey poster and twelve haphazard tails, and a door prize for everyone including Toby, the birth girl’s little brother . . .
“Ooh,” sighed seven year old Melissa as she opened her first present. It was Calvin Klein jeans. “Aah,” she gasped as the second box revealed a bright new top from Gloria Vanderbilt. There were Christian Dior undies from grandma–a satiny little chemise and matching bloomer bottoms–and mother herself had fallen for a marvelous party outfit from Yves St. Laurent. . . . Added to that a couple of books were, indeed, very nice and predictable–except for the fancy doll one guest’s eccentric mother insisted on bringing.
John’s gospel, by contrast, is an experiment in disenchantment. We are invited to lose our lives in order to gain them–to die like grains of wheat in order to bear fruit. We are invited to reconsider the shape and nature of life. Using the simplest language, John outlines the alternatives, inviting us, not to lives of acquistion or exchange, but to lives of surrender.
We are culturally and spiritually ill-prepared to hear this invitation–or, indeed, to hear it as an invitation at all. We enter life determined to gather up in our arms as much as we can carry. “Noses pressed up against the window glass,” we set out, in fact, determined to carry it all: power, prestige, and titles; our schemes and our calculations; our needs, desires, and the profound confusion about which is which. We live as if, in the words of Don Henley, we see “hearses with luggage racks” on a regular basis.
Given our expectations, the call to surrender threatens loss and diminution. We hear it as morbid and world-denying, bereft of joy. At best, it is the vocation of monks, at worst, the worldview of the clinically depressed.
What we fail to realize is that it is impossible to carry life along in this fashion, and the very effort robs us of the ability to free our hands. And, so, we find ourselves unable to receive what God has to give us. Arresting our emotional and spiritual development we become nothing more than we can imagine. We embrace no one who is too different from ourselves. We dare to do nothing beyond the familiar. The horizons of our world are those fixed and established by our own abilities and limited vision.
It is what Abraham Maslow describes as the “Jonah complex,” the “evasion of one’s own growth, the setting of low levels of aspiration, the fear of doing what one is capable of doing, voluntary self-crippling, pseudo-stupidity, mock humility.”
True surrender, like that which Jesus describes, comes with the cross of discipleship and complete dependence on the sustaining grace of God. Now, true, in surrendering to it there will be moments when the familiar landscape created by acquisition or exchange will be swept aside–leaving us vulnerable, without our familiar talismans and reassurances. But this is to be expected if we live fully into the rigors of a life marked by surrender.
And if we do, we will be called to lives shaped by surrender, not for the sake of surrender, but for the sake of God’s work in our lives. We will surrender not to others, but to the arms of a caring and gracious God and we will surrender not to forces or powers ill-prepared to catch us, but we will surrender to one who knows what it means and who has surrendered in victory.
Now, let me remind you that as you wade into the waters of that surrender, there will be times when the greatest enemy will not be a gathering up and a selfish care for all that is around us, but will require the surrender of other things as well. The good, too, can be the enemy of the best. Spiritual practices, high emotional moments of transcendence, sacred spaces even like this one, and institutions can carry us along, leaving us unwilling to surrender and unaware of how much, in fact, we are dependent upon God.
The call to surrender issued by Jesus, like the discipline of the Lenten season, is not meant to burden us anew with spiritual practices for the sake of spiritual practice. The season of Lent is a spacious invitation to abandon even the pious practices that might insulate us from the experience of God, bringing us to a new place of vulnerability before God. And where we do rely on a practice, the goal is to create a space in which we can be found by God in ways that radically challenge and change us, propelling us back into the world with fresh vision.
The story is told of a pilgrim who was walking down a road one day when he passed what seemed to be a monk sitting in a field. Nearby, men were working on a stone building.
“You look like a monk,” the pilgrim said.
“I am that,” said the monk.
“Who is that working on the abbey?”
“My monks,” said the man. “I am the abbot.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” the pilgrim said. “It’s so good to see a monastery going up.”
“We’re tearing it down,” the abbot said.
“Tearing it down?” the pilgrim cried. “Whatever for?”
“So we can see the sun rise at dawn,” the abbot said.
There are moments in life when the only way in which to embrace life as God would have us know it, is to surrender life as we know it. To die is to live, if it is death at the behest the one makes resurrection possible.