Speaker: Julie Hart
Text: Luke 9:23-24
Then he said to them all, If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves (their self-centeredness or ego) and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?
1.I’ve got great Christian credentials! I grew up in the community church from conception on, attended every Sunday, was involved with my youth group, attended church camp from third through 12th grade, served on camp staff during my college years and even married one of my church camp counselors. But, somehow I missed a very important message. It could have been my fault or it could have been the church’s and I suspect it’s a little of both.
Finally, in my mid 30’s when my dad entered alcohol treatment I found my way to a 12 Step Alanon meeting for Adult Children of Alcoholics, I was introduced to the idea of turning my will and my life fully over to the care of God. This is step 3 of the 12 Step journey- a process based in the Christian tradition. Here’s the abbreviated version of steps 1-3. I can’t do life alone anymore because I am so unhappy. I believe there is a God that can restore me to health and I’m finally willing to surrender my will & ego and let God take charge. Now, this might sound easy to you but it hasn’t been for me. The message I had absorbed growing up was to take God on to call in hard times and to do my best to make the world a better place. The idea of surrender to God was quite different because rather than taking God as a tool in my toolbelt, it meant giving my self as a tool for God to use in her toolbelt to use as needed in her plan for the world.
It turns out that after 35 years of working the 12 steps, I still need to surrender every day and usually, when I am stuck-need to turn over each little issue to God. The problem is ego & my willpower and desire to figure things out on my own- to make all of my own decisions. It’s the difference between believing in God and surrendering all of myself, my ego self, or as theologian Richard Rohr says, my False self to the care and transformation of God.
2.The problem with using God in my toolbelt while maintaining my will to meet my goals is that this approach championed by US culture leaves God out of the picture when things are going as I’ve planned and only turns to God during tough times. And, as I’ve discovered, as long as I keep making my decisions free of God’s influence, my sizable ego takes over and people get hurt. But when I do remember to turn my life over to God and open myself to God’s voice within, surprising and wonderful things often happen. The phrase, the sign of God is that we are led where we did not plan to go, begins to make sense.
For example, since first surrendering my will and my life to God, as I understand God in my mid-30’s, I felt led from a lucrative career in nursing and corporate wellness to return to grad school and became a professor of sociology and peace and justice. I will soon be retiring from Ohio Dominican instead of my original plan of retiring from owning and running my own wellness center in Hocking County. I have just finished a book about anti-war veterans and I’ve lived and worked in Guatemala and with CPT in Colombia over 19 years. None of these were part of my life plan at age 25 but all of these events have stretched me and made me the person I am today. I even have an adopted grand-daughter who is a delight in my life but was never part of my life plan.
Surrender to God, as Richard Rohr reminds us is about dying, dying to our ego self that wants so badly to be in charge and opening to what he calls our True Self or that little piece of God planted in each of us at birth. Surrender is about giving up our agenda and giving fully to each moment, each person, and each situation where we find ourselves. Surrender is about being fully present in the moment because that’s the only place where God can fully influence us- mind, body & spirit. Mindfullness is the term used these days for describing this full surrender to the present moment.
Our will and ego is what makes us set life goals, jog to stay fit, persist with school even though we hate some of our classes. It drives us to work hard to move ahead on the job and buy that dream house. It definitely has its place but isn’t meant to be the only self in charge. This ego-led willpower develops early in the “terrible two’s” and grows stronger with each passing year and each success. By the time we graduate from high school, we have learned to engineer our futures, go to the right college, find the perfect mate and shoot for the American Dream. We become control freaks- all in the pursuit of our own happiness. It’s not that pursuing happiness is wrong, it’s that doing it our way and only our way leaves no room for God’s influence in our lives.
Interestingly, while AA made surrender step 3, Jesus made it step 1 when he said, “If anyone wants to follow me, let him renounce himself or herself translated as selfishness, take up his cross and follow me.” So that’s why I chose this as our scripture for today despite the fact that it doesn’t follow the lectionary for the first Sunday in Lent.
There are other reasons that it has been difficult to get the concept of surrender of our ego self to God into our practice. We’ve been told we must be morally righteous and perfect to be acceptable to God, to be welcomed in heaven, to be free of sin. When the reality is that it’s all Grace. We can never earn God’s love and acceptance. The reality of God, according to Jesus and to Paul is that God is love, God is forgiveness, God is mercy and it’s all free. God makes the sun to shine on the just and the unjust alike. Our own righteous behavior may be a grateful response to God’s love but takes on a sour taste when we manufacture it to win God’s approval.
3. So how do we prepare for Surrender? The genius of the 12 Steps is that Step 1 is naming our greatest weaknesses, our addictions, our love of control or money or status. This is the starting point for preparing for surrender to God. This admission of our sin is what makes room for God’s Holy Spirit to move in our lives- to wake us up. Jesus came to replace temple sacrifice as a way to please God with surrender of our lives and wills to please God. As Jesus says- not my will Lord, but your will be done.
Surrender to God’s spirit is what is supposed to happen with adult baptism and it is a great start but I find that I need to make a discipline of letting go in my centering prayer each morning turning my will and my life over to God to serve God’s needs rather than my own. And then when I’m being really mindful, I turn each class I teach over to God before I enter, each paper over to God before I write and for sure when troubles arise, this is a reminder to surrender it to God and invite God to infiltrate my mind and strength, my heart and soul.
4. So who is this God we are to surrender to? Our image and understanding of God makes a huge difference. If your God is judgmental and punishing, demanding adherence to rigid rules of churchgoing and moral edicts, this is not the God of the bible. As Theologian J. Keith Miller says, you need to fire that God and discover the God that Jesus talked about- the unconditional loving parent.
Giving our life over to the God of Jesus is surrendering to Love, making it easier to say with many Twelve Steppers, "God, I offer myself to you--to build with me and to do with me as you will. Relieve me of the bondage of my ego self, that I may better do your will . . . Or as Jesus and Mary simply said, "Thy will be done."
5. So what needs to happen for full surrender to God’s will? This transformative experience isn’t easy and thus usually requires suffering. The metamorphosis between our life where our ego self dominates and our life where our God Self is in charge is hard. Some form of loss always precedes renewal and healing. Think of the caterpillars journey into a butterfly- the cacoon, the giving up it’s previous self. Nothing remains the same. This dying and suffering is where all of us resist. God realized that we humans needed someone to lead the way, to model the path of surrender, and say this is a good and "necessary suffering." Otherwise we do not trust this counterintuitive path to freedom. For Christians, our model and exemplar of surrender is Jesus (Hebrews 12:2)- especially Jesus in the Lenten season.
Surrender is vital because God isn't looking for servants to jump through some arbitrary hoops. God simply wants us mirroring God’s image to make the love visible. God is saying, "All I want are mirrors out there who will model who I am, and what I'm about." The experience of adult baptism is the beginning of this process. Then, as we continue to surrender each day, "We, with our unveiled faces gradually receive the brightness of God, and we grow brighter and brighter as we are turned into the image that we reflect" (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Richard Rohr claims the American contribution to the history of spirituality is the 12 Steps of AA. Twelve-Step spirituality rediscovered the real transformative power that is the core of the Gospel. Transformation has little to do with intelligence, willpower, or perfection. It has everything to do with honest humility and willingness to surrender. God doesn’t want blind obedience or following the law, God wants surrender.
6.How exactly do you surrender? Contemplation or Meditation teaches us to surrender little by little each day. Contemplative prayer is a practice of self-emptying. At its most basic, contemplation is letting go--of our habitual thoughts, preferences, judgments, and feelings. Though life itself is often our most powerful teacher through great love and suffering, contemplation is a daily, small death to the false self or ego. It makes space for the True Self to reappear and be heard.
Contemplation teaches us to live in an undefended way. Little by little we can let go of the need to prove ourselves right or superior. Contemplation retrains our brains to know with true humility and love.
Surrendering to the divine spirit within each of us is not about giving up, becoming a puppet, being naïve, being irresponsible, or stopping all planning and thinking. Surrender is about a peaceful inner opening that keeps the conduit of love flowing between us and God. It is a quiet willingness to trust that we really are a beloved son or a beloved daughter and welcomes God to be our Father and Mother.
7. So what’s the payoff of all this surrender? Comparing my pre-surrender self to my post-40 post-surrender self I’d say I’m a lot easier to live with. I am a better listener, less judgmental & less controlling. I am more relaxed and more honest about who I really am and I have a lot more fun. I’ve let go of my personal plan for retirement and I’ve said, it makes sense to retire in 2020 and here I am Lord, you can lead me, and I will hold your people in my heart. Although my old ego self still wants to take over and make big plans, not knowing exactly where God will lead me is also pretty exciting and reassuring because wherever I end up, I’m pretty sure God will be able to use me there.