The Grace Of Surrendering
The Grace of Surrendering: June 10, 2015
Okay, I’m kinda starting to freak out here. Not an elegant prayer, but an honest one.
It’s a prayer I was surprised to hear myself praying in mid-September. Mark and I were moving forward with plans to purchase a house and I was realizing the necessity of going back to work. I hadn’t worked full-time in 6 years. Except for that mothering two small children gig.
Staring a new mortgage in the face had me scanning Career.com and, well, kinda freaking out. The day we made an offer on our house I applied for a job at CarMax. On-line. At 3:30 in the morning. Typing in the dark on my phone.
When I wasn’t freaking out last Fall it was because I was praying the Welcoming Prayer.
Written by Mary Mrozowski, the prayer has led to a prayer practice associated with Thomas Keating and the Centering Prayer movement. As Cherry Haisten writes, it is “the prayer practice of attending, letting go, and surrendering to God in the present moment of daily life.” Another resource explains: What we are “welcoming” is the Indwelling Spirit’s Presence amongst the ALL of life.
Instead of beginning with gratitude or praise, this prayer begins with a recognition of God at work in the world—my world—right now. It asks me to welcome everything that’s presently happening—not just the stuff I’m actually grateful for, like health or family. It begins “I welcome everything that comes to me today because I know it is for my healing. I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons, situations and conditions.”
I am NOT good at being grateful for all the unwanted thoughts, emotions and people who confront me and make me uncomfortable. My immediate thought is not, "This discomfort is for my healing." I’m really just so much better at being in control.
Jack is pretty bossy to his younger sister, and since I am a younger sister, it triggers all my childhood defensiveness. I am forever telling him, “You are not in charge of Emma. I am in charge of Emma.” To which Emma—approaching 3 years—now retorts, “No you are NOT! I’M in charge of Emma!” We all want to be in charge.
The Welcoming Prayer reminds me that I’m not in charge of anything except my responses. I can allow any person or situation to help me heal—to re-concile myself to the Christ perfection—or I can choose to resist. Usually, initially, I resist.
Next I start making excuses for what I want. Excuses can so easily become lies. “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.” “It’s just this one time.” “It’s for his own good.” “No one will get hurt.”
When I resist, it is usually out of fear, not wanting to change, staying small rather than risking growth. Which is precisely why the Welcoming Prayer is such a good spiritual discipline for me.
Last Fall I was working on surrender (I'm always working on surrender). Surrendering to God’s will is surrendering the anxiety of what God’s will looks like and whether or not I'll like it. Surrendering is unclenching my heart so that it is open to receive God’s grace.
I was doing okay until I got a call from a recruiter wondering whether I’d be interested in this full time church job called Endowment Administrator. She'd somehow--miraculously--found my resume in her database.
Even though I immediately got excited about it, even though I started having imaginary conversations with donors, even though the job description was more generous than I ever would have been to myself if someone had said, “design your dream job”, even though the salary was substantially more than I was making 6 years ago, even though I’d been practicing openness and surrender, still, still, I resisted.
My excuse was “Going to work full time would mean breaking a promise to teach next semester.” The lies I told myself were, “That would be a breach of integrity. Plus, working full time might not be good for my family. They need me.” The reality was, “I’m scared I’m not good enough and I’m kinda freaking out.”
More work to be done.
I adopted my practice from this article and was focusing on just these 4 lines of the prayer:
I let go the desire for safety and security. I let go the desire for esteem and affection. I let go the desire for power and control. I let go the desire to change the situation.
Since so much of my prayer practice is also breathing practice, it began to make sense for me to exhale these letting-go lines. But then, I wondered, what am I inhaling? Sometimes it’s good to breathe in the nothingness—there isn’t always an answer. Sometimes the answer needs space to germinate. But sometimes it was good to breathe in a little perspective. Like this:
Exhale praying: “I let go the desire for safety and security.” Inhale, “Consider the lilies of the field.”
Exhale, “I let go the desire for esteem and affection.” Inhale, “Your steadfast love endures forever.”
Exhale, “I let go the desire for power and control.” Inhale, “Have you commanded the morning since your days began?”
Exhale, “I let go the desire to change the situation.” Inhale, “All things work together for good for those who love God.”
Your will be done.
This is what it all boils down to for me. It is the crux of all my prayers.
“Thy will be done” sometimes comes out this way in my prayers: “Help me to want You more than I want to stay small.” “Help me to want You more than I want that person’s affection.”
Sometimes, when I’m really struggling, my only honest prayer is, “Help me to WANT to want You more than this thing/person that I really, really want.”
Last Fall, with God’s grace, I was able to trust. I felt compelled to trust. Surrendering to God’s will led to a scary leap of faith, an amazing new job, a fantastic nanny for our children, a lot of family adjustments, the ability to pay off a loan, and some incredible new friends. So far.
Although tremendously grateful, I fairly quickly started to feel the tiniest bit entitled. Like somehow I’d wrought these miracles myself. I was seduced by my good fortune, by the novelty of adult attention, by the inebriation of feeling competent. And then one fine, self-satisfied day I was brought up short by these words:
“Create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)
Psalm 51 is categorized as a Penitential Prayer. The message is, “I have sinned.” According to James Mays[i], “Psalm 51 is the finest exposition of that sentence in the Bible.” Martin Luther said, “Here the doctrine of true repentance is set before us.”
As I wrote in my post Debts and Trespasses, “the Bible has at least five different Greek words that can be translated roughly as sin. The Anchor Bible Dictionary lists seven. They mean anything from dishonesty, impiety, wickedness, disobedience, or unrighteousness to the above-mentioned debt or trespass.”
What we modern, Western Christians seem conveniently to forget is that sin is always collective. It’s bad enough that I deceive myself—remember my excuses and lies?—but, in fact, what someone doesn’t know does hurt her. Another person always gets hurt.
“The notion that a person could sin without injuring others is inconceivable in the Old Testament,” says Mays. The psalmist declares to God, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned,” but that does not mean that only the relationship with God is wounded. This psalm is often used liturgically as a collective confession of sin and declaration of congregational repentance.
My self-satisfaction--one might dare say ‘pride’--was sinful in its dishonesty and unrighteousness, but also was damaging to the witness I want to be for God’s grace in my life and in the world.
So when I heard, “Create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and renew a right spirit within me,” it both kicked my teeth out and gave me hope at the same time. As the truth so often does.
I was confronted with my arrogance but kept from the devastation of my constant failure. The psalmist asks for forgiveness but also for divine help in being a better servant. Mays puts it this way, “My problem is not just the need of pardon for a particular wrong but deliverance from the predicament of my self.”
This reminds me of Alain de Botton’s marvelous book, The Art of Travel, in which he laments discovering, after the arduous task of arranging an exotic and much-needed vacation, that he’s still unhappy and still bothered by familiar and petty distractions. He realized, “I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.”
I keep trying to outrun, outfox, out-meditate the predicament of my self. But God doesn’t want me to be someone else; God wants me to be me. Fully, faithfully, uniquely. The good and the bad news is that we’re always taking ourselves with us.
The Hebrew word translated as ‘create’ in this psalm is the verb ‘bara’ and it is only used in reference to God. As in, “God created the heavens and the earth.” It means to bring into existence something that wasn’t there before. Say, a clean heart.
Until just a few years ago, scientists thought that mammalian heart muscle cells (cardiomyocytes), in contrast to almost every other cell, couldn’t regenerate. Recent research has shown some promise that heart cells do regenerate, but rarely, and very, very, very slowly. Like the body’s equivalent of geologic time. Glacial.
"Under normal circumstances, however, these processes are not enough to ultimately repair cardiac damage," said Dr. Braun, the lead researcher in this study.
So really, the only way to have a clean heart is to ask God to create one. And then trust that God will do this. And then be open to accepting it. Sometimes God uses interactions with people or situations that make us uncomfortable. Growth isn’t comfortable.
Accommodating that growth, welcoming those changes, renews the right spirit within me. The right (or in some translations, righteous) spirit is one that is open and malleable, always listening for God’s word. It is a spirit of surrender and obedience and it is both a goal and a grace.
So even when I’m freaking out I can trust that God is with me. Even when the best I can do is to WANT to want God’s will for me, I can trust that God will renew my spirit. Even when the last thing I want to do is to risk security for the possibility of discipleship, I can trust that surrendering to God is not the risky part.
NOT surrendering to God is the risky part.
Which is a blessing because CarMax never has responded to my application.
[i] James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), pp 197-204.