Giving Over

Why do Quakers sing hymns so slowly?

Because we’re reading ahead to the next line to see if we agree with it or not.

 

When I tell that joke in workshops, I get a lot of laughs of knowing recognition.  Yes, we are that way.  Our quest for spiritual independence and autonomy has been hard fought, and we are highly resistant to relinquishing it.  This is one of our greatest strengths, but also one of our greatest weaknesses.  We earnestly seek to be led by the Divine as we have encountered it.  Yet, if we are unwilling to be taken to unfamiliar territory, how much can we be led?

I have been doing workshops with Friends for just shy of thirty years, most of them focused on how to find greater depth in our worship and our walk with God.  And what I know personally about that is that the key to the depth we all hunger for is surrender.  And even the word “surrender” I have found to be very, very difficult for many Friends to embrace.  In exploring with them why this word, and the action it implies, is so difficult for them, I have heard it associated with a loss of autonomy, and even accepting the unacceptable, as when the Bible has been used historically to support slavery and the subjugation of women.

Of course, some of this association of surrender with painful, disempowering experience is spiritual wounding from the history many of us who are convinced Friends carry with us.  But I think it runs deeper than that.  I believe some unconscious theology is in play.  If we see surrender as giving our will away to an alien entity which may likely demand actions from us we would never want to do, I can understand why no one would ever want to sign up for that.  But what if we saw surrender as giving way to the force of Love, calling us ceaselessly, from within and from without, back to our true condition, one small step at a time, as we are able?  An invitation from Love calling us to be the love we were created to be?  That’s my experience of it.

What I have found, in working with Friends on releasing into surrender, is that many find the language of Isaac Pennington, that of “giving over,” much easier to embrace.  Most of you probably know his frequently quoted urging: “Give over thine own willing, give over thine own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything, and sink down to the seed which God sews in thy heart and let that be in thee, and grow in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee, and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that…”  This language, which to my ear is every bit as much about surrender as the word “surrender” implies, is somehow much more digestible for modern liberal Friends.

We seek to be led.  We know there is life and power in doing so.  We have had experiences enough of that to know it to be true, to trust it, and to want more of it.  And yet this giving ourselves over, completely and with some constancy, is so hard.  And if we are going to be taken to spiritual territory we don’t already know, if we are to grow in depth and faithfulness, we have to be willing to leave the familiar shore behind us, and push off into the unknown, with only that which is beyond us to guide us.

An example of this from my own life: I find fall/redemption theology, the notion that Jesus’ death upon the cross is the key to vanquishing the separation from God that is the assumed human condition, to be totally spiritually indigestible.  It would take more space than would work for a blog post to lay out all the ways I disagree with the assumptions behind this theology.  And yet, when I accompanied my wife, a UCC minister, to Easter services she led, and sang Easter hymns with language imbued with these notions, I would find myself brought to tears, tears from deep within.  My soul knows and recognizes some truth there that my still limited understanding and defenses have been unwilling to let in.

In the workshop I led  before  this summer’s Friends General Conference Gathering, we focused on the connection between giving over/surrender and guidance for our lives.  Friends in the workshop later affirmed how integral they found that connection to be, and also the importance of support from community in living out a life of giving over.  It’s not a “one and done.”  It’s something we have to do over and over again, and it takes the support of a community to help us stay anchored in this practice.  I found their experience to confirm one of the main foci for the Participating in God’s Power program I and others have been working to bring to fruition.

Joseph Campbell said “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”  There is more waiting for us than our carefully constructed individual micro-theologies, won at such great cost, can contain.  And if we dare to live from the place where we have given over to That which will lead and guide us, we shall “… find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead [us] to the inheritance of life, which is his portion.”

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