Faith as Actively Letting Go

I have just one sermon. If you have listened to me preach more than a few times, you have probably figured out that sermon. It is encapsulated in the simple (often overused) motto: “Let go and let God.” Yes, it can be trite if we are not paying attention to what it means, and it can be devoid of Christian conduct if we do not fully appreciate the power of “letting go.”

It was many years ago that I came to understand the power of this phrase. I was serving in a large church with its many demands. I was spending all of my time chasing something that was, quite frankly, uncatchable. I was trying to find happiness and fulfillment by doing more … and more … and more. I was depressed and anxious.

It was during a series of conversations with someone who became for me a spiritual advisor of sorts (and she was someone who was very astute at diagnosing spiritual ailments) that I gained clarity. She looked at me one day and said, “You will never catch whatever it is that you are trying to catch. Even if you did catch it, it likely won’t bring you happiness or fulfillment or even a clear sense of identity. What is it you are trying to grasp so tightly anyway?”

I thought about it for a bit. I tried to talk about the fulfillment of my calling and career. I tried to talk about my feeling of self-worth and how this hard work will one day give me what I am looking for. For each of those explanations, she played what we came to call the “BS Card.” (Sorry, there is no clean or nice way to talk about that.) She told me exactly what she thought of my excuses.

She asked me again: “What you are trying to hold onto so tightly?”

And finally, I said, “God.”

That was when she offered me the best insight ever. “Your journey, my friend, isn’t about you getting your hands around God, but rather you figuring out how to let God get God’s hands around you.”

And she had me. She knew it, and I knew it. I was never going to get where I wanted to be by trying so hard to get my hands around God. My journey was forever changed when I stopped trying to get my hands around God and let God just get hold of me.

As I have gone farther on this journey, I have realized that “letting go and letting God” doesn’t mean it is a passive venture, by any means. As a matter of fact, it is an “active” letting go that finally puts us in the place where we can most effectively follow Jesus. Actively letting go means, among that other things, that:

  • we are reminded that faith and trust are the same thing while belief is a whole different animal. Christians have long used belief as the litmus test for whether you belonged to this group or that group … whether you were suited for the glory of eternal life or for the throes of eternal damnation … whether you were validated as good or condemned as evil. Belief (getting our minds around some doctrine or theological statement) is about how we are divided and set apart; whereas, faith (trusting even without knowing why) is what offers everyone a place … a chance … true hope that we are beloved Children of God. We don’t enjoy citizenship in the beloved community by belief, but by faith.
  • we are brought into holy relationships with God and one another. The commands to love God and one another are more about letting go than they are about taking hold. To love God is to empty ourselves and give ourselves wholly (heart, mind, soul and strength) to God, and it can’t happen without letting go of self. The same is true of love of neighbor: we can’t get there if we are clinging tightly to the stuff of our own lives. This is what fasting is really all about … emptying ourselves.
  • we seek justice based on the notion that all of life is a gift and not a right. God has given this gift to us all, and when we let go of those things to which we feel we are entitled (to which we have a right) then we can live in holy relationship with one another. This means that we are free to pour ourselves out for others and seek their welfare … sometimes even above our own … when we love our neighbors as ourselves and make more room for God.
  • we become better followers of Jesus, who really understood what it meant to be fully embraced by … be at one with … God.

Letting go is not easy. It is not for the faint of heart, and it certainly requires a lot more strength than holding on ever required of me. This is a story I told in a sermon recently, and I think it is relevant now:

Several years ago, I had a group of people who had studied a book on living the Christian life. The church we were in had its share of conflict, and there were people who were all holding onto their own beliefs and positions on just about every topic that ever came up.

After the study, the group decided they wanted to make tee shirts that made their thoughts clear. On the front of the shirt, it read: “It’s not about me!” When they turned around, on the back it read: “It’s not about you either!” Then lower on the back, the final statement read: “It’s about God.”

As we journey through our lives, may it be more about God and what God is doing with us. May your journey be a journey of “letting go and letting God.” When you finally realize you don’t have the strength to get your arms around God, let God take hold of you with the arms of grace. When that happens, you will find you are capable of some truly amazing things!

When giving up for Lent becomes taking up The Way

Happy Shrove Tuesday! It’s Mardi Gras, and everyone is getting ready to celebrate! What many people do not realize is that this day is considered holy. Shrove Tuesday … Fat Tuesday … whatever we want to call it is the day that we indulge ourselves of all the good stuff we will have to give up for Lent. It’s about feasting before the fasting. Ultimately, anyone who has ever truly fasted can tell you that feasting the day before is really not a good idea, and generally the stuff we feast on is stuff we really can do with less of anyway.

For us, Super Bowl Sunday was our Mardi Gras, of sorts. We pulled out all the stops with chips and dips … good stuff to eat and drink. Of course, there were only five adults and one two-year-old, but it didn’t matter. We feasted from afternoon until the end of the game.

But now Lent is here, and we are ready to give stuff up. Most American Christians really take Lent as kind of a restart on their New Year’s Resolutions. We think that maybe this is the time to give up stuff that makes us gain weight or that otherwise makes us unhealthy. Some use it as a spiritual endeavor to give up bad habits … letting God help them break the addiction or give up bad things. Nothing really wrong with those endeavors, but it really isn’t what the season is about, is it?

We are people who are so busy figuring out how to let go of those things we enjoy but that we know we should do without that we forget the real reason of this journey. It isn’t as much about giving up as it is about taking up. As Christians, we are called to take up The Way.

The earliest Christian movement wasn’t called a church. It wasn’t institutionalized. There were no doctrines or dogma that explained the intricacies of how God and Jesus related to each other. There were no ecclesial structures telling us who has authority and who doesn’t have authority. Such matters were decided in each community of people who were known as followers (not believers … followers). They didn’t go by fancy names like Wellspring or Holy Cross or Trinity, and there were no “First” Churches … they simply called themselves The Way.

They lived a radical life of communal sharing. They cared for one another. They declined to be involved in government or the military. They were subversive in that they clearly proclaimed that Jesus is Lord, which was their one common confession throughout all of the communities of followers. It was subversive in that their proclamation was that Jesus was Lord instead of Caesar, and it led to the persecution of the earliest followers.

So here I was planning to get ready for Easter in the usual fashion when a friend and leader in our church family handed me a book called The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus by Robin Meyers. George knows I get deeply invested in what I read, and he figured that this would be a good step to my own growth as a spiritual leader. (At least I hope that’s why he did it, because any other motive would have just been mean.) You see, what he doesn’t know is that this has caused me a great deal of heartburn and stress … not because Meyers is wrong, but precisely because he is right.

It is so easy to just give things up. As hard as it is to give up chocolate or carbs or cigarettes or liquor or fattening foods or meat or even whole meals for that matter, it is so much harder to take up The Way.

The Way of Jesus you see means that we give up ourselves entirely. We hand everything over to God that we might follow Jesus more closely. We take up mission and ministry in an intentional way that moves us toward engagement with people we might otherwise avoid.

So what would happen if, instead of just giving up Starbucks for Lent (yeah, that is a hard one for me), I took the money I spend there and committed it to providing job training for low income people who have no skills training? What would happen if, instead of buying that fancy dinner out, I decided that I could give that money to help build bridges between our family of faith and those whom we normally shut outside our doors? What would happen if, instead of going to that dinner out, the family went to work the evening at a homeless shelter or give back at The Caring Place or some other outreach ministry in our community? Following is a whole lot harder than just believing. Even doing these things don’t take us nearly as far as Robin Meyers would push us in taking up The Way.

Lent suddenly just got serious for me. It was so much easier when I just had to give stuff up to be a good believer, but then I realize that Jesus didn’t ask me just to believe.  Jesus asked me to follow. There are times when, as a believer, I just get in the way. When I follow … when I follow Jesus … it is then that I begin to take up The Way.

May your journey in Lent be that of giving up on “just believing” and then taking up The Way as a follower of Jesus Christ!