This Thing Called Surrender

Surrender happens when you let go of attachment to something that is beyond your control and you come to an acceptance of what is and can even see the beauty in it. Surrender is not easy because it involves issues of identity and power.  Most of us are terrible at surrender.  But, it can offer freedom and the ability to truly embrace life and all its possibilities.

This message was offered to Eliot Unitarian Chapel on August 16, 2020:

One of the things I have always loved about Unitarian Universalism is that we are passionate about service.  Our faith has never just been about what we believe.  In fact we proclaim that it is not enough for a church to simply proclaim what we believe about God or the universe.  It is more important that we focus on how we live and act.  This is why our theology engages a holy restlessness. We have such a profound vision of how things could be if we truly lived in right relationship that when we see the gap between what is and what should be, we want to do something to stop the suffering and harm that comes from the deep brokenness of this world,  to be there for the mending.  We have this deep conviction that we are called to tear down the hells of this world and restore the heaven of beloved community.

This theology of action and possibility is all wrapped up in our understanding of humanity, not as depraved or inherently sinful, but rather born, every one of us, with a deep glowing spark of love, the kind of love that is so powerful that it holds all of us and blesses us with the capacity to create goodness. Everything we do in Unitarian Universalism is about channeling that love.  That’s pretty powerful, and it’s one of the ways that Unitarian Universalism helps us to find new life, new energy, and hope.

But sometimes, I have found that there’s something missing in how we live this faith as action.  Sometimes we are so focused on the goal, so focused on what could be or should be and how important it is to get there that we become detached from the present moment.  This isn’t unique to Unitarian Universalism.  Our culture is a goal driven culture.  We are addicted to stats, rankings, accomplishments, and productivity.  We measure each other and ourselves constantly and relentlessly.

More and more, I wonder about how we take care of ourselves and each other when we ourselves are broken by the brokenness that we yearn to end. One of the larger stories we tell in our society is that those who are broken are morally weak, and that they did it to themselves.  Even though intellectually most of us know this isn’t true and that it’s pretty abusive many of us do have that voice in our heads saying, “Come on, pull yourself up, you should do better, be stronger, less…. broken.”

There was a time in my life when I was truly disillusioned and filled with heartbreak. What caused it is less important than the fact that it happened.  I went to church on one Sunday when things were particularly hard and the sermon was one of those biography sermons of someone who did great things and overcame incredible odds.  Many of us who have been around Unitarian Universalism have certainly heard a version of this sermon. I’ve given a sermon like this myself many times, offering someone as a model of how to live well and justly. But on that Sunday it fell far short of what my spirit needed, because the call to be strong and keep pushing forward just made me feel not good enough.

So I turned next to the closest thing we have to a Bible, which is our hymnal, and started looking for comfort.  Wouldn’t you know, most of the hymns were like that sermon.  They proclaimed hope, encouraged us to strive for victory, anchor in our power and work towards justice, which is all well and good.  I found only one hymn that gave me permission to feel lost and small:  “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child… sometimes I feel like a motherless child.  Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.  A long way from home.  A long way from home.” What is significant about this hymn is that it is one of the few in our grey hymnal from the African American tradition, from a communal history that often experiences powerlessness.  There is no fight in this song but rather a bittersweet surrender and vulnerability. Most of our hymns are written by those who are in social locations of power, who assume they have the agency to change and heal the world, with the brokenness usually at arms length, something out there that we fix rather than something in here that is tearing us apart.

I began to wonder, is Unitarian Universalism only for the strong?  Only for the moments when you are in your power?  What about those moments that invite you not into some fight but rather into a place where the most powerful thing is to surrender to what is inside you and around you.

The answer of course is that no, you don’t have to always be strong and in your center of power to be a UU.  But I do think that in our very optimistic and forward looking faith where we often focus so much on what we should be doing, we can certainly think about how we might respond with more compassion in times of weakness when we are wrapped in shadow, when we lose our faith or are brought low by those things that are so much bigger than us that we are rendered powerless.

Sometimes it’s not time to fight.  It’s time to surrender, to come into a place of  acceptance and to let it be trusting that we will be held by that greater love which knows no limits.

I want to tell you about a time when I had to learn to surrender.

Three years ago, with no warning, my eldest brother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.  My mom flew out right away, my partner and I followed closely behind, and my Dad arrived shortly after.  By the time we all arrived, the prognosis was in – no cure, he might have a year.  As is so common in the face of terrible news, we all went into doing something.  It was easier to write lists than to sit in the reality of what was happening.  It helped us feel like we had some control over something!  It was decided that we would take shifts staying with him and his wife and I was first.  My job was to drive him for his treatments, a 4 hour round trip from his farm into Edmonton Alberta.  We left as the sun rose and got home as it was setting.  Our whole lives were shaped by his medications, his treatments, his sleep schedule, and every symptom and side effect.

Now I have to tell you that where my brother lived was stunningly beautiful.  You could literally see for miles  around, not a house or road in sight, just the high prairie sky and the grasses that never stopped bending in the wind that never ceased blowing.

One morning as we were loading up to leave for Edmonton, the sun was just rising and the black sky was pierced with layers of blue and orange.  I drew in my breath and said, “Oh Martin.  You live in paradise.” And he said, “Yes. This is where I am alive.” In that moment we took a break from fighting cancer, a fight that we were going to lose anyway, and received this sunrise that would happen whether we were watching it or not.  We could be absorbed in the prairie around us, with those winds that never stopped and the sky that was so high.  We were so small compared to its majesty.

Perhaps that is why my brother insisted on spending as much time as he could outside, because before the expansiveness of the prairie, what does one shortened life mean? To be part of the prairie is to surrender any illusion of your own power before it.  It didn’t make his impending death less tragic or less painful, but it put it in perspective and gave us all some room to breathe.

So what is this thing called surrender? Surrender happens when you let go of attachment to something that is beyond your control and you come to an acceptance of what is.  You might even see the beauty in it. Surrender is not easy because it involves issues of identity and power.  Most of us are terrible at surrender.  But, it can offer freedom and the ability to truly embrace life.

For example, if have you have had the experience of wanting someone you care about to be a certain way and you keep striving for them to be the person you want them to be, surrender is when you accept that you have no power to change them.  They are who they are, and once you’ve surrendered to that, you can make choices for yourself that weren’t possible before.

I’ve heard dear ones tell me about their journeys with mental illness, how they might strive to live in what they think must be “normal” ways, and how this can really hurt – both themselves and those who love them.  Once you surrender to the power of the mental illness, you can make decisions about who you are with the mental illness rather than who you are trying to fight it.

I have come to believe that the spiritual practice of surrender is what could get us through this pandemic and through this impending election.

Regarding the pandemic, what do we have to surrender at this time? Lots of things.  The illusion only we and our closest ones are affected by our choices.  That no matter how strong you think your body is, you can’t know if you would survive COVID-19.  The possibility that even if you feel well, you might be carrying the disease and could kill someone if you infect them.  We can surrender to the times when we become overwhelmed because it’s not that we are weak or not resilient enough.  We are overwhelmed because this pandemic is messing with us!  Who among us is really strong enough to just sail through this?

I’m also thinking a lot about what the practice of surrender can offer us as we close in on the November election.  We are very anxious about this election.  Many of us are going to work exceptionally hard to get the results we are desperate for.  We are going to give money and time, some of us are going to volunteer for candidates and issues as much as we can, many of us are going to share and retweet way too many memes! Every one of us who can is going to vote by whatever means are available to us.  So we’re building up the energy we need to get through these months.  We are going to need to be very strong and advocate ceaselessly for our core values of justice, equity and compassion.

But, this is what is out of our control.  We know that outrageous hurtful things are going to be done and said by those who fear defeat. It’s going to be a mean and dirty election campaign with new lows hit on a daily level.  This is out of our control.  So is what ultimately happens between every voter and the ballot before them.  We have no power over what they choose in that moment.  We can try to bend this nation towards justice, but ultimately, there will be a time to close the check book, to put down the phone, to lay down the newspaper, and to breathe deeply and wait.

So my question for you is this.  Is there something in your life that is asking for surrender, asking for you to let go, to accept what is.  What are you afraid might happen if you do let go?  What do you hope for if you surrender to this thing that is bigger than you?

I started this message asking whether Unitarian Universalism is only for the strong. The answer is absolutely not, but I do believe that there are many spiritual paths to strength.  Sometimes pushing forward gives us the strength that is called for.  Sometimes surrender is what releases the strength that we need.  By grounding in our principles, by anchoring in that love that holds everything, we will know which path we are called to take.

Amen and blessed be.

Copyright Krista Taves 2020

About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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