Friday, September 23, 2016

trying hard

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We all love success stories. But in these stories, the success shouldn't come too easily. There should be some setbacks, maybe a disadvantage or two. And struggles, doubts, and a point of nearly giving up. But then, when hope is almost lost, our hero should rise up to overcome the odds and show us that hard work, perseverance, and determination pay off. Of course, don't forget the help of faithful friends who are just as determined and hard working as our hero is; it is a team success. This is the classic hero tale, evident in most myths and movies. But is this what really happens in our lives? 

I have spent many years working hard, persevering, determined to do all I can do. I want to make things work out for myself and others, to make this world better, to complete the tasks I believe I have been given to do. I admit that I am also a bit too uptight about these tasks and a tad perfectionistic, which makes it difficult for me to share the load, to make it a true team effort. But I try. Really, I try hard. 

The place where I try the hardest is in the church. I want so badly for people to have peaceful hearts, to be whole and healed from the blows they have suffered in life, to enjoy healthy relationships with God and with each other, and to be able to give and receive with joyful grace. This is endless work and I feel ill-equipped to do it, but I try. I try hard.

And then I look at Jesus and am undone, because the main thrust of his message isn't hard work, perseverance, and determination. It is not about trying hard to get it all right. He speaks words of rest to the heavy-burdened, not so they can catch a bit of a breather and then get back to it, but so that they will never pick up that burden again. He rebukes the perfectionists, not so they will chill out for a bit and not be so hard on themselves and others, but so that they will never require things of people that God himself does not require. He heals those who come to him, not to empower them to live fuller, more complete lives, but because in the presence of Jesus there is mercy and grace and wholeness. He redefines relationships, downplaying established hierarchies and highlighting the hidden, not because he seeks to start a revolution to free the oppressed, but because he wants to show us what God is like, and that his kingdom is not based in might and power.

We talk about love being the underlying message of Jesus, and it is, but for me, even that word, love, is closely associated with work: giving more, treating people better, being more outgoing, trying harder. Sad, I know. I am basically a Pharisee. I know a fair bit about religion, I try really hard to do the right thing, and I have impossibly high standards for myself and others. On the outside, it looks like success of a sort. But this is not what the kingdom of God looks like. It's not even close. 

Instead of talking about success, perhaps we should be telling stories of surrender. Surrender is so much more difficult than working hard. Letting down a wall of protection is harder than building one. Trusting someone to catch you is not as easy as being the catcher. Letting go of power is more challenging than being competent. Surrendering my dreams and desires takes more out of me than drafting a 5-year plan. And it gets no applause. Surrender is not trendy, because it looks suspiciously like giving up, like passivity, like laziness, like a lack of strength, like you just can't do it or perhaps don't care. But it is the deepest expression of love and community that we know.

I have been reading on the subject of Trinity and community this week and I am grieved by how little I live in this space of mutual serving, mutual trusting, mutual loving, and mutual surrender. Nothing is ever grasped tightly in the Trinity; all is open arms. Nothing is forced or demanded, always freely given. There is no hierarchy, no patronizing, no democracy. Only loving, mutual surrender. Surrender is not a temporary stance, not a respite, not a resetting of power, not a negotiating tactic. Surrender is what God invites us to do because it is what God does. He is always facing outward, toward the other, arms and heart open, not afraid. Surrender is a kind of death.

“[Jesus] freely assumes death as ultimate expression of his love for whoever rejects him. He wants the last word to be that of communion rather than exclusion. Jesus dies in solidarity and in communion even with the enemies who condemn him so as to assure the victory of love and communion. ... If we want to be united with the Blessed Trinity, we must follow the same path as Jesus: pray with intimacy, act radically on behalf of justice and communion, and accept our own death as a kind of total surrender and ultimate communion even with our enemies.” [1]

This is not easy stuff. I want so badly to make a success out of my life, my faith community, my family, my work. But Jesus shows me his way is surrender, giving the best of myself not to the work, but to the other, to him. That is all.


[1] Leonardo Boff, Holy Trinity, Perfect Community (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), 21.

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