5 Jul 2009 02:58 PM

Surrender Naturally

Sermon preached by Deacon Sue Mosher 5 July 2009

It might seem odd to hear a sermon on surrender on this weekend that celebrates our national vitality and accomplishments. After all, if the founders had succumbed to British authority and military might, our lives and the world's history would be far different. But I want to reclaim the word "surrender" from the context of shameful battlefield defeat and explore its spiritual implications, particularly the practical role that surrender may play-some would say must play-in our spiritual lives. What I have found at the core of spiritual surrender are some of the same values that contribute to our national character: hope, trust, a willingness to take on risk for the sake of an uncertain future, and-above all-courage. To illustrate that, I want to tell two brief stories, one contemporary and one personal.

But first, consider that we all exist in a natural state of surrender at all times, because from the moment of birth, we are subject to the pull of gravity. As my yoga teacher is fond of saying, we must "surrender to the floor." Ultimately, we all must also surrender to death. In between, those who are blessed with compatible partners may enjoy surrender to the other's embrace. From some of those sexual encounters, a child is conceived and comes into this world through the mother's surrender to the natural process of birth.

The common thread among all these moments of natural surrender is the act of giving up control and letting nature take its course. Keep that in mind as I share the story of my friend and teacher Jerry Wennstrom.

Thirty years ago, when he was a young artist gaining so much acclaim in New York City that a film was being made about his art, Jerry destroyed all his paintings and other works and took a leap of faith into the abyss of unknowing. He writes in his book The Inspired Heart: An Artist's Journey of Transformation, "I needed to know if there was a God, and I risked my life to find that out." He gave away everything he owned, and for 15 years, he lived in celibacy and ate only when food or the money to buy food came to him. His only sure shelter was an unconditional trust that divine grace would be available to the sincere pilgrim. As he wrote in the passage you heard earlier, "I knew that an order held life in balance, an unseen glue that I could not possess. . . . I could only trust the glue to hold-trust it with my life." Eventually, what he had sacrificed came back to him many times over, just as Jesus promised that those who leave behind family and home to answer their spiritual calling will receive back family and home a hundredfold. He helped a community of nuns mount an art exhibition, and they gave him enough money to travel to Whidbey Island, in the Pacific Northwest, where he met Marilyn Strong, a gifted and intuitive woman who would become his wife.

detail of Walking Through, a sculpture by Jerry WennstromThe creative impulse returned, inspiring Jerry to produce art works that are mysterious, interactive, deep, disturbing, playful celebrations of the longings and synchronicities that affirm our connection with that which lies beyond the senses. For once, I wish that we had a screen up front on which I could project images, so that you could see some of his works, but I'll have to settle for passing around his book during our hospitality time. 

In our red hymnal, hymn number 1, "Praise to the Living God," captures the essence of Jerry's experience, especially in its second verse:

Formless, all lovely forms declare God's loveliness;
Holy, no holiness of earth can God's express.
. . . Creation speaks God's praise,
And everywhere, above, below, God's will obeys.

This concept of the divine will being deeply intertwined with holiness is a stumbling block to many who entertain the idea of a richer spiritual life, but feel that their own free will collides with their understanding of God's will. The hymn and Jerry's story paint a different picture, I believe. They both declare that God's loveliness and holiness are beyond the capacity of earthly means, even God's own creation, to express completely, but all still are drawn toward God, into the divine flow of time and space that is as different from our own will as God's beauty is different from the most captivating art work or flower.

Seen in this context, surrender moves from being a conscious act of renunciation toward the trusting release of oneself into the stream of unknowing, willing to allow that stream to carry oneself wherever it may lead. No wonder the parallel gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell side-by-side the story of Jesus welcoming the little children and his challenge to the rich young man to sell all of his possessions`. Renunciation is meaningless unless it occurs simultaneously with a childlike trust in what is to come.

To surrender means to give up, but what exactly is it that Jesus suggests the rich young man relinquish? It is not simply his riches, for doubtless he already has been giving alms to the poor, in accordance with the Law. The passage that Eric read from the Bhagavad Gita provides a possible answer: "If you are unable to work for Me, then just surrender unto My will and renounce the attachment to and the anxiety for the fruits of all work." What the rich young man sadly cannot give up is his attachment to his riches. What is demanded is the same radical balance that the Bhagavad Gita recommends: "learning to accept all results as God's grace with equanimity." To accept all results-To align ourselves with the will of God and the reality of grace means to give up control over, or attachment to, the results, the outcomes of our actions.

Jerry made surrender real for me, not just something found in spiritual how-to guides, and that made it possible for me to recognize and respond to surrender when my moment came. About a year ago, a young friend suggested that I attend a religious ceremony that was going to be conducted by a visiting elder from the tradition that my friend was following. Many of the words would be familiar, but the nature of the ceremony itself, as I understood it, would be quite alien to my experience. An element of risk was involved: Once exposed to it, would I feel called to go more deeply into this tradition? Would my family and friends think I was weird? Did I have the physical stamina for hours of singing and dancing? Here, my initial reference to the military context of surrender comes back into play, for an inner battle often may precede spiritual surrender. We wrestle with pros and cons, convinced that we are able to make a rational decision. I think, though, that we sometimes frame a perplexing issue only in options that are understandable to the rational mind, but that limit our opportunity to discern a deeper, intuitive meaning.

As I waited to hear whether I would be allowed to attend the ceremony, the debate raged inside: Should I attend or not? Ultimately, I simply let go of the question, as well as all calculations of possible outcomes. In her controversial book Being-in-Dreaming, Florinda Donner defines a spontaneous act as "an act where all the pros and cons have been taken into consideration and duly discarded, for you expect nothing, you regret nothing." This is the same quality as an act of spiritual surrender: You expect nothing, and you regret nothing. In the moment of my letting go-which came not in a church, but in a Target store-came such a peace and bliss that confirmed the validity of what Jesus-and indeed all true spiritual teachers-claimed: that those who relinquish their lives and all the attachments and anxieties they contain shall gain them back a hundredfold.

I did eventually attend the ceremony, and, no, I did not come back a convert. I received two messages, one of immediate guidance, the other of future promise, now fulfilled. But I would have been content-and unsurprised-to return with no discernable outcome at all, for I had already accepted in my moment of surrender that whatever I took out of it would be exactly that spiritual food which I needed at the time.

Most of us are not ready to leap into the grand gestures demanded of Jerry Wennstrom or of Jesus' rich young man, but anyone can muster enough self-awareness to take some small steps. Therefore, I want to conclude with one suggestion for tuning your everyday life to the opportunity for surrender on whatever scale is appropriate in your own spiritual journey.

First, examine yourself to see what you are holding onto most tightly. Is there an area of your life in which you exert so much control that this area feels rigid? Does some question keep drawing your attention, even though it has no apparent answer? Dare to think small, really small; maybe it's even something as trivial as being obsessed with finding one particular brand of toothpaste when you go to the store. Sometimes an inner rigidity may be mirrored by stiffness or soreness in some part of the body, so listen to what your physical self might have to say. Next, if you find an area of your life being so tightly gripped, consider this: What might happen if you let go and surrendered it-if you simply dedicated this area of your life to God? Be willing to see what happens if you release your expectations in that area.

In letting go of a mundane obsession or of an unsolvable problem, we may find the first hints of personal liberty. Our surrender may turn to victory. As Jerry Wennstrom writes, "There is great freedom in knowing that nothing is ours to hold or identify with. Any victory or accomplishment gets offered back, brightening the overall light of a vaster whole. . . We place creativity in service of a mystery that we can then join forces with."

May we all find the courage to join forces with that mystery, each in our own unique way, and experience such surrender to be as natural as gravity.


From The Inspired Heart: An Artist's Journey of Transformation by Jerry Wennstrom:

The path I followed had an unseen form. It could never have carried with it the progressive levels of understanding or the timely, saving moments of grace with their essential material gifts if it did not have its own vast, intelligent form. This fluid form was often terrifying to my small human mind. . When our small lives open outward to include everything, how do we make sense of it? . I knew that an order held life in balance, an unseen glue that I could not possess. . I could only trust the glue to hold-trust it with my life-which is what I did. .

Most of us seek a new relationship to the vastness of everything, a glimpse of formless freedom, as we move along our spiritual paths. We intuit a mysterious power that holds us in a particular way when we find the courage to risk, or when we give ourselves to a life that is more challenging and demanding than we have previously known. We seek this experience in many exciting ways: in the newness of a moment that pushes our comfortable edges, in fashions and trends, or in something dangerous like mountain climbing. It doesn't matter. We look for anything that makes us feel unheld, if only for one risky moment. Unheld by the collective and personal known. We want to be out on a limb, out of the range of human control. We want to feel the thrill of going forward against odds, risking it all, and surviving gloriously! We bring the mystery of this survival back . as a story-a precious gift to be shared, ritualized, and handed on to those not yet born.

Second Reading - From the Bhagavad Gita:

Anybody - including women and men, merchants and laborers, and the evil-minded - can attain the Supreme Abode by just surrendering unto My will with loving devotion. .

If you are unable to work for Me, then just surrender unto My will, and renounce the attachment to, and the anxiety for, the fruits of all work with subdued mind, by learning to accept all results as God's grace with equanimity. .

Setting aside all meritorious deeds and practices, just surrender completely to My will with firm faith and loving devotion. I shall liberate you from all sins or the bonds of karma. Do not grieve.

Posted by Sue Mosher at July 5, 2009 02:58 PM
Posted to Sermons