During the summers of my undergraduate years, I taught swimming for the town I lived in. This was a great job for me back in the day. I enjoyed being in the water all day, truly enjoyed what felt like basically playing with the pre-schoolers who filled most of the beginner swimming classes. And luckily, teaching swimming after a few sessions became second nature for me.
Part of the art of teaching a young child how to swim is the willingness to actually get in the water with them and to know how to hold a child by the shoulders to teach them how to position themselves to floating. Once a child has mastered floating, teaching stroke movements naturally follows.
During my five years as an instructor, I figure I taught well over four hundred children the basics of swimming. Of which all but one willingly allowed me to help them learn to float by holding their shoulders on the surface of the water while they learned how to arch their backs to stay above water.
As I said, all but one accepted my assistance. Of course that one child stands out for me to this day. Mary was four at the time, small in size who always arrived for class with a long tangled mass of hair. I still remember the first time i started teaching her class how to float. Her five classmates very comfortably leaned back with their shoulders in my hand as they lifted their feet off the bottom of the pond. All five very quickly found their balance in the water as I let go. However, when it came time for Mary’s turn, she pulled away from the group, wrapped her arms tightly in front of her and in a very definitive tone commanded me not to touch her, she would do it herself. Several times she attempted to float on her back with her head going under each time. I again offered to help her, and she again refused.
Mary’s refusal for help went on for the entire two weeks. As her classmates progressed throughout the session, Mary stayed behind. At the end of the two weeks, Mary’s mother came up to me to thank me for my efforts, and asked me not to take Mary’s behavior personally or as a sign of failure on my part. Mary, she explained, had was tactile defensive and didn’t allow anyone to touch her. I thanked the mother for sharing this with me all the while thinking, “ now you tell me, do you think I could have used this information sooner?”
As I think about Mary, not necessarily about her tactile defensiveness, but about her catch phrase, “ I will do it myself.” and how her way of compensating for her issues made her ability to learn how to swim so much more difficult, I wonder if we don’t appear the same way to God.
If you think about it, one of the greatest values we hold as a culture is self-sufficiency, the ability take care of ourselves independently of others. I know, for many of us, it is hard to ask for help, even when we are going down for the count. We live in a world where independence equals strength and dependency equals weakness.
This makes growing in relationship with God all the more difficult, as the world calls us to be independent and self-determinant, God calls us to spiritual surrender. In this morning’s Psalm the writer cries out, “Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me.” The first half of this stanza is familiar to us, it contains the final words of Christ from St. Luke’s Gospel. In the context of the crucifixion, when Jesus says into your hands I commend my spirit, the modern reader perceives these words as words of resignation, weakness and perhaps even failure. If read however in their fuller context, the intent changes, no longer is Jesus resigning himself to the degradation of the world, but surrendering the entirety of his life and death into the hands of the Father.
Holy surrender is the ultimate challenge of faith. It is the ability to live into the words of the Lord’s prayer, ‘thy will be done.” How easily these three words roll off our tongues each week as our personal prayers often betray our true reality of not, ” thy will be done”, but, ” my will be done.” In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that he going to prepare a place for them and that they will know the way. Here again Thomas says what everyone is thinking, ‘how can we know the way?” then Jesus says that he is the way the truth and the life.” In essence what Jesus saying Thomas is that Jesus is the way, all we have to do to find where we need to go is to simply surrender and follow him.
The message sounds easy, the execution is hard, for we are all like my young student Mary, determined to avoid assistance at all costs and to find her own way. We tend to do the same until we let finally let go of the things we think we want and accept the very thing we truly seek, peace, purpose, connection with God.
Last Wednesday I met with our confirmands for the last time. The topic for the evening was Ordination. As I often do when talking to young people about Holy Orders and vocation, I share with them that ordained ministry is one of the many ministries we can be called to and while not everyone is called to be a Bishop, a priest or a deacon, God calls each of us to some form of vocation in which to fulfill God dream for us.
As I do with every class, I shared a bit of my own journey. How when I started college I had planned to become a dentist. Why dentistry, I’ll never know. I really was not good at physics or chemistry but did alright at biology that was until biology became more complicated than just physical anatomy. All I knew at the time, in the town where I grew up, every high school graduate was expected to go to college and from there enter into an acceptable profession, those being law, medicine or some form of engineering. And of course i had my own expectations for my life of finding that wonderful high paying job that would allow me the lifestyle i grew up in.
By the end of my first semester at St. Lawrence, I realized, nothing I had planned was realistic. And yes, I had one of those all too familiar calls with my father telling him I was wasting my time and his money because i didn’t know what I wanted. And he kind of laughed because he had had the same conversation with my older brother two years earlier and told me what he had told Ken. Don’t worry about knowing what you want, just trust that you will find it.
I’m not sure my father had ever said anything so profound in all the years I had known him. But with his permission I was able to let go of all the things i thought the world expected of me and I expected for myself and finally listened to what had been on my heart since high school. This was the first time that I surrendered to God’s dreamed for my life, and this was first time I experienced the peace of God that we speak of at the end of each communion service.
Through out my life I have found surrendering to God is not a once and done thing. It is a daily decision and at times even an hour to hour decision as we battle with our own wills in order to allow God’s will to be done in our lives. What I have also found, as in the case of Jesus, holy surrender is rarely about a life with out enemies or issues, instead, a life of holy surrender is about confidence and peace. It is about a confidence in knowing that no matter what life can throw at you, God will guide you through it. It is about the peace of knowing that as we commend our lives into the hands of God, we are redeemed and made whole through love of the Christ.