“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” Luke 9:23-25
I am not in control. Say it with me, “I am not in control.”
This week I received a weary-sounding email titled, “Tired of leaks.” The number of emails about new leaks in the building had reached the point of overwhelming! I felt lost, almost despairing. With my knee in recuperation, I couldn’t even offer to go help mop or empty buckets! There was nothing I could do! I am not in control.
I had had a good day at physical therapy and my knee was feeling pretty good. But I was tired and went home earlyish, picking up some groceries on the way – my first grocery trip since the surgery. It went okay. Then I came home to find that my house had been burgled. Now THAT is a powerful way to be told, “you are not in control!” Police, forensic team, listing what was taken, and it was a long and not so restful evening. Again, I am not in control.
I get uncounted emails, newscasts, or friends’ comments about one political crisis after another. I can’t keep up with it all! It would be a full-time job to write, call, fact-check, or sign petitions in support of or to resist actions occurring at some governmental level. I am not in control.
And these are only the obvious reminders in one week’s time that I am not in control!
I talked last week about how my sabbatical came to be my pilgrimage. And in the study of pilgrimage, I was given the Pilgrim’s Credo, by Fr. Murray Bodo. Five simple statements to guide the journey. Simple enough that they are pretty easy to memorize, but I had them mounted on the front of my cupboard in the camper, just in case I might conveniently forget one or two:
I am not in control.
I am not in a hurry.
I walk in faith and hope.
I greet everyone with peace.
I bring back only what God gives me.
We are going to talk about this credo over the next few weeks because it gives us some helpful guidance on how to live the journey following Jesus. Today, the first tenet: I am not in control.
Take a moment and remember the last time you knew that you were not in control. Can you remember the feeling? For some of us, we can remember it exactly, with all the smells, sights and sounds associated with it.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the feeling of not being in control. I have a deep inner drive to do something, to make a difference, to make the world work better, or at least a few lives closer to home. As Presbyterians, we have been raised to be activists. Do something. Help people. Write letters. Organize for justice. Write overtures to the General Assembly. Do something!
With a long history of working hard, we can begin to be lured into the belief that it is up to us to make the difference. That we are in control. Or that we can take control.
But Jesus is clear. We are not in control. And following Jesus will not put us in the control central. Dietrich Bonhoeffer summarized Jesus’ call this way: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” And again, “The disciple simply burns his boats and goes ahead. He is called out…. The old life is left behind, and completely surrendered. The disciple is dragged out of his relative security into a life of absolute insecurity… out of the realm of the finite into the realm of infinite possibilities.” (Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship, page 7, Macmillan Publishing, NY, 1937). I know that sounds terribly harsh, and not very inviting. But Jesus would not have said it if it were not the only way.
The wisdom of pilgrims throughout the ages, including the first disciples, is that there is something more to receive, more blessing to experience, beyond the threshold of taking up a cross. Losing control is not the end. In fact, it is the beginning.
I have a friend who keeps reminding me, “Whatever happens is perfect!” This is the pilgrim way of re-framing our circumstances, our life stories. So, how do we do that?
We begin by acknowledging that we are not in control. Control is all illusion. Reformed theology is very clear about this. God is sovereign. That is the first precept, the foundational truth. God is first, last and always. God is in, with, and under all things, even the human creatures with whom we share this planet. That is the whole message of the incarnation – God is with us, in us, for us. And God is more than we can ever possibly imagine, much less describe.
The first thing a pilgrim discards as he or she begins the journey is the illusion of control. The result of giving up control is that we become alert, we pay attention. We give up control because of our ultimate trust in God to be there for us wherever we are. And so we watch, we tune our eyes and hearts to see, hear, feel the presence of God. We let ourselves relax into the hands of God. Christine Valters Paintner puts it this way: “The spiritual journey calls us out into the wild places where God is not tamed or domesticated. We are asked to release our agendas and discover the holy direction for our lives.” [The Soul of a Pilgrim, Sorin Books, Notre Dame, 2015, p.64]
Consider our pilgrim ancestors in faith. Abram was called away from the land he knew simply “to a land I will show you.” No directions, no map, just that God will show the way. Joseph had to give up every sense of being in control – first thrown into a pit, then enslaved, unjustly accused, thrown into prison – about as out of control as we can imagine. Yet God reached him in dreams and shaped a life which would do more that he could possibly have imagined. But the path was through the pits. Moses spent 40 years in the desert, Elijah hid under a bush, Ruth went with Naomi to a land she knew nothing about, empty-handed and empty-hearted. Job tried to demand justice, and was even right in his own way, yet in the end, silence before the awe of God was his honest, heart-felt response and new beginning.
When Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” he is inviting us to die to our sense of power and control. It is the only way to follow Jesus. For his way is not our way.
But because we are not in control on this pilgrim journey, it doesn’t mean we have nothing to do, nor that we are any more vulnerable than we were before. In fact, I think perhaps we are safer. For when we are not in control, we are alert to the presence of God, who will bear us up on eagles’ wings, who will be the stream for our thirsty hearts, who will be our shield and defense. Like the Psalmist knew, God never falls asleep. “God who keeps you will neither slumber nor sleep.” (Psalm 121:4) God is attentive to us all the time. God is at hand, in our very breath, all the time. Paul says, “Whether we live or die we are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:8)
So how can we practice not being in control?
The most obvious, and often difficult thing is what Job found out. Be silent. Quit arguing, planning, trying to be right. Just sit in the presence of God who is holy, loving, full of awe. Pascal, in Pensées, noted that, “All of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Pilgrimage will take us to these quiet rooms, or open spaces, to be with our own souls in the presence of God. And just that is enough to bring us around right.
Next, build a network of connection. When we don’t have to be in control, we can listen in a completely different way, not only to God, but also to our fellow human beings. When we listen without the desire to control, we can uncover the beautiful stories of lives different from our own and marvel at the tapestry God has woven in creation, or even in our own small congregation. If I don’t have to be right, I can be loving. And love does not control, but frees.
We are at a point in the life of our congregation when we need pilgrims. One way to look at ourselves is that we don’t have enough people to run the programs we want and we don’t have enough money to care for the building the way we want. But what if whatever happens is perfect? What if we have exactly the people we are called to love? What if we have exactly the resources to do God’s work exactly when we need them? Our plans are only the steps we are taking one at a time, to follow Jesus. And he may change directions. We are not in control; rather, we live and move and have our being in God, the Holy One who is perfect love. There is no better place to be, wherever it leads.
What would it mean to walk away from all the “to do” lists and commit to only one thing: to be. What would it feel like to yield our own stubborn willfulness which has brought us so far in this world of achievement and allow the things we could never have planned for, to unfold? You can find out. Follow Jesus. Become a pilgrim.
by Pastor Carley Friesen