When I was growing up, I spent time in the hot Northern Indiana summers at Chapman Lake, close to here in Warsaw, Indiana, where my grandparents had a home. When I was around eight or so, I was granted the luxury of visiting the lake for a week with my best friend, also named Kristen. The only drawback to lake visits, though, was that my grandparents used that time as their own little private work camp. Both believed in the Protestant Work Ethic, and had somehow made an agreement with one another ahead of time that we would grow up to be ladies of substance (my grandmother would never have used the word “women”), through the sweat of our brow. And so, Kristen and I learned how to empty the water out of the pontoons on the back of the paddle boat, and how to hang laundry to dry, all the while flicking the June bugs off the linens. We learned how to make biscuits, and we helped Grandpa fertilize his beloved roses. We shone the flashlight under the car as Grandpa fixed a part on his old Nash, and we learned the importance of higher thread count on sheets. The Millers were not afraid of a little work, after all, it put hair on your chest.
But throughout the day, throughout the humid steamy days, my grandparents also remembered that we were first and foremost kids, and thus we were also granted pockets of free time, a few hours or so here or there, and we would grab our towels and scamper a quarter mile or so down the lakefront and make our way to the swimming hole where we would indulge in exhilarated and unadulterated fun (watched all the while by my grandmother via binoculars as she sat on the front porch with a Pepsi). And I share all of this with you this morning for a reason…for it was that summer that I learned the sacredness of relinquishment. Of course I couldn’t have told you that then, but in hindsight I remember it all clearly. For you see, I learned what it meant to relinquish as I stood on the raft in the deep, deep water of Chapman Lake with my best friend on a break from our chores. I learned what it meant to relinquish as I faced backwards on the raft and would imitate a commercial I saw on television that summer. You may recall it, the NesTea iced tea commercial from the late 1970s? In it, a man seemingly hot and exhausted holds an iced tea in his hand while standing fully clothed on the edge of a pool, and then falls backward into the cool water while a voiceover invites the audience to take the NesTea plunge. Ahhh…relinquishment. That summer when I was eight years old, I loved to step backward off that raft, and fall back into the cold and comforting waters of Chapman Lake, while the water held me up. I remember the thrill, and even a little fear in the fall, the tremendous trust I had to place in that lake to hold me up, the ability to defy the laws of gravity for just a second as I hovered in the air. But mostly it was the sense of just letting go. Just letting go and falling. And that’s what we’re talking about today, prayers of relinquishing. Placing ourselves in God’s hands, a bit like Jesus did in this verse in John, recognizing that he had come to an hour when he was tempted to say, “Father, save me from this hour,” but then went on to say, “Father, glorify your name.” I believe Jesus taught us in the end of his life, the power of prayers of relinquishment.
Now, I believe that sometimes it is easier to define something by what it is NOT rather than by what it is, and so I want to say a few words very clearly and upfront that I do not believe relinquishing an easy one-step move. Instead, it is a prayer rife with struggle, questioning and doubt. Prayers of relinquishment are about process, time, and honest searching. This form of prayer is NOT about fatalism, yielding to chance, or claiming that we are puppets merely following the will of an omniscient and demanding God. Instead, I believe that prayers or relinquishment are about accepting our responsibility as co-creators with God in our future while at that same time being willing to walk into the unknown, trusting that God is with us on the journey. We walk a fine line when we talk about relinquishment, for we must be in relationship with God to practice this form of prayer, just as Jesus was. We must find ways to live our lives in tandem with our Creator, to seek God’s guidance, to study God’s word, to intuit God’s wisdom, just as Jesus could. But, it is also about just taking that deep breath and plunging into the water sometimes too…knowing that loving arms will carry us, wherever we go.
The one who taught us the ultimate prayer of relinquishing was one who had this kind of intimate trusting relationship. The one who modeled this kind of plunging into the unknown was one who journeyed with his Abba on a daily basis. And this verse in the book of John gives us glimpses of what will come in the garden of Gethsemane.
I have to confess that this morning’s lectionary text is perplexing to me. It isn’t one that sits easily or comfortably with me, maybe you feel the same way. In it, Jesus tells some of those who are following him that the time has come, or rather, the time is up. He announces that his death is imminent and that he is like a grain of wheat which must fall into the earth and regenerate to become a field of wheat. He foretells his demise, but with this beautiful sense of continuity, reminding his disciples that there is more to come. And I get it when it comes to Jesus. I mean, how much more proof do we need that Jesus was that grain of wheat? We’re sitting here in this church this morning, the religion survived for 2,000 plus years. Jesus died and in doing he sowed fields and fields and fields of wheat. But, I don’t know how comfortable I am with that personally…I’m a little more inclined to want to hold on to this one life I have, to be that one single grain of wheat, and to cling to this one tender life I have. I like the idea in the abstract, the idea that my death could yield more fruit, but it’s still a little sticky for us, isn’t it? We still doubt some, don’t we? And prefer to cling to this one wild and tender life we have? But maybe I’m being too literal here. What might it mean if the message that Jesus offers for us is instead about the power of relinquishing, the power of letting go of control as we cling to that one tiny sheaf of wheat, and allow ourselves to be used by God if we can just fall into God’s arms.
In the next weeks we will hear more about relinquishment than we can wrap our heads around as we hear the story of Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem, as we walk through the final weeks of the life of Jesus. We will imagine that starry night on the Mount of Olives where Jesus crouched in prayer in that garden surrounded by wild open space where he could have hidden, where he could have run, where he could have escaped from what must have seemed an ominous future, where he could have clung to the grain of wheat that he was rather than becoming the fields of the future. And yet, we know that he didn’t. Instead he knelt. And he prayed. He sweated. And he doubted. He asked. And he begged. But most importantly, when it was time, and only when he was ready, he yielded and he relinquished. He placed his future in the God who he knew loved him, and who he knew would not abandon him, and in that trust he glorified his God.
Our journeys are different then his, of course. Our cares and concerns may seem trivial at times when we compare them with those of Jesus. But we still know those moments when we cling to life, wondering how we will live into the next moment, unable to relinquish our clasp on the idea of control, uncertain how to plunge into the arms of a faithful God and know we will be held.
And maybe that’s where we start practicing simple relinquishing prayers so we’re ready to trust God in the bigger ones. For me, my first lesson in relinquishment at age eight, led to a deeper experience later in life. Several years ago as I was coming out of anesthesia after a surgery of several hours, I awoke feeling disoriented, frightened, confused. I was one of those few people who wake up feeling as if they have a Mack truck resting on their chest and I was convinced I couldn’t breathe (in spite of the fact that all the accompanying machines I was hooked up to seemed to be assuring me I was). My family stood near me, reassuring me that all was well. The doctors and nurses wandering by, reminding me that surgery was through, that I would be home the next day, that all was well. But I couldn’t calm myself. Every time I began to speak I would hyperventilate. Every time I tried to express my fears, I felt unable to explain myself. I was still under enough anesthesia that I couldn’t move my legs. And I couldn’t get up. And I felt smothered by blankets. Now I knew logically that I was still just waiting for the anesthesia to wear off. I knew that it was only a matter of time before this large truck parked on my chest would relocate, but rationalization doesn’t work in the face of panic. And then in the midst of the chaos, a saint of a nurse walked by, and read the notes on my chart, and looked at my heart rate on the screen, and stopped next to my bed and gently picked up my hand and she said simply this, “Christen, let go. Simply let go. Trust me. And do what I do.” And then she began to breathe slowly and deeply in and out. And keeping my eyes locked on hers, I began to mimic her breaths. And I fell into that deep pattern myself. And with every breath out I imagined myself yielding, relinquishing. And with every breath in, I tried to receive God’s grace. And after about ten or fifteen minutes, I drifted into peace. For in relinquishing, I was held. In letting go, I finally found peace. That’s what I imagine Jesus must invite us to do, as we loosen our clasp on our tiny grains of wheat.
I think if the prayer of relinquishment had a soundtrack it might be The Beatles song, “Let it Be,” You all know it right? Finding oneself in times of trouble, mother Mary coming, and speaking the words of wisdom, to let it be. Maybe that’s the truth of the Lenten journey, terrible things will happen, unspeakable things may come, but we are met by the presence of the divine, we are not alone.
Friends, we are walking toward the cross. We know the journey that lies ahead. And there are times when the world we live in now mimics the chaos of the two thousand plus years ago. This morning, may our prayers allow us to sigh. May our prayers allow us to plunge. And in all ways, may we fall back into the arms of God, who will sustain us, and who will beckon us to bear the fruits of justice and peace.