The Art of Letting Go

First Sunday of Lent

Preacher: Beth Miller Kraybill

Empty my basket, that God’s work may be done on the earth; Fill my basket, that God’s will may be done on earth. The words of our Readers Theater echo the stark contrasts of this Lenten journey. Holding on – Letting go. What exactly is it that we are to do during this 40 days leading toward Easter? I would like to offer one concrete suggestion. We can pray. But more on that later.

In Junior High, I was the only Mennonite in my school. My closest friends were Catholic and I remember being consistently puzzled each winter as my friends returned to school following Ash Wednesday with remnants of a dark smudge on their foreheads. This was always followed by discussions of what they were giving up for Lent – chocolate? Movies? School lunches (I never thought that was much of a sacrifice)? Pop music? I remember wishing that I too, was required to “give something up” though my parents reassured me that even if our church didn’t practice some of the rituals of Lent, we certainly would journey with Jesus through scripture leading up to Easter. Over time I became less impressed with the concept of a symbolic “giving up” for Lent, particularly if the denied item had little to do with reclaiming time and energy for one’s spiritual life.

This year, I’m changing my mind again. Our theme of Holding on/Letting Go has challenged me to consider what it is that I need to release in order that I might move into deeper communion with God. My thoughts go beyond a practical giving up (though my niece is relinquishing Facebook for Lent – now there is something that would give me a bit more time!) Instead, I’ve been pondering whether my life is moving in the direction of a deeper connection to God and others, or is it centering more and more on my own needs and desires? How can I use these upcoming days “in the desert” to more fully work with God toward the well being of the world? I invite you to consider with me, the “art” of letting go.

So, let’s look again at the Lukan account of Jesus desert experience. How and exactly why Jesus ends up in this desolate place is unclear. We do know that he has yet to begin his ministry. He has just received the baptism of the Holy Spirit and is preparing for the work ahead. Though we often hear this story as the “temptations” of Jesus, perhaps more accurately it was a period of testing. Jesus humanness is in the forefront –Was this the time for God to ensure that Jesus’ humanness was up to his divine task? Was it a matter of Satan taking advantage of an opportune time of vulnerability for his own personal gain? For Jesus, this was not just a coy trial – a “let’s see if you can deny yourself this one thing” sort of event…but rather a time of preparing for the upcoming biggest test of his life.

We can only imagine what went on in Jesus mind and spirit during 40 days in the desert – the biblical account is sparse. We can assume he was intent on the disciplines of fasting, prayer, study, and spiritual growth. Yet by the end his physical status would have been very compromised – famished, dehydrated, with blood electrolytes out of whack, and likely not thinking clearly.  And it is here, in his most vulnerable state, that the Satan comes. There isn’t a lot of dialogue between Jesus and the slanderer. Satan offers Jesus the opportunity to do 3 things to prove himself worthy of carrying the title of king – can’t you just hear him?: make bread (ah, you must be so hungry), claim your rightful power over the cities and their people (you surely don’t want me to have it do you?), demonstrate your divine nature by showing how your God will save you from anything (after all, for your people, seeing is believing!) Each time Jesus answers with what was imbedded in his being – the scripture he studied as a devout temple Jew. The words of Deuteronomy came forth from somewhere deep inside. There was no need for him to stop and think or ponder what the savvy answer would be. Even when Satan follows suit, and offers Scripture as the basis for flinging Jesus’ self from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem – Jesus’ weary but firm response came from deep within. He let go of any personal, human aspirations toward fame, glory, or even immediate comfort. And in this time of testing, the satan finally accepts that Jesus will not be swayed, and leaves until an opportune time (certainly the author is making clear that testing is not a one-time thing).

I do not have such a grasp of Scripture. I cannot readily draw from the deep well of the Bible to counteract the spirits of testing. I would venture that few of us are able to do so.
Still, we have another tool when we are faced with the letting go that is required during testing – and that tool is prayer. I would like to ask that in this soul-searching, testing journey through Lent, that each of us consider the role of prayer in our lives. We can start by asking hard questions such as:

  • Do I believe that prayer makes a difference?
  • Does God really pay attention to the myriad prayers of every moment and every day; does God really care about my seemingly petty concerns?
  • If God already knows the consequence of the universe – and knows me better than I know myself – why then should I pray? Has God not already willed/not willed that for which I pray?
  • How do I know when it is God to whom I pray and when I am simply having a conversation with myself and those around me?
  • What happens when my prayer is in direct contrast to the prayer of my enemy? Or my friend?

I have an ambivalent relationship with prayer. Let me explain: I truly enjoy communal prayer – praying with another person or praying for another person is a privilege and a gift of community. I am comfortable drawing together the thoughts of others and facilitating a corporate response of petition or thanksgiving. Yet I am really challenged to get quiet enough to pray from the inside when I attempt to pray alone. Without the spoken word, my mind wanders, or I grow sleepy, and sometimes I am even at a loss for what it is that I want to pray. Throughout my entire graduate program – each quarter or semester – I have written my goals, and each quarter or semester my goals included establishing a prayer practice. At the end of each period of study, I would reluctantly admit that I had not yet met that particular goal. I suddenly realized that this spring is my last structured opportunity to finally make good on my goal…so I created an independent study option on prayer in order to be more purposeful about thinking of how and why I pray. I recently finished reading a book entitled In God’s Presence – Theological Reflections on Prayer by Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki. Her writings have helped me to re-think my experience of praying. In the framework of “letting go” I offer to you some of her insights with which I resonate:

  • We humans often image God as all knowing, all powerful, and in need of nothing – and ourselves as lowly, impotent, and in need. And yet, in our prayers, how easy it is to reverse the image – we inform God of our hopes, fears, conditions, and requests and then ask God to act. Sort of like dictating a memo to a divine secretary – whom we trust got our every word. “Dear God, please help me pass this exam. And be with Mary at school today. Oh, and thank you for Mom’s new job.”
  • Or perhaps we think of God as someone who needs to be asked in a certain way, before God is willing to act. The power to do so belongs to God alone, and God will refrain until properly petitioned. “Lord, I know you will provide when I ask. I humbly ask that you remove this burden from me as I simply cannot bear it.”
  • Granted, these examples are a bit extreme – but if we image God as being so powerful, so omniscient, and so… Godly that our prayers are unnecessary, or ourselves as too impotent to make a difference, then our attitude becomes one of praying out of duty or fear or habit. Either of these extremes put God at a distance and thwarts the power of prayer.

But consider this – what if we think of God as an interdependent, relational God? What if God not only commands us to pray, but needs us to pray? In her book, Suchocki maintains that God works with the world as it is in order to bring it to where it can be; prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what the world can be. In bringing the world into being, God chooses to share power – we exist, and we have power. Not the same power as God’s, but power nonetheless. And in some very real ways, God’s power is limited by the world’s. Just as we receive from God, God receives from us. God’s creative power works with the world’s creative power – and sometimes against our resistant power. For we are capable of resisting God – we cannot eliminate God, or change God’s character, but we are certainly capable of resisting God’s guidance. In an interdependent world, we can respond to God in love and seek a deeper relationship through prayer or we can reject God’s presence by focusing too closely on our own desires and aspirations. Either way – God experiences our response – God experiences us! Prayer makes a difference as to what God can do in and with the world.

There are many types of prayer and many ways of praying. It is not about the words we use but the attitude we bring to the God we image. Suchocki speaks eloquently of intercessory prayer – prayer on behalf of others – when she says:

“Were the God-world relation one where there were absolutely no limitations on God, then the universe would be a place where intercessory prayer would be absolutely unnecessary. Bu in a God-world relation of interdependence, where the world’s power must be taken into account, where God’s power is exercised in the form of possibilities that the world has the power to reject, then intercessory prayer is of utmost importance. It’s not just that we need to pray – it’s that God needs us to do the praying. Our prayers actually make a difference to what God can do.”

It is in this interdependent work with God that we experience the most profound aspect of letting go. When we pray, we release our thoughts and yes, even our will, to God, trusting God to do what God can and will with those prayers. This isn’t a catch and release approach – a one-time only chance at affecting a situation. We are welcomed and encouraged to pray “without ceasing.” But it is a recognition that we do not control what it is that God does with our prayer. We pray and release, pray and release with the rhythm of breathing – and trust that God will work in the world toward bringing it to where it can be. We will never fully know the condition about which we pray – and still we do so, releasing our prayer to the God who knows more and cares more than we are ever capable of.

Prayer is a discipline that I ask each of us to consider more deeply in these next six weeks. It is an intimate topic – one that is difficult to talk about, to be vulnerable over, even to discuss with our spouse or closest friends. Yet hanging on to our beliefs requires that we first let go – of our need for control over our lives, of our images of God that separate rather than draw us toward the divine. In these upcoming days of introspection and testing, let us each take time to assist God with healing and moving the world through prayer.

In closing – I invite you to join me by praying the prayer Jesus’ taught his disciples – the prayer that joins us to thousands of years of interdependent work with God in our world. Please use whatever words come most naturally to you – Take this time to experience anew the letting go inherent in trusting God to use our prayer to make a difference in the world:

Our Father,
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,
For yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen

Also see Lenten Prayers