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On Letting Go

Faith is not so much a matter of following the rules, or obeying laws. Rather it's about liberation. And letting go.

Normally we think of religion as requiring a set of commitments.  And offering, in exchange, something to hold onto in times of trouble or personal crisis. As the sailors say, when the storm begins to blow, you'll thank God for an anchor to windward. The thing is, though, sometimes the exact opposite is true. There's a time for making commitments; a time for holding on; there's also a time for letting go.

Consider the tragic death of high wire superstar Karl Walenda.

Consider the tragic story of Karl Walenda, the patriarch of that famous family of acrobats, the flying Walenda's. He was killed a few years ago because he couldn't let go. It happened in Puerto Rico, where Karl tried to walk across a wire stretched between two tall buildings. He had done such feats many times before, but on this particular day there was some disagreement in the family whether he should go ahead with the show. It was a gusty, windy day, swirling gusts of wind were clocked at more than thirty knots between the high rise towers that Karl intended to cross. Though it was stretched tightly between the city's two tallest buildings, you could see the high wire actually  vibrating in the wind. Still, Walenda had never canceled a show before,  so he decided to go ahead.

As he inched along the wire, holding tightly the long balancing pole,  a sudden gust hit his body and tilted him sideways. He struggled for balance, but it was clear he was in trouble. Onlookers saw him fight for control,  then plunge to the street below, smashing into the roof of a car. When his body was examined,  it was discovered that his fingers were still tightly clutched around that balancing pole, he had carried it with him to destruction.

High wire experts rely on the balancing pole. It's the key to their survival. As Karl Walenda once put it himself, "The pole is your safe guard, you can almost always keep your balance with the pole." Yet, experts also say there are times, on rare occasions, when it is necessary to let go the pole, and grab the wire. Of course, when an acrobat has to let the pole drop and fall down, gripping the wire to save himself, that's an admission of failure. So for a famed acrobat, letting go, even if it means saving your own life, can be exceedingly difficult. In his split second decision to hold on to that balancing pole in the wind, Karl Walenda made a fatal mistake. And he held on to the pole, all the way down, falling with it clutched in both hands, all the way down to the ground.

Sometimes its necessary that we let go of even the one thing one would have thought necessary for survival.

From this perspective one can begin to read the Bible in a completely different way. For example, let's take the Ten Commandments. Normally we see these commandments as involving obedience to a set of rules. The laws of the Decalogue represent our spiritual balancing bar. Its rules and regulations set limits upon our conduct, define what it right and what is wrong. Almost forgotten is a very different theme, contained in these commandments; at heart the commandments are not about limits and restrictions, they are actually concerned about the freedom that comes from letting go. Giving up the things that appear to be most needful, in order to gain something still greater.

The Ten Commandments Reconsidered.

The real theme of the commandments is clearly stated in the opening sentence, "I am the Lord  your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." The commandments have to do with daring to leave the safety and security and the confines of Egypt and heading off into an unknown region, a wilderness of freedom  and discovery. And so the first commandment reads, "You shall have no other Gods before me."

I read this to mean, you shall have no other Gods before the one who leads you out of the house of bondage. It's obvious when you think about it that a God by any other name, almost by definition keeps us in a house of bondage. Anything to which we pledge our loyalty and obedience in this world does represent servitude of one kind or another.

Think, for example, about the house that money builds.

People who bow down and worship the God of money surrender their freedom to Mammon and inevitably find that the pursuit of money requires a great deal of sacrifice. People at the top of their profession in banking for example tell me that you've got to put in sixty or eighty hours a week into your work if you're really committed to rising to the top. This means in practice that you are not going to have much time left over for your family, for personal interests, for the church, for relationships. To be really successful in most of the professions, a considerable sacrifice of ones freedom is required. 

Within the Ten Commandments there is a practical program for the rediscovery of freedom.

The program is one that you can put into effect immediately, and its very simple: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Let's think about this just for a moment. This commandment is not saying, give up your whole life for God, sacrifice your profession and all your worldly wealth; its not suggesting you go off into a monastery to be totally and completely at one with God. Just take this one day and keep it holy. Continue doing whatever you have been doing six days of the week. Continue working for money or success, continue struggling to buy that house, or provide for that retirement, or whatever else you've decided to pursue in this life. But give this one day over to God. Take one day off every week, not for the frantic pursuit of leisure, but for refreshment of the spirit.

The Sabbath is for God. It's for getting in touch with your creator; its for communing with the one who brought you into this world in the first place. It's for giving up all those other gods who demand such hard work and such sacrifice, and allowing the one God who would lead us out of the house of bondage to have the day.

What a concept. It's as if this particular program for our salvation were designed specifically for this time and this place. For among all the people of the world, we are the most restless, among all of the nations of the earth we are the least likely to take a day of rest. We are a restless people who are educated from early childhood forward that we are responsible for our own success or failure. Do well in school, work hard, obey all the laws, and you can succeed. Since we are each individually responsible for our own success, it is hard to truly relax. Hard work becomes that habit of the heart that is the most difficult to break.

Keeping the Sabbath means taking this one day and giving it over to God. Surrendering ambition, giving up the restless search for success, and handing over this single day to God.

Honoring the Sabbath is much more likely to work if you combine it with the tenth commandment: it's the last but certainly not the least of all the commandments: One which again seems most directly aimed at us. Thou shalt not covet. This one too, is about letting go.  Giving up those feelings of need and desire that fill the heart when one contemplates all the things that other people have. This is about being satisfied with what you do have, rather than being preoccupied with what you're missing. And of course among all the people of the world, we are most likely to be the ones who do covet. From childhood forward we are programmed to want all the things that other people have. The dominant message of our culture is to gain more and more of what others have. All the television advertisements and the magazine illustrations hold out the allure of a still larger house, a still shinier and newer car, a still more lithe and beautiful body, a still younger and more youthful appearance, and if we only work hard enough or long enough, it is implied, we are sure to achieve the look of eternal youth and success, the carefree life for which so many people are willing to sacrifice all so much, even though it is clearly an impossible dream.

And this too is one of the most difficult habits to break. It's a house of bondage from which there appears to be no escape.  Keeping the Sabbath is the first step in addressing this deep problem of the spirit, ultimately of course, one must let go completely, give up the gods of worldly success, abandon selfish, greedy desire and place oneself completely in the hands of the one God who can set us free. I note that in her book on aging, Betty Freidan touches upon these same themes. She refers to the process of letting go as "disengagement." And he writes, "disengagement from the roles and goals of youth and from activities that no longer have any personal meaning may in fact be necessary to make the shift to a new kind of engagement with life."

Disengagement in the New Testament

This same strategy for spiritual refreshment is commended to us in the New Testament lesson, namely the letter of Paul to the Philippians. In this letter Paul depicts Jesus as being perfect in letting go of all the gods of this world in order to serve the one God in whom there is real freedom.

If ever there were a person more capable of power, wealth or success as this world defines it, it was Jesus. A brilliant teacher, a charismatic leader, capable of inspiring and directing people of all kinds and conditions, and bringing them together in a common cause, Jesus had all the characteristics of leadership that the world admires.  And the people were willing to follow him, even worship him as their god. Yet, in the words of Paul, "he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but rather emptied himself taking the form of a servant."  

The difference between Jesus and ourselves is that most of us really do count equality with God a thing to be grasped.

By our hard work, by our ambition, by our desire to have more and more of the better life, by our grasping and restless searching, we seek to be the arbiters of our own fate and the masters of our own destiny. And as a people this has led us to the pinnacle of power and success. As has often been said, today the US is the only superpower on earth.

Maintaining this status is going to increase the stress and anxiety of our culture a thousand fold. On a collective level its just as stressful as trying to remain forever young, attempting to be super mom or superdad. Setting one sights always on the pinnacle of power, or success, or prestige, leaves one terribly anxious and restless within. 

Though it may not seem like good news at first reading, the good news is that we do not have to be superpeople; we do not have to be super-powerful. For we have all the power we will ever need as a gift of God, pure and simple. This is the one thing we must understand, if nothing else. In this we can have true freedom and real joy.  As Paul puts it toward the end of his letter to the Philippians: "Have no anxiety about anything,...and the peace of God which surpasses all human understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

The peace of God which surpasses all human understanding, at first that too may seem an impossible dream, a goal requiring painstaking effort, hard work, and sacrifice. But the peace of God can be attained readily and simply.  Begin by committing yourself to keeping the Sabbath Holy; do not let the pressures of work, or the anxiety that colors every other day color this day as well. Begin this one day, and keep it inviolate week after week, and soon the peace of God can find a place at the center of your heart too.

A fishing story

A colleague recently shared with me a story from his own childhood that speaks to this same point. When he was a boy of about fourteen, he went fishing with a friend. They caught four nice trout, but it took almost the entire day to do it. As the sun went down, they chose to walk along the railroad track as a quicker way of getting home. Neither of the boys had taken this way before but they'd heard it was easy if you didn't mind crossing a series of narrow trestles that spanned some deep ravines along the way. The boys came to the first bridge, just wide enough for a train, or two foolish boys to cross over,  and then the second bridge. They crossed both without incident. By the time  they came to the last trestle it was so dark they could barely see where to place their feet between the tracks as they crossed the trestle on that starless night. The boys held hands and felt their way in the darkness along the tracks. Suddenly a bright light blinded them. 

Disaster Looms

A locomotive as rounding the curve and coming toward them full throttle. The frightened boys didn't know whether to run forward or back, in desperation they began running forward and away from the train. But they couldn't even begin to see the end of the trestle, and the going was painfully slow.  Only one thing to do.. laying their fishing poles across the timbers between the rails, they slipped between the ties and hung by their arms beneath the tracks.  The train roared overhead, knocking cinders in their eyes and nearly shaking them loose. The cars kept coming, coming, coming. Then the last one clacked over. They tried to pull back up onto the tracks, but their arms were too tired. So they hung there desperately calling for help. They hung in the pitch darkness, their legs dangling as they looked down into the emptiness. They knew they couldn't last much longer. Finally one of them called out, "God, help me!"

Suddenly a small beam of light from under the bridge approached them. "What's going on here," a voice cried out. And two eyes peered out of the darkness. "Could this actually be God coming to rescue us," was the thought that rushed through my friend's mind at that moment. But then a voice rang out, "Why are you boys hanging there from those tracks? And the man shifted his flashlight toward the boys feet so they could look down to see the gigantic distance of ten inches below their dangling shoes. All the time they hung there in fear of their very lives, they could have simply let go, and landed safely on the ground below.

Most of the things we are anxious about, indeed most of the things we fear in life lose their power over us when we simply let go of our fears, and trust in God. To learn this one lesson is the beginning of real freedom. Thanks be to the God who would lead us and all people out of every house of bondage. Amen.

 

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.