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Prayer & Fasting

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July 13, 2017

by Dr. Lani Wilson

Good day, team. Pray and fast. Pray and fast. Pray and fast. Pray and fast. Pray and fast.
Some things seemingly beyond our reach require the simplest of behaviors. Or is it most things?
 
Surrender. Quite a word. Question: Is it the same as sacrifice? There is a difference.
 
While the popular hymn “I Surrender All” suggests surrender to God as an act of submission, the broader theology of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross—at least as I teach it to members of my congregation who gathers for worship— claims that we surrender to a savior who first gave up his life for us. This is a mutual relationship of love and self-giving. But that spiritual surrender, or that release of our personal defenses before God, still occurs in the presence of others who, through their relational cues and collective care, create an environment for surrender to happen.
Sonia Walters (2014). I Surrender All: Subverting Cruelty of Capitalist Optimism with Affective Expressions of Worship. Pastoral Psychology, 63(5/6), 749-761. doi:10.1007/s11089-014-0606-4,  p. 759.
 
The very word surrender is a non-starter in American society. It’s seen as a sign of weakness, of giving up, of losing, of involuntary loss. You surrender in battle because you have lost the power to sacrifice any and everything to win. Conversely, sacrifice is enmeshed in a power dynamic: You choose to lose someone or something, and thus, it signifies that some aspect of our power is maintained – even in defeat. We can almost think of it as face-saving in that you have done a heroic thing to choose to lose. If we think purely in contemporary terms, it is better to sacrifice rather than surrender because American culture demands self-sufficiency and independence, attributes that lead to the American Dream (Walters, 2014).
 
Surrender does not imply strength. Yet, Christologically, it is the exact opposite. We can’t sacrifice anything that in sum will total the debt we owe Jesus for what He did: We don’t possess that kind of power. Therefore, it does not matter how much power we think we accrue on this side of life: It will never be enough to balance what we owe God. All we can do is surrender to that debt and by doing so, we release ourselves from the never-ending struggle for power and mastery because ultimately, there is but one Master. American ethos preaches worthy sacrifice for the American Dream (house, career, family, material satiation, social status). But, sacrifice is not satisfying because it entails loss. Therefore, we are caught up in what Lauren Berlant (2011) calls “cruel optimism:” The very act of seeking a higher goal (middle class America) wears us out and down in the seeking that which may never be achieved. Yet, we would rather sacrifice than surrender because surrender implies powerlessness and weakness.
 
African-Americans were positioned to be the group at the bottom of every rung in American society: All we had was “up.” But gears shifted and the civil battles of the latter half of the 20th century opened doors. There were ephemeral cracks in the social structure that allowed more of us to move up those rungs so that in the 21st century, we have experienced movement into the solid middle class for a small but noticeable percentage of formally enslaved people. Somehow, along the way we switched up our ancestral experience for the expectation of the American Dream. We no longer need to surrender to God because we have sacrificed what we needed to sacrifice to achieve. Now, there are more African-American second and third generation college students than ever before in the history of the country. These young people, so-called Gen-Xers and Millennials, are the children and grandchildren of the Boomers and Traditionalists, respectively. As African-Americans they may not have had it as easy as their White peers, but they haven’t had it as hard as their parents and grandparents. And apparently, there is going to be a hard return to the status of those same grandparents.
 
A 2014 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, which looked at factors like parental income, education, and family structure, shows a similar pattern: Many black Americans not only fail to move up, but show an increased likelihood of backsliding. According to the study, “In recent decades, blacks have experienced substantially less upward intergenerational mobility and substantially more downward intergenerational mobility than whites.” The greater probability of slipping back applies to blacks across income groups. According to the Fed study, about 60 percent of black children whose parents had income that fell into the top 50 percent of the distribution saw their own income fall into the bottom half during adulthood. This type of downward slide was common for only 36 percent of white children.
Gillian B. White, “How Black Middle-Class Kids Become Poor Adults.” The Atlantic, January 9, 2015

In general, what was always the case was that there was a majority of us who never really made it into the middle-class. That number is now being crowded with those who fell off that socio-economic pedestal with the Great Recession in the past decade. For all of these young people, what is their experience of sacrifice or surrender? Christologically, do they understand the difference? And if they don’t, who’s responsible?
 
Got a mirror?
 
Yet Luke stresses that financial sacrifice is fundamental to Christian discipleship. Jesus urges not just the rich ruler but all of his disciples to sell their possessions and care for the poor—in return for treasure in heaven. Many of us today wonder whether Jesus’ words apply to all Christians or only to the disciples, those leaders of the early church. Peter wondered the same (v. 41). While Jesus may have meant it especially for leaders, the principle applies to any of us entrusted with resources that we can use to care for others (vv. 42–48).
Craig Keener & Jill De Haan, When Jesus Wanted All My Money, Christianity Today, 59(4), 46-50.
 
Sonia Walters is an Episcopalian parish priest whose very small church is in a mostly poor, White, rural, working-class neighborhood, and one-fourth of her congregants are solidly professional middle-class. Her first experience in “affective worship” clearly does not generally describe African-American churches. In general, we are preternaturally more loaded affectively than our White brethren and sisters. Yet, as Walters described her first “healing service” and the explosion of feelings, consolation, and spiritual ecstasy, it felt uncomfortably like AT.
 
They come to church on Sunday with knowing nods and eye-rolls about their busy days and their exhaustion, as if this is the way it must be. Their investment in activity and exhaustion appears to be fulfilling what Berlant calls “the attrition of the very thriving that is supposed to be made possible in the work of the attachment in the first place” (p. 25). The good life takes its toll inwardly as more and more aspects of that cluster of ideals need to be perpetuated or maintained. However, perhaps because they have outwardly met the American dream, no members of the professional class in my congregation come to our healing services.
Ibid., Walters, 759.
 
When did AT become an idyll of the “professional class” lifestyle who didn’t need to attend healing services of any kind because we have “outwardly met the American dream?” Could it have snuck up on us? Why is it important to distinguish between surrender and sacrifice? Is it possible that what Jesus asks of us isn’t really a sacrifice but an impossible “balance due?” And if it can never be paid, doesn’t it make sense to just throw up our hands, fall face down, cry out for mercy and surrender?
 
Get a mirror.
 
When did we switch up on sacrifice and surrender? We believe that we sacrificed to get what we have because we had the power to choose to do it…and we ain’t going back, no matter who or what. We might pay lip service to God in thanking Him for our fiercely earned middleclass-ness, but really, we think it’s because we sacrificed, worked hard, and therefore, deserve it. Surrender? That’s a lovely theological, aloof concept, but do we think we have really, fully surrendered to The LORD?
 
In Jesus’ day, most people owned few possessions. In rural areas, many people worked and lived as serfs on the land of the wealthy. In urban areas, many of them lived in rickety tenements located downwind from sewers. Only a small proportion of people were wealthy, and their property was serviced by slaves and paid workers. Estimates suggest that at any given time, more than half the Roman Empire was at risk of starvation. Luke’s world was not too much different from ours: Today half the global population lives on less than $2.50 a day and 400 million people lack access to safe drinking water. While giving up possessions was not a foreign practice in Luke’s day, it certainly wasn’t the norm. Only some marginal philosophic sects and Jewish monks who lived in the wilderness near the Dead Sea actually demanded the sacrifice of possessions. Most people, like most people today, would have found Jesus’ words frighteningly difficult. They had either too much—or too little—to give away.
Ibid., Keener & De Haan.
 
Jesus talked about a redistribution of wealth in many parables: The Good Samaritan, Zachaeus, the Rich Young Lawyer and Heaven (Craig Beed & Cora Beed, 2015, A Biblical Basis for Reducing Extreme Disparity in Property Ownership. Evangelical Review of Theology, 39(4), 324-342.). Mosaic Law required that all Israelites be made whole just as God had distributed wealth (property) among all the tribes in Numbers. The Levites, widows, and orphans were to be taken care of by those who had access to wealth (property). Beed & Beed reasoned that if Jesus came to “fulfil” the law, the Torah, then that meant that all in their community were to be made whole. If Jesus came for the world, as we Christians believe, then that necessarily means that we must work to see that all in the world are cared for. In their article Beed & Beed take the radical position that Christians should be working for a decrease in wealth disparities through home ownership. They cite numerous impressive Christian, church inspired enterprises that have done just that nationally. But as we move toward the end of the first generation of the 21st century with a retrograde political agenda attempting to pull the entire society back to pre-WWII status, we have to wonder if it’s even important for us to surrender to Jesus - again - and sacrifice what we have gained. We are praying that we just stay afloat. And as more and more Boomers who typically have the most economic capital to give leave California to make the most of their retirement dollars, we have to wonder what our communities will look like: Cities of the desperately poor and struggling working-class surrounded by racially diffuse, distended and distant suburbs.
 
The history of affect is a history of secularization, where religious feeling has been transferred to sanctioned forms of feeling within the home, the family, and the marketplace. The family rather than the religious community has become the locus for religious feeling. The personal kingdom of the home and hearth have come to replace the feeling of connection to God. In the public sphere, religious feeling and sentimentalism have been transferred to the goals of humanism. Cvetovich notes the gendered aspects of this sentimentalism; as women were permitted into the public sphere for abolition or temperance movements, gendered affect was permitted in the public sphere if it imbued religious feeling into the spiritual good promised by humanistic goals. If there has been such an affective shift away from religion, what happens when we return affective experience to the site of worship? I believe when we are vulnerable with others in intense experiences of worship, the normative ideals of private and public spaces that represent the good life are interrupted. As Berlant says, it is always a risk to let someone in, to insist on a pacing different from the efforts and incoherencies towards the good life. In a world that has secularized religious feeling, we are practicing something useless when we enter into affective worship. It produces nothing. Nor is it the site we consider central to the constitution of the contemporary capitalist self.
Ibid., Walters, 756.
 
Should we be so shocked that most Gen-Xers and Millennials don’t really give a flying fig about any kind of surrender or sacrifice to anyone, much less God? So…what to do.
 
Got your mirror now?
 
Trade it in for a small window and look out. That is where surrender is. We surrender to the ministry of Jesus the Christ because He had the power to sacrifice His life for us. Such a mystery, but that’s what and Who lives in “affective worship”: The Mystery that is The Nazarene. Walters calls it the “mutual relationship of love and self-giving” in describing our relationship to Jesus the Christ. I might disagree with the word “mutual” since that implies equanimity on both parts, and we are in no way equal with The Christ. However, He did die for us to live. He sacrificed His life and we surrender to Him because of that love He had for us in that act. We have no power to sacrifice: All we can do is surrender.

As with any other moment of encounter, worship does not guarantee transformation. Christian worship and the discourses and practices that surround a community’s common life can co-opt and reinforce cruel cultural discourses such as racism, classism, and sexism. They can also preach a gospel of the good life, or call financial gains a blessing, or confuse patriotism for one’s country with faith in God, thus channeling the discourses of the good life into the mouth of God. But in a post-Christian culture, because worship and church life is no longer the dominant site for the constitution of the self, participation in worship can also present the possibility of discourses and practices that compete against a culturally dominant or normative version of the self. The church community interrupts the story of production with the possibility of an alternative identity not based on promises of what the individual can achieve or produce….For Ghent, the term surrender “has nothing to do with hoisting a white flag; in fact, rather than carrying a connotation of defeat, the term will convey a quality of liberation and expansion of the self as a corollary to the letting down of defensive barriers” (p. 213). Thus, Ghent emphasizes the difference between submission as a power relation and surrender as a positive and personally powerful act of vulnerability and openness.
Ibid., 759.
 
We surrender, LORD, because when all is said and done, there’s not much else left. We’ve pretty much tried everything, everyone, and everywhere, and although it was temporally satisfying, it didn’t complete the picture. Something was missing and we couldn’t quite put our fingers on it. We scratched and pecked and eeked out a place, a position, even a territory and claimed it for our own. But then, we were reminded that we are not the artisans of our lives. There was always a hitch of some kind: A compromise here, a miscreant stroll over there, and it didn’t satisfy. But You plopped on down right in the midst of all of this hodge-podge and took us unto Thyself, in spite of ourselves. For this we owe what we can never repay. We love differently; forgive more; give more; take less, even as we continue to struggle up the hill where You beckon. Keep reaching for us, Jesus. Keep pulling us up, calling to us, dragging us up above the high water we fall into again and again. For us there is no Other because You are It and Him. How blessed we are that You know us when we weakly sulk away because sometimes we act like we don’t know You. Forgive us and thank You for loving us: Trite words, oft repeated, but deeply sensed and sent by contrite and weakened creatures who can only hope to continue to lean on You.
 
All to Jesus I surrender
All to Him I freely give
I will ever love and trust Him
In His presence daily live

All to Jesus I surrender
Humbly at His feet I bow
Worldly pleasures all forsaken
Take me, Jesus, take me now

I surrender all
I surrender all
All to Thee my blessed Savior
I surrender all

All to Jesus I surrender
Make me Savior wholly thine
May Thy Holy Spirit fill me
May I know Thy power divine

I surrender all
I surrender all
All to Thee my blessed Savior

I surrender all
I surrender all
I surrender all
All to Thee my blessed Savior

I surrender all
I surrender all
All to Thee my blessed Savior
I surrender all

I Surrender All
Israel Houghton
 
Amen.
 
References [from Walters (2014) paper]
Berlant, L. (2010). Cruel optimism. In M. Gregg & G. Seigworth (Eds.), The affect theory reader. Durham: Duke University Press.
Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.
Cvetovich, A. (2012). Depression: A public feeling. Durham: Duke University Press.
Ghent, E. (1990). Masochism, submission, surrender: Masochism as a perversion of surrender. In S. Mitchell & L. Aron (Eds.), Relational psychoanalysis: The emergence of a tradition. Hillsdale: Analytic Press. 1999.