This year, one marked by radically reshaped ministry, work, and everyday life, I’ve found myself in a near-constant stance of resistance. I’m resisting the changes that have descended on us so suddenly, the way we have been cut off from the people and the places we love, and forced to mediate much of our interactions through screens. You won’t find me at any protests against COVID restrictions, but my heart is protesting all the same — I do not want any of this.
I’ve found that impatience and anger grows easily in a heart postured consistently towards resistance. I’m finding it easier to withdraw, to shrug my shoulders instead of pressing in with love and concern. It’s not a place I’m proud to be in.
On top of the now-typical social distancing and isolation, there is an added grief: the one thing I have desired to give, the thing I have left what I know and love in order to give — my presence — cannot be given tangibly or unhindered. As there has been a screen between my and our family back home, so now there is also a screen between me and the ones we have come to work alongside of and to serve. I do not want any of this.
Still, for all the turmoil and difficulty of this year, there is something entirely ordinary about it. On one level, it’s simply about expectations and surrender. For any cross-cultural worker, the experience of facing a reality different than the one we had hoped for or imagined is a given. We overestimated our adaptability, and culture shock threatens to overwhelm us. We had a particular idea of ministry and service, and that idea has proven untenable or undesirable. We counted on ministry partners who would love and support us, to demonstrate faithfully what it means to be the family of God, only to feel alone, maybe even attacked. We hoped for a certain kind of harvest, of reaping good fruit for the master gardener, but as far as we can tell, the field is barren. We’ve been called home, or unable to go home, when we had expected the opposite.
However common to cross-cultural workers, these kinds of surprises, particularly those woven together with sin and failure, have the potential to devastate us. Our health and vitality in our ministry depends on learning to surrender our own desires and hopes to our heavenly Father — acting out, rather than simply speaking, Jesus’ words, “Not my will but yours be done.”
And so, in a year now characterized by the unexpected, this common experience has taken on an added gravity. Unmet desires and unexpected situations that are typically confined to the personal have encompassed the globe, pulling us into a wider anxiety and grief. The devastation of this virus, in the form of crises of health care and economies, huge death tolls, injustice, increased poverty, and a decline in emotional and mental well-being, cannot be easily managed.
I want to resist the tendency to deal with anxiety and grief with a five-step process, to imagine that I need only to find the right formula to navigate this time well. Even so, I know that when I cling to my expectations of life and ministry, when I hold them so tightly that my nails cut into my own palms because the thing I wanted has already slipped away — I’m accomplishing nothing except for my own pain. I don’t have a formula for how to let go, only the knowledge that it is both difficult and necessary.
And also the niggling feeling that I am perhaps more eager to let go than I let myself admit. It’s a different kind of letting go, though, than the faithful surrendering of my expectations and plans to the One whose gracious providence guides us all. Instead, cowardice and complicity easily masquerade as trust in and acceptance of God’s sovereignty. I see injustice and wrong-doing, and while I may initially react in indignation and zeal, I quickly move to surrender. This kind of surrender doesn’t cost me anything, because it allows me to hold on to the things I already love: Comfort. Ease. The status quo. Instead, I surrender responsibility, believing that I can simply wash my hands and absolve myself of sin.
No formulas, but perhaps an image: the crucified one, arms spread wide on the cross. In his life, and particularly in his death, we find a complete surrender to the Father, a relinquishing of desires and fears. More: Jesus’ surrender confronts my own eagerness to side-step my responsibility by deferring to his. His sacrifice is not simply a giving over, but a receiving as well, a taking up of responsibility. He gives over his own desire to accomplish redemption without the suffering of the cross, and he receives the cup of God’s judgment: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” The cup he receives is not deserved, but claimed on our behalf. And by taking this cup, all who lay claim to his life for ours — you and me — are called to come after him.
We are not, of course, messiahs within our own spheres; we do not perform the same role as Jesus when we follow him. And so while the shape of our following will mimic Jesus — giving of our selves for another — the specifics will differ. They will be different for each of us, as we discern where God has placed us: what gifts and privileges he has given us, and what responsibilities are within our reach.
And so surrender — however the Spirit accomplishes it in our lives — involves both giving over and receiving. We give over our desires and expectations — not once, but each day when we rise up with hope and longing, and each evening when we lay down with disappointment and fear. Then we receive, each day, the task that God gives, a task that will never simply be about me, but will open my arms wide towards others.
featured image: Crucifixion from the Gospel books of Judith of Flanders, circa 1050