27 April 2006

Another awkward chorus

Last Sunday at Reedwood Friends Church, we sang the chorus, "I surrender all," whose lyrics include these lines:

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;
Make me, Savior, wholly Thine;
Let me feel the Holy Spirit,
Truly know that Thou art mine.

Our guest speaker, Brent Laytham (our current scholar-in-residence) gave a sermon on the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus at which Thomas wanted, and got, bodily evidence of the resurrection. Jesus commented, "So, you believe because you've seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing"—which I interpret as, at least in part, a blessing upon us, upon me.

During the open worship that followed, I felt strongly moved to get up and say that singing a song like "I surrender all" brings up all sorts of integrity issues for me. Learning to sing that song "I surrender all" without blushing is probably the central work of my life.

This chorus (I continued) should actually be half of a twinned song, the other half having all the "I and me" pronouns replaced with "we and us."

For one thing, if William James was right when he said, a century ago, that there's an irreducible minimum percentage of us who'll never have spiritual feelings, who just aren't wired that way, the lines "Let me feel the Holy Spirit, Truly know that Thou art mine," will be an invitation to fakery or despair. It's a similar situation to the one Thomas would have been in had he not had the opportunity to put his fingers on Jesus' wounds. (Perhaps it's another variant on the whamo theory of grace—see last week's post; God's hammer comes down when we don't get the promised sensations or we lose track of the lies we need to tell in order to impress people.)

But the promises of God were made to the community, not just to individuals, or to the particular individuals who touched Jesus' wounds or who can honestly say that they "felt" the Holy Spirit. And as a community we have a corporate stewardship of relationships, promises, blessings, strengths, even as those qualities ebb and flow in individuals. I do get strong impressions of God's love and power, and the person next to me in worship is entitled to benefit from that reality even if he or she doesn't have that experience personally. That person might have far more insight into the human psyche, however, and might be just the one to restore my perspective when I'm in despair about a relationship. This isn't theory, by the way; it's my experience.

So living in community, and experiencing blessings and holiness and transformation in community, is vital for me. On my own, "I surrender 12%." The only way I'm going to approach surrendering ALL is in active dialogue with other believers as well as in the transparency of honest prayer.

Can America be defeated? General Newbold is among the retired high officers of the U.S. military who are making their Iraq-war criticisms public these days. A recent Time essay included this observation, as quoted in the New York Times: "While General Newbold said he did not accept the rationale for invading Iraq, he wrote that 'a precipitous withdrawal would be a mistake' because it would tell the nation's adversaries that 'America can be defeated, and thus increase the chances of future conflicts.'"

Obviously, America can theoretically be defeated—we have no divine dispensation exempting us from the ordinary contingencies of conflict. I think he means to say that America's adversaries would think that America could be defeated simply by pressing us until our national endurance ran out and we gave up. The way to avoid such a defeat, according to this logic, is to remain patient until victory comes.

My problem with this common reasoning, aside from the political manipulations involved in defining "victory," is that it leaves out another implication: America will never admit error. We would rather kill more people and suffer more of our own losses than say, "We're sorry, world, but we've put our wisest minds on this problem and we now realize that, with the best of intentions (?), we adopted the wrong strategy." The "don't tell our adversaries that America can be defeated" line also assumes that our adversaries are monolothic and rigid, will remain adversaries indefinitely, and we will never see their point of view and find points of agreement.

I'm utterly and completely fed up with the "sending signals" school of thought that worries about what others will think if we do the right thing. If the USA does the right thing in Iraq for a change, maybe the world will think, "Hey, the USA has more capacity for reflection and humility than we thought. Time to be less resentful about their enormous power, and be more collaborative." Let's try it and see!

On the other hand, if sending consistent signals is the whole point of being a nation, let's forget about democracy and let George and Dick do all the thinking, and signaling, for us.


Rosemary said...

When I sing hymns like that, I guess I don't see it as dishonest, even though I along with everyone else don't surrender perfectly . . . what I (and I bet most folks) am doing when I sing that is praying for it to be true, or at least, during the words of the song, finding the strength to let go just a little more.

Just my $.02. :-)

Johan Maurer said...

I think my tendency toward critical self-examination when singing the "take my life and let it be" (Frances R Havergal) genre of hymns is really probably a variation on that theme. People certainly don't sing them thinking that they're 100% accurately describing themselves, nor are they preening in front of others, who after all are singing the same words! So, yes, I think that you're right about what is going on, and it's not a bad thing.

By the way, I change words with wild abandon during hymns, although I admit I don't have much volume when I sing. I also don't sing whole verses if I have a stop in my heart about those verses. But there are other hymns and choruses that some would ridicule as hopelessly saccharine or individualistic, that I sing with great joy and tears streaming down my face.

I very much appreciate your weblog, by the way.


Anonymous said...

"I surrender 12%" reminds me of David Roche's Church of 80% Sincerity. (described here by Anne Lamott: http://www.davidroche.com/lamott.htm )

I'm also reminded that, If I understand correctly, "Islam" means surrender.


Johan Maurer said...

Hi, Ricky. Are you who I think you are? (pues ...)

I remember that piece by Anne Lamott. Thanks for introducing me to David Roche's site.


Anonymous said...

Sarah pretty much spoke my mind about singing it as an intention and not as a reality, but I wanted to thank you for posting the song. It has been going through my mind all weekend. I hadn't heard it in a very long time, and I didn't realize I had missed it!
With love,