No Need for Surrender

As a child in church I sang, “I surrender all … all to Jesus, I surrender.” A current Hillsong chorus intones, “I surrender…”, giving God all of who we are and ever hope to be. It’s such familiar Christian-ese that it must be biblical. Right?

I’ve been doing a lot of self-reflection lately, always informed by my faith. As such, I had been leaning into an awareness that surrendering my life to God doesn’t mean giving up who I am. God made me. God loves me, has plans for me, is delighted to be with me right here, right now. I am not broken in need of fixing, but a beloved human being. Learning, growing, following the lead of the Spirit in this moment, this season. Becoming.

If I’m convinced that God is God and I am absolutely not God, it makes spiritual sense that I should give up my pride. I should throw over my belief that I am in control, a lesson this pandemic year has made abundantly clear. I should confess and repent of my sins. But I had a gut reaction to any suggestion that I surrender myself. It stopped me short.

Curious, I looked up surrendering to God in the Bible and … it’s not there (I checked several respectable translations though clearly not every translation). Where the Bible includes the word surrender, it consistently appears in a military context and never in reference to God. Nowhere in scripture does it demand that we surrender ourselves to God. I was stunned.

From the Bible I turned to the dictionary. Surrender came into English in the mid-15th century from Old French, meaning “to give up, deliver over,” though by 1580, it was primarily used as a reflexive verb: “to give oneself up,” specifically as a prisoner. As a noun, surrender means “a giving up,” as in property or land grant. And the Oxford Languages definition of the verb “to surrender” is to cease resistance to an enemy or opponent and submit to their authority.

Read that last sentence again. I’ll wait.

The idea that we surrender our lives to God, all of who we are and hope to be, pictures God as an enemy or opponent. It makes God the bad guy. It imagines God in a military uniform, wielding a bloody sword, righteously intent on wiping out his foes. Maybe this time Goliath beats David?

We must be careful about the words we use.

God is love (1Jn 4:8). That three-word sentence is God’s self-definition. Love. That’s it, astounding good news.

I am not property, land to be annexed to God’s Kingdom; I am God’s beloved daughter. Further, casting God in the role of either prison warden or military enemy couldn’t be further from what we see in Jesus. The Son of God, God Incarnate, humbled himself to serve us in ways we could never serve ourselves. He sacrificed himself to make peace.

Paul talks in several places (Rom 6, Gal 2 and 5) about “dying to self,” a whole different matter. Dying to self in order to take up the life of Jesus is self-sacrifice, a choice made for love rather than a battlefield demand. Also, dying to self is not about cutting off pieces of my personality and the identifying traits that make me me; it has nothing to do with how we understand self through the lens of modern psychology. Instead it’s about giving up my strong-headed insistence to choose sinful patterns rather than living freely in God’s grace.

In her book of Lenten meditations, Where the Eye Alights, Marilyn McEntyre reminds me that “…God’s way is to invite, not compel.” Think of a time when someone tried to compel you to action. How did that go? I had a recent encounter with someone who entered the room with an agenda so loud he couldn’t listen, nor could I hear myself think. A posture of humility, a hand extended with grace, a gentle invitation, that I might have chosen to receive. A crowbar of weighted words moves me, sadly, in the opposite direction. I guess he hasn’t learned that one catches more flies with honey than vinegar, although I’d like to imagine myself more butterfly than fly.

God does not compel. He graciously invites.
God does not wait to arrest us and slam shut the iron bars. He longs to free us from the prisons we’ve built for ourselves.
God does not force our surrender. Instead, Jesus modeled humility.
God does not want me to give up myself. It bears repeating: God made me, loves me, and delights in me.

God wants us to give up sin. God wants to redeem the bad and bring forth beauty.
God wants me to live this one precious life he’s given me with purpose. With joy and creative imaginings. With love, in love, for love.

For God so loves the world.

Image by Kusal Darshana from Pixabay

Snake Surrender

A gift from someone who thought I needed a snake of my own

A gift from someone who thought I needed a snake of my own

Teen purchased a second snake last weekend.

You read that right. There are two, count ’em, two snakes living in our home.

Along with three leopard geckos, a tortoise, three cats, and one (or two) dogs (our dog and our neighbors’ dog are best friends so we – or our neighbors – often have two dogs).

It’s a zoo. Add four active, dramatic human family members, and it’s a zany zoo. The animals might be the sanest beings in our midst.

How did this happen? I swore no snakes would reside under my roof. Ever. End of story.

Except clearly, the story doesn’t end there.

Teen has been an animal guy since before he could speak. By three years old he knew more dinosaur names and facts than his preschool teachers (aren’t preschool teachers de facto dinosaur experts?); he even nicknamed himself Dinosaur Boy. He watched animal documentaries for adults as the child-friendly documentaries were too simple, too cutesy. He wanted the facts, all the facts on all the animals. We went to the World Famous San Diego Zoo weekly at least, sometimes biweekly, and he played tour guide, probably better than many professionals. He knew his stuff, and still does.

Lucky for Teen, a pet store occupied the shop three doors down from his first preschool. Three days a week, Teen and a parent visited the pet store. We got to know all the store clerks who implemented a “Three Hold” rule: Teen could hold any three animals each visit. Bunnies, guinea pigs, hamsters, and yes, snakes.

Ball pythons, to be specific. And every time he held an animal, invariably, he’d say, “Here, Mom! You hold it, too!” He was so excited to share incredible creatures with me. Maybe he didn’t notice that I seemed relaxed with the furries and a little less so with the scales?

Here’s the thing: I believe God created all the creatures, even the (to me) creepy ones. Snakes serve a valuable purpose on God’s green earth. I can appreciate their usefulness in the world and their unique colorations; some of their colors might be flat-out, down-right beautiful.

If their colors weren’t on a creepy-crawly snake body.

I don’t think it even occurred to me that one of my worst fears would be a snake loose in the house until Teen started commenting that he’d like a snake for a pet.

Egads! Not under my roof, buster!

I’d take him to pet stores. I’d take him to the reptile emporium over the hill. I’d take him to the zoo. I’d even take him hiking in spots he’d be likely to find snakes (he knew the harmless from the harmful long before I did).

The day after his first hike as a Boy Scout, only eleven years old, the recently retired Scout Master found me at church.

He said, “It was my pleasure to hike with the rookies yesterday, and I’ll tell you, that boy of yours has a talent!”

Oh geez, what now?

He said, “I’ve been hiking that trail for 34 years, and I had no idea how many species of snakes there were out there! Your kid has a real knack for finding reptiles!”

Yes. Yes, he does.

Church friends wanted to introduce Teen to their nephew, a 20-something reptile enthusiast. Teen called from the nephew’s house: “I’m bringing home a snake. He said I can have – for free! – a six-month-old red tail boa!”

Um, no. I’ve said it and said it and will say it again: No!

They brought kid home without the snake. My friend pulled me aside. “My sister hid her fear of reptiles for years. She loves her son, she hates reptiles. Just thought you should know.”

Uh huh. Thanks.

Teen kept asking. He did research. He did extra chores. He talked about snakes, and wanted to talk about snakes with me. Constant chatter about red tail boas.

And I thought the snakes in the pet shop had been red tail boas. Silly mistake.

He told me he’d been praying that I would let him have a snake. So we talked about prayer (more comfortable for me than snake-talk). About how God says Yes or No or sometimes Wait. He said God had already told him Yes, but that maybe he had to Wait. He had to Wait for me. That sometimes, through prayer, God changes people.

Yes. Yes, He does.

Weeks of snake chat and prayer went by. And then, Ash Wednesday. Our church has the coolest Ash Wednesday service.

It’s thoughtful and somber, focused on repentance, and only half the service happens “up front.” The rest is participatory prayer stations. Every year is different, but every year we actively participate in what God wants to do in our lives that night.

We taste grapes because the Lord tastes good. We turn screws in wood to focus on our own turning from sin and to the Lord. We wash one another’s hands (because washing feet might be beyond our comfort zones). We burn paper to represent our sins, or we nail sins to a cross. And we draw pictures and write prayers to give praise to God.

I turned a corner and came upon Teen drawing this picture…

Ash Wed snake thanks

And before you accuse him of manipulation, there were hundreds of people at prayer stations spread throughout the sanctuary. There was No Way he could have known I’d turn the corner just then.

I had a come-to-Jesus moment that night. Would my fear of reptiles prevent me from honoring the child God had created? This kid wants to be a herpetologist (snake scientist)! Could I let God do His thing with my kid, in my house, and let’s not forget, in me, even if that meant a snake in my house?

Honestly, it took a few more weeks. Picking up a new “pet” just before we went away for a long weekend didn’t make sense. When we came home Teen cleaned up and fixed up a terrarium, formerly his dad’s fish tank, with locks for the top (a Mom requirement), new heating pads and lights, and a water dish. He called our friends who wanted to accompany him to Nephew’s house.

And then he called Nephew. Who had sold all the snake babies, forgetting the promise he’d made to a snake-loving kid.

Even behind closed doors, Teen’s sobs broke his parents’ hearts.

So his Mama searched the reptile emporium website to see what they had. And they had – not for free, but for a hefty fee – exactly what he wanted. And his Dad drove him over the hill and paid the price.

I will honor my son as the person God created above my own fears. That was my decision that day. It has been my decision each day since.

We have rules, but really only two:
1) Cage must be locked.
2) No flaunting snakes in front of people without asking.

So now Teen has two snakes. One will have lived in our house two years this Lenten season. The other is still a baby, but is the ball python he has wanted since preschool. The first involved a major faith movement for me. The second, more of a parenting movement – Could he make space in his room? Did he have the money? Had he found exactly what he wanted? And when he could answer Yes! to all three, then it was his decision to make.

It’s finals week at the high school which makes for wonky school-work-life schedules and attitudes. I picked him up yesterday and he was grumpy, critical. I asked, “Hey, you. Is there anything you like about your Mama?”

“Ew, Mom, c’mon. I’m tired.”

Silence, two, three, four…

“You let me have snakes.”

“I’m sorry, didn’t catch that. What’d you say?”

“I like that you let me have snakes.”

And he knows I’m his biggest fan.

You know what, friends? My Teen knows that I honor his passions over my fears, and I will wear that as a badge of honor.

red tail boa

Snake #1: red tail boa

When you realize the kid is over 6' tall, you get a sense for how bigt this snake is (and he's not done growing)

When you realize the kid is over 6′ tall, you get a sense for how big this snake is (and he’s not done growing)

platinum ball python

Snake #2: platinum ball python

Fortunately this one won't grow too long

Fortunately this one won’t grow too long

Life Follows

Last week the kids had an unusual two weekdays in a row off school. And it was my birthday. Gracious friends loaned us their mountain vacation house for a couple of nights and I couldn’t wait.

This fall has been rough – too full, too emotional – and contrary to my typical MO I didn’t feel much like celebrating. I went Facebook silent from the day before my birthday until the evening we arrived home to also unplug from media distractions (and, in this case, celebrations). I longed to bug outta town, to hide away with my guys in a gorgeous spot, enjoy long walks and time with a good book, watch movies and play games, leave life behind.

Hah! Life followed.

Of course it took hours longer than it should have to tie up the loose ends, pack up the bags and the car, and get on the road. However, on the road we saw the most beautiful sunset, seriously, trees on fire with light.

birthday sunset - car window

No way I could get all the work done before we left, so hours of it had to get done on the trip. Fortunately, it got done.

Work done (for the moment), we walked along the river: Guy, Dog, and I on the paved path, Tween, Teen, and Friend as close to water as possible; more or less we walked parallel, a wall of brush separating the different ground beneath our feet. But then we heard our two hooligans shouting, clearly distressed. Guy tossed me the leash and bounded through the brush to discover Tween sinking in thigh-high mud. The drought has dropped water level dangerously low and the boys had walked on exposed riverbed, including some particularly nasty mud. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that the ground was unsafe, and as Tween stepped into the squish he struggled and continued to sink until one leg was almost entirely encased in mud. It took 30 minutes of Guy calmly instructing him how to wiggle and dig. Odd but we’ll take it, Guy noticed that someone had long ago abandoned a couch in the brush so he pulled off a leaf-encrusted cushion and threw it between a log and Tween in order to get get close enough to help pull his son free. Without Guy I would’ve called 911. Tween (and I) have learned lessons about mud!

river dog

A few hours later Teen and Friend were whittling spears for their squirrel-hunting plans (am I glad they don’t tell me this stuff in advance?) when Friend cut his finger. Playing it safe, Guy took them to the ER where the kid received three stitches. No good with blood, Teen all but passed out in the waiting room. It could’ve been so much worse, though, and Friend never even needed a Tylenol, no pain.

Just after they left, I heard a noise like Dog crunching through a massive cow bone. If only! She vomited warm kibble, three times, and about three times more than I could imagine her stomach could hold. I quickly put her on leash and ordered Tween to take her outside while I cleaned up. Gagging. As she hadn’t actually digested the food, clean-up was – thankfully! – quick and easy and that was that, no more vomit.

The guys returned, we had an easy late dinner, we hot-tubbed and played and read and slept well, and in the morning enjoyed a gorgeous river walk/bike ride before cleaning and packing up again. Hallelujah, Teen even learned how to make a beautiful bed!

tall trees

Life: work, family, boys, dog, cooking, cleaning… Life follows. I had to face my unrealistic desires to leave behind the stressors of this season just because we were in a new location. I had to remember to be Grateful in all situations, to Accept and Surrender and just get downright GAS-y, as I learned last week.

Laughter helps. Not much in those wacky situations felt funny at the time, but in retrospect they sure made for a memorable weekend. Hearing the story, a sweet 20-something friend said, “I kinda feel like these things only happen to you…” Oh, darling, maybe they do! My family has a Corner Market on Ridiculous Street. And then again, call me when you have kids and we’ll talk!