Why is letting go so difficult? This is a puzzling question, especially if we have been looking forward to a change. It is frightening to discover that some part of us is still holding on to what we used to be for it makes us wonder whether the change was a bad idea. Can it be that the old thing was somehow right for us and the new thing wrong?
The old radio comedian, Bob Burns, used to tell the story of eating army food for the first time after 18 years of his mother's deep-fat frying. A week of land GI fare was enough to cure something he never realized he suffered from: heartburn. But rather than feeling relief at his improvement, Burns rushed into the dispensary, clutching his stomach and yelling, 'Doc, doc! Help me! I'm dying. My fire went out!'
Sermon - "Letting Go for the Blessing" - Preached October 19, 2014 (Listen to this sermon on podcast here)
Before seminary, I worked as the director of a large in-home care agency. It was a hard and stressful job. At one point, that stress came to a crisis. My work felt like a weight I carried around, just to prove I could.
One typical Saturday morning I was anxiously working away when my partner came to me, put her hand on my hand, looked me in the eye, and asked – what are you going to do to be ok?
I was working at least 70 hours a week, on a low week. And the more I checked off my to-do list, the more things were added. The more ideas I came up with to fix problems, the more problems we seemed to face. It was a heavy weight.
And still Carri’s question – what would I do to be ok – caught me off guard.
Yoga. I’m going to start practicing yoga.
I had heard of yoga, but never tried it. The idea of me doing it – seemed crazy to most everyone who knew me. My sisters had a good laugh at the idea. You? Yoga? Can you even touch your toes? I couldn’t.
But I said I would do it, so I had to give it a shot. I found an intro class and enrolled. The first few sessions were – impossible. I felt like an alien – in the class, and in my own body.
And then maybe the third time, at the end, in Savasana – Corpse Pose, it all came loose: tears of release, of relief, of grief, joy, tears of loss, the feelings of not being enough, of not having enough – big, wet tears, unstoppable, involuntary, saving.
The intro class ended, and I enrolled in a Level I class. Once a week, which before too long became twice, and then, three times. I went in the mornings before work, I attended special workshops.
The body has its own kind of habits, things it knows, deep down. My body was strong, and knew that if there was a challenging pose, my muscles could push their way there one way or another. Strong arms for hand stands, strong legs for warrior, stubborn strength for balancing and bending.
By this point, not only could I touch my toes, but I could lift my legs up over my head, while resting only on my hands. Which – you might have guessed – became a problem.
I was deep in my practice, maybe a year or two after I had first found the studio, feeling proud of myself, the poses I could hold, my breathing technique, the way I could lift myself up and sustain my weight, the ways I had proven my sisters wrong – when things took a turn.
My right knee started to ache. I had to stop sitting cross-legged in lotus, had to modify many of the sitting poses I had considered long-mastered. Even outside of practice, my knee and its constant pain reminded me, something was not right.
I did everything I could think of to fix it. I saw an acupuncturist, worked on my hip flexibility – which everyone told me was the “real” issue. I rested, I waited, and still it ached. One of my teachers suggested I try a different kind of practice – Anusara Yoga.
Anusara means, flowing with grace.
In my first class, during handstands, I realized how my yoga practice - like my professional life before that - had gone wrong. My teacher came over to me – I was upside down, resting on my hands, feeling strong, working hard, and he whispered, with his hand just lightly touching my shoulder, so sweet: Gretchen, your pose needs less muscle, more love.
I fell down. Crashed.
Once I recovered from the total embarrassment of my body noisily crashing down in the middle of yoga class, I got it.
Less muscle, more love.
Less push, more openness.
Less force, more breath. More joy.
Less task, more flow.
Less struggle, more grace.
Two Sundays ago, I told you the story of Jacob who wrestled all night with an angel-God-man at the banks of the river Jabbok. This angel-guy was relentless, doing everything he could think of to get Jacob to let go. He kicked him, hard, dislocated Jacob's hip, causing permanent injury, and still Jacob kept wrestling, demanding a blessing.
When I told this story, I said, when it comes to responding to loss, or grief, let's be sure to wrestle long enough in the hard places to allow for deep change and real transformation- the blessing...I said, Let's companion each other along the river banks in our mutual heartbreak and longing, tell these stories, for they are tales of what we have most cared about, and of the ways our hearts have opened and loved and then lost, and then survived. I said let's hold on together for the blessing.
But today, I want to talk about the other side of this story. I want to acknowledge that there is a point, a line, where holding on becomes a problem. A point where wrestling causes- not goodness, but simply injury, where holding on by will and by force does not bring the blessing - but actually prevents it, or at least prevents you from experiencing the blessing. A point when you, and those you love, the world and its wholeness would actually be a lot better off, if you let go, if you gave up, stopped insisting on staying until you and others were injured, if you asked for help, if you accepted help. I mean how hard-headed must Jacob have been - foolish, unnecessary - his family was already across, what was he trying to prove?
That he was in charge? That he could muscle his way through? That he could win.
Most of the reasons any of us end up in unnecessary wrestling matches come down to this kind of muscle over love.
We wrestle as a way to control, and limit, and push, and direct. We stay in the struggle because others can’t, or won’t stand in our place, we’re pretty sure, not that we’d ask them. We wouldn’t want to have our hearts broken if they didn’t show up. We wrestle because we feel responsible - for the plan, for people, for everything. We wrestle because we cannot abide the messier parts of life, the transitions, the between time, the grief, the heartache. And when we’re really deep in it, we wrestle because, there’s one way, the right way, it’s my way, and I can get us there if I just.keep.wrestling.
Not that I know anything about that.
To say it’s hard to realize when the hanging on will lead to the blessing, and when the blessing requires letting go - is a profound understatement. My small and recent insight is that discerning the difference begins by taking a hard look at what’s behind our holding on, or letting go - and recognizing when we’re wanting to control, or when we’re acting out of fear, or when we’re over-using our muscles, to the point of injury. Because although love hopes all things endures all things believes all things, it doesn't say it controls all things- right? Love doesn't control.
When we are wrestling to maintain control, it’s probably time to step back, and let go, and as some would say, let God....And, when we are letting go because we hope we can control the otherwise messy-scary-feelings-of grief-and-loss, it’s probably time to hang in and hang on a little longer.
As an example, of this question of wrestling...or letting go, I offer parenting. Children are such a good lesson in realizing how little control we have. Which hasn’t exactly prevented me from wrestling as if I was in charge, as if I can win everything. My children respond to my wrestling attempts with their strong muscles, and wrestle right back, and we all just end up injured with no blessing in sight. But when - instead of hanging on, I breathe and listen and refuse to wrestle and make room for love and grace, there's more blessing than I could’ve ever predicted.
Another example: marriage. Despite being a kind of newlywed, I'm at the age where my close friends aren't dealing with the beginning of a relationship, but the end. It’s torture to watch your friends flounder in the depths of holding on to a relationship after it has in fact ended.
I hear stories about people today being too willing to give up on marriage, but that isn't what I've seen. I've seen - fierce commitment trying against all odds to wrestle the life out of the ashes, and in the wrestling, I’ve seen such despair and mutual injury - shame, blame, hopelessness.
In these moments I've prayed for my friends - not that they'd stick with it, but that they'd give up. That they'd let go. I don't pray that the relationship will be undone, of course! but that they will see that the relationship as they have understood it is already gone, and only by releasing that, by releasing themselves from making that happen - can anything else - anything at all - happen.
The possibilities are endless, once that space is made. Once they let go, and stop fighting. Our faith says truth is ever-unfolding - which means life is at work on life all the time - and something new is being built beyond our wildest imaginations, if we just make the space for such sweet possibility, space to see and partner with such new possibility. If we can just - release. Less muscle - more love.
Ever since that yoga class, over a decade ago now, that phrase has been a mantra of my life and can probably be traced to the roots of what sent me to seminary. Less muscle, more love.
And still so often, I forget, and fail, and have to start again.
Because like many of us, I was raised to believe not that Life is at work on Life - but rather that if anything is going to happen, I have to make it happen. Life depends on it. It may take collaboration with others, sure, but over time, with persistent hard work, as we sang last week, “we will build a land that will bind up the broken, we will build a land where the captives go free.” We will.
If we just work hard enough, stay in the struggle long enough, we can make that blessing happen. We will. I will.
These first couple months of our interim time, I have run into this temptation for too much muscle - more than once. The temptation to control what is not controllable, to hold on when the time is right for letting go, or to carry the struggle all on my own - to send you all ahead, I'll catch up! - to try to fix stuff in ways that prevent the blessing of others' showing up and helping out, or the blessing of a new thing from taking shape.
But this interim time is a time of intentional chaos. Control is not the point. It's supposed to feel unsettling. It's supposed to feel uncomfortable. I knew this, we knew this going in.
And still it is hard not to wish for stability, hard not to believe we should just stay put, on this side of the river. Hard not to hang on to even those things we haven't liked all that much - our heart burn - because its ours, and it tells us who we are. And it is hard not to use our muscles to hang on and hang on and just.hang.on.
But there’s no blessing there. The blessing is in the breathing, the releasing. The trusting, and the letting go. It's in the love.
I love this church, and I love you. I love the current you, and the future you, and I love our future. I love that vision that calls to us out on the other side of the river, out beyond the wrestling, out where we have a new name. It's not my vision, it's not yours and none of us control it, that would make it so much smaller than it actually is. It's love's vision. The same Love and Life that brought us this far, is still doing its work on us on this church this faith this community these hearts.
Out beyond our control, our wills, our ideas and analysis, our hopes or our fears, our bodies or our brains, love is creating, sustaining, transforming, healing, calling us - Life is at work on life, all the time and we just have to let it in. Let go and let it in. In our church, in our hearts, in our lives, in the world.
Less muscle, more love.
We'll forget, I'll forget, it's ok. We just try again. Hanging on in the struggle long enough for the blessing to come, And then surrendering to the gifts of grace that await our letting go. With our hearts open through it all.
(Humming Amazing Grace...and the choir joins in, and everyone joins in....and then the Choir sings - The Storm is Passing Over)