A Journey Toward Spiritual Surrender
Contributed by Rev. Patsy Carlberg
Week Two: Which Way to Go?
When I was in elementary school, I was in a group similar to Girl Scouts called Camp Fire Girls. Once a week, after school, we would meet at Mrs. Denney’s house for refreshments, creative play, and a lesson that would help us earn patches – as I said, similar to Girl Scouts.
One of our favorite activities was a “Flip-a-Coin” nature walk. We would walk down the front porch steps of Mrs. Denney’s house, down the walk, stop at the sidewalk and gather around her as she flipped a coin. “Heads” would be a turn right; “tails,” turn left.
So, let’s say it’s heads – we’d turn to the right and walk to the end of the block. Flip the coin again, tails maybe this time, and we’d turn to the left and walk to the end of that block. Along the way, we observed the kinds of trees we saw, bushes, flowers and plants, birds, squirrels, worms, and other creatures. Tails, left turn. Heads, right turn. And so on until we somehow found ourselves back at Mrs. Denney’s house.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if when it came to making choices about which way to go, we could just flip a coin? And not for just a walk around the neighborhood, but for any of life’s decisions: Get married or stay single? Accept this high-paying job or that one that pays little, but is satisfying?
Big decisions and little ones too: Pizza for supper or salad? Brown shoes or black ones? This direction or that direction?
Flip a coin and let … luck? … decide.
But life is not like that, is it? When it comes down to it, we have to discern the best choice, the right direction.
Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
your judgments are like the great deep;
you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light we see light.
O continue your steadfast love to those who know you,
and your salvation to the upright of heart!
Do not let the foot of the arrogant tread on me,
or the hand of the wicked drive me away.
I’ve heard parents send their children off to school with the admonition: “Make good choices today.” Good advice. We always want to choose the good. We always want to walk on the right path. As we enter the second week of Lent and continue our journey of surrender, we want and need to know which way to go to travel closely with our Savior.
Psalm 36 gives us direction in choosing the right path, and it doesn’t involve a coin-toss. Nor does it tell us which way to go. We have to use our God-given common sense to decide the best route, which this Scripture suggests to us.
The Psalm starts out in verses 1-4 describing the path that “transgressors” use. “Transgression” can also be translated as “rebelliousness.” Transgressors are rebels. They rebel against the good. In fact, they are rebels deep down in their hearts. They believe no one can see their transgressions, the evil they plot when they should be sleeping. However, when they open their mouths, we hear what’s in their hearts.
Jesus had something to say about this in answering the Pharisees who accused Jesus and his followers of eating unclean food. Jesus says in response:
“What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them. … Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person's mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts: murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.
" (Matthew 15:11-20, emphasis mine)
When the rebels open their mouths, their deep evil thoughts are manifested in their words. So they aren’t as smart as they think they are, are they?
Instead, the Psalmist writes, compare the rebels to God: God is steadfast and faithful. God is a Savior, saving not just human beings, but even animals!
In 2014, Pope Francis caused a stir when he assured a little boy whose dog had died that there was a place for animals in heaven. Perhaps Pope Francis was channeling St. Francis of Assisi, who saw animals as his brothers and sisters and would preach to animals to tell them how God had blessed them!
Furthermore, Romans 8:22-23 tells us: We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
God redeems all of God’s Creation. God has God’s eyes on the sparrow, Matthew 6:26-34 tells us. Luke 12:22 Jesus reminds us that God provides for ravens. In Genesis, God creates the world – creatures and all – before God creates humans, and then God graciously gives us humans dominion over the animals and the rest of creation, putting its care in our hands. God does not lie awake plotting evil, but instead steadfastly loves God’s creation.
Even more, God’s love is abundant, filling his people with plenty to eat and to drink. God provides us fountains of life – the Living Water, we might say, found in and through Jesus Christ (John 7:38). God furnishes us with Light for our way – THE Light of the world, Jesus (John 8:12).
And so, we praise God for God’s steadfast love and provision, for his faithfulness and righteousness. We praise God, knowing that sometimes, we are rebels, transgressors who flip a coin and turn left when we should turn right.
We as Christians also know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God is a merciful God, whose desire is that we journey with God. Through God’s mighty power found in the Holy Spirit, we have been redeemed. The Cross of Jesus is a beacon, guiding us on our path. We know that we have only to ask for this guidance to be given clear direction. We can bravely and boldly face God and ask God to point the way.
And what is the way? Philip asks in John 14:6: Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (emphasis mine)
In the end, the rebels will fall off the path. But we, who follow the Way of Jesus Christ, journey with hope, joy, peace, and love. No coin-toss needed.
Holy and loving God, we praise You for Your steadfast love and provision for Your creation. As the psalmist states, please continue to love us, even when we fall off the path You have chosen for us. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Spiritual Formation Exercises
Take a coin-toss walk outdoors where and when it is safe to do so. What do you see? Hear? Smell? Touch a tree – what does the bark feel like? Or a leaf – what does that feel like? What are you feeling emotionally and/or spiritually on your walk? Express this by writing a poem or prayer or drawing a picture or taking a photograph or two.
One spiritual discipline John Wesley put forward was “Christian conferencing.” In other words, Christians “conferring” with one another. Do you have a Christian friend or friends who can help you discern the right path in your life? If so, convey to this person or these persons your gratitude for their advice. You could send them a card or an email or even confer in person. If you don’t have such a person in your life, is there someone you could ask to confer with you? The Conference Spiritual Formation Team could help you find such a person.
Questions for Reflection
- What do you believe about God’s redeeming even animals? There is no right or wrong answer, but just your opinion. Why do you believe the way you do?
- Psalm 36 has been described as a lament: It states a problem and asks God for help and then expresses assurance that God will come through. What is the problem here? What is the assurance that is given?