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22 January 2012

Discipleship, Surrender and the False Prophets of "Positive Thinking"

A story is told of a young man from China who went to Bible study for a couple of months and found the Lord. When the time came for him to become a member in his church, he went to a store to have a t-shirt made that he wanted to wear to celebrate his being born again. He didn't speak English and walked into the store; they asked what wording he desired, and because he didn't want to look foolish, he pointed to the first sign on the wall he could see. He paid, ordered his t-shirt, picked it up, put it on and came to church. When he went up to the altar in his freshly pressed new t-shirt, the congregation read the words emblazoned on this chest:

Why do you what you do? Who are you? It's really important to know why we do the things we do; knowing that will tell you whether it comes from you, or whether it comes from people outside of you. Another question goes with it: Who are you? Are you who you want to be, or are you who others want you to be? To ask these questions is even more important today than it was before capitalism begun to undermine our identities. Being ourselves is very hard these days. We are made to believe that who we are can be altered, bought and sold. We are told that indeed our identities can be molded and bent, as if we are made of the same plastic as the many credit cards we are supposed to carry in order to feel free. We are constantly offered new ways of getting an "extreme makeover," and with every new offer there comes more pressure to “better ourselves”, to choose a better identity.

In the culture in which Jesus issued his call to Simon and Andrew, James and John, identity was not something you were striving for, it was what you were. These fishermen didn't spend years considering their vocation. Vocation was who they were, who their fathers were; they were born to it. They identified with it like they did with their village and their family. It was their life. Nobody had questions about it.

And then Jesus broke into their contentment. In the Gospel Mark the Evangelist begins his story of Jesus with a stunning announcement. "After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God." In Mark's account these are the very first words spoken by Jesus:

"The time (kairos) is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.” 

When these words came out of Jesus' mouth, he will have turned heads. That is because when he said “time”, he didn't say the word people around him expected. That would have been chronos, the word from which we derive the fancy word for a watch: chronometer. The word chronos describes normal or everyday “clock time”. Instead, Jesus used the word kairos. This is a most powerful word because it means change, a critical juncture, a divine appointment or intervention. So, when Jesus spoke the word kairos, people listened up. The word kairos provokes a radical response, an urgent choice, or a fundamental reorientation. A radical response, an urgent choice, a fundamental reorientation – all of these are true for what happened to the four fishermen in our story.

Jesus' ministry has just begun. He defines the shape of his mission as he identifies the coming of God's reign with his  own person. Once that is done, he immediately goes to work to find some staff for his work. He calls Simon Peter and his brother Andrew into service. His simple words hit the mark:

"Follow me and I will make you fish for people." 
To these four men who have never questioned their place in life, Jesus offered a new identity, one that had nothing do with their geographic or social location.  Instead, it would be about movement, a willingness to take a journey, to begin a pilgrimage, to walk with Jesus.  The story doesn't ask what they were working for, or for whom, at their nets. Only a stranger would have asked such a dumb question. They did the work that would feed them and their families. They were part of the local economy, waking early, following the patterns of fish, and selling at market.  It was an identity thatn offered sources of happiness as reliable as any they knew -- family and friends in the village, children to carry their names and care for them should they be fortunate enough to reach old age ...

In contrast to this tried-and-true way of life, Jesus offered another path to these fishermen. What Jesus offered to them was truly a radical makeover. And a radical makeover means both, excitement and a high cost.  In following Jesus, they would break the chains of doing things the way they were always done, and they would have a chance to form a new community. But all this comes at a high cost. In following Jesus, they were to leave behind all the comfort and security. The price of admission was no less than their lives, or at least their lives as they knew it and as their friends and families recognized it; they lost their very identities: as sons of their fathers, members of their village communities, as fishers in the market.

In this critical kairos moment he called these fishermen to follow him; by doing so, Jesus changed more than their lives as individuals. Much like a modern sociologist, he revealed that the identities they had were constructed for them by the people around them and their expectations. The roles they fishermen had played until then were not the bedrock upon which everything depended. Jesus revealed that their identities were more than their current roles; he showed them that their identities were fluid and flexible instead. Yes, their identities allowed them a place, a location, a source of power and knowledge, but Jesus said, "Follow me", and invited them to give up their identity; he asked them to do surrender.

Surrender means to give up the comfort and familiarity of your old life; at the same time it is the chance to put behind you the things you won't miss: the expectations of others, and any fear and shame connected with following them rather than your heart. Surrender means a completely new beginning. Those four first disciples were able to follow Jesus' call immediately because they suspended the incessant talk of their minds and allowed their hearts to lead them. They surrendered.


This is the point where some of us take flight. Their egos tremble, and they run; the idea of surrender is anathema to them. Surrender makes them think "weakness" and "helplessness" and "powerlessness". They run and run and run in great fear and in search for someone, anyone, who will allow them to be disciples without giving up control. Usually they run into the wide open arms of certain false prophets that come under the name of "Positive Thinking".

In contemporary America these false prophets are named something like Suze Orman and Oprah Winfrey and Robert Schuller and Joel Osteen. In the not-so-far past, three of these false prophets were Dale Carnegie ("How to Win Friends and Influence People"), Napoleon Hill ("Think and Grow Rich") and Norman Vincent Peale ("The Power of Positive Thinking").

Advocates of positive thinking claim that your attitude will shape your destiny and that if you think positive thoughts, positive results will occur. The strategy you use is to force yourself into thinking the "best" of any situation. if you wake up in the morning and feel sick, tired and achy, one of the positive thinking tricks would have you force yourself to think something like, "Boy, I feel great today. Isn't it fabulous to feel alive?" Or, they instruct you to say something like, "I really ffeel sick. I think it's just wonderful that I feel sick, because good things always come from these kind of situations. What a wonderful learning opportunity."

Positive thinking is self-manipulation. Of course, we can all pretend that everything is positive, but saying so doesn't make it so. Real life doesn't work that way. Humanity's great works of literature and art and music would never have come into being if life was all beautiful; who would even know that we are in the light if there was no dark?

If the power of their thinking could have made them so influential, rich and happy, why do so many of their followers look so miserable?  But ah, they got an answer for that too:  you just didn't have enough faith in the power of your thinking!  Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (2009), was stunned when after her cancer diagnosis she was told repeatedly that her cancer was not a problem or an illness, but a gift. But, she says: sugar-coating illnesses can exact a dreadful cost. People who knew they couldn't afford to buy a house bought one because their pastors told them that "God wants you to have it" -- only to find that when the banks foreclosed on them, their pastors turned their backs and told them that they had failed in their faith.

Psychiatrist R.C. Murphy had some rather scathing things to say about Norman Vincent Peale and his book:
With saccharine terrorism, Mr. Peale refuses to allow his followers to hear, speak or see any evil. For him real human suffering does not exist; there is no such thing as murderous rage, suicidal despair, cruelty, lust, greed, mass poverty, or illiteracy. All these things he would dismiss as trivial mental processes which will evaporate if thoughts are simply turned into more cheerful channels. This attitude is so unpleasant it bears some search for its real meaning. It is clearly not a genuine denial of evil but rather a horror of it. A person turns his eyes away from human bestiality and the suffering it evokes only if he cannot stand to look at it. By doing so he affirms the evil to be absolute, he looks away only when he feels that nothing can be done about it ... Mr Peale's book is not only inadequate for our needs but even undertakes to drown out the fragile inner voice which is the spur to inner growth.
Much like the serpent in Genesis Chapter Three said to Eve, “Surely you will not die, for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will open and you will be like divine beings who know good and evil", the false prophets say you can be a disciple AND still be in control.  They tempt your ego and promise it a long life, if only you will do as they say. The cost is enormous: in exchange your inner voice is stilled. Now that's saccharine terrorism!

It's not that our problems are over when we choose to surrender our ego instead: we have to let go of things we have known and loved, but ... on the other side of that journey, we will find freedom. It's a freedom that cannot be grasped with our heads and the mind that is so celebrated by the false prophets. Let your heart lead you to surrender!

The freedom of God's Kingdom is not doing as you please. It's a journey on which we bind ourselves to our loving God, and, paradoxically, as we are binding ourselves firmly to God and God's Kingdom, we find freedom beyond all freedom. It's a journey of identity in which we move from understanding ourselves as unimportant and marginal, to perceiving that God wants to make us his own people.

The paths we have inherited do not count any more. The paths other people chose for us and told us to go do not count any more. The rules and roles of the past serve us no longer. Some folks in my family are still growling at the fact that I haven't stuck to the one career they decreed to be mine. I am not merely my vocation, be it a fisherman or a pastor, or teacher or musician or social worker; first and foremost I am a child of God, and so are you.

After surrender, there is a wonderful freedom to know that above all else, we are owned by God, and as such we are Children of God. Once we shift our self-understanding that way, our hearts are open. We realize we are not merely sinners, people who mess up and are fundamentally disordered and flawed; instead, we are human beings, made in God's image and glorious in God's eyes. As Irenaeus the Church Father put it, The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.

Until we surrender, we cannot be fully alive: we are anxious and nervous, and the expectations of others can paralyze and sadden us. We ache because we know we are not who we can be. But as soon as we surrender to the Lord and his Kingdom, we have no need to please the powers around us any more. We don't live to please others any more; we live for our owner, God, and His Kingdom.

Our repentance and our journey begin when we understand that God has come for us. When we follow our hearts and realize God wants to provide our deepest identity and our deepest freedom: God's love that makes us one with God, the universe and with one another. And when your reasons for being come from the inside, you will be truly free. Once you are truly free as a Child of God, it will be easy to answer the question: Why are you here?

UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT. It's the perfect way to describe someone who has been born again as a Child of God, one who is truly free because he surrendered! To surrender is following your heart to that deep freedom that can only be had when we become Children of God. Let go, my sister and my brother, let go and let God. Nothing will stay the same in your life:

Your complaints will turn into wonderment; your growls will turn into praises; your tears will turn into joy; your sadness will turn into dancing; your self-loathing will turn into self-love; your fears will turn to love and more and more love. And none of this will have happened because you followed the hogwash of "Positive Thinking"; it will have happened because you surrendered your ego.

All to Jesus I surrender, All to Him I freely give; I will ever love and trust Him, In His presence daily live. I surrender all,  I surrender all. All to Thee, my blessed Savior, I surrender all.

Nothing, nothing, nothing will stay the same once you open your heart and surrender to God and God's loving will for you.

Mark 1:14-20

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