Defiant Surrender & Submission
I seem to have a built-in need to defy expectations, not by superseding them, but by not conceding. That tendency has generated a good share of difficulty in my life. My wife told me often I have a submission problem, meaning a problem submitting. She was right.
In our victim-honouring society it can be self-gratifying and sympathy-eliciting to speculate about what shaped that in me, if it was not purely a genetic predisposition. I need to keep that DNA possibility on the table, as I see evidence for it in the family generation prior and the one following. But, thinking in victim mode, I suspect I was manipulated a lot in my youth. I felt I had no choice in too many situations. I was at the mercy of the choices of others too much. Not that I knew what my own choices could be, but I have sense there was a flow, a direction to life that was as relentless as white-water unleashed by a dam others opened, white-water I was riding in a raft others had control of, and I had a sense things could or should be different, but didn’t know how to make that happen. Keep fairly in mind that the ride may have been interesting, but still dis-empowering, leaving an instinct to react against situations where others had power over me whom I did not trust.
That sense of helplessness, of being gut-knowingly manipulated yet not knowing a way out, has left a residual tension in my life. It created a reflexive urge to defy, an instinctive one, gut-jerk, not thought-out reaction from deep in me. So, I have many stories to remember of defying convention, of defying expectation, openly stated or subliminally expected or even merely perceived as existing by me. At my first ever drinking party, a broken ping-pong ball pinched onto my nose bought me a reputation as a hard drinking party-animal. A reputation that was all wet. A high-school tricycle race was entered with a bike with three wheels in a line. I still cannot follow a recipe or an order of service exactly. I need to improvise. A classroom prayer, instead of doing what everyone did, stated what everyone did “Lord, I’ll have the usual please. Amen” And so the tales roll into my mind, not all to be told.
While still in that mode I found myself at Seminary, having my final year there be a year from hell. Despite some of the difficult things I’ve experienced since, that year is still the closest I feel I’ve come to Hell on earth. Such systems as seminaries and denominations don’t take well to people with such reflexive reactions as mine. I was the one in the class who objected to the Prof’s command that all papers were to be brand new, not a reworking of something done before, musing a little too loudly if the Prof. had never used the same basic sermon twice… for one instance. The powers over me needed to hang labels on the behaviour. I was the one who was tagged (always off-the-record of course) as one who “had trouble with authority.” When I heard the off-the-record attempt to define me I went to be evaluated for that ‘issue’ by a counsellor. Diagnosis: “Pete does not have unhealthy views of authority or authority figures, though he is somewhat affected by having been raised under conditional love”
So I came to the final few months at Seminary. In one of my finishing interviews I met with the faculty member who was to make the final recommendation to the faculty on whether I was endorsable as a minister in our denomination. A few times as we passed in the hall he said to me “We should meet to do your final assessment” and I would say “Yes we should.” In my file this was documented as “Pete is resistant to meeting to do his final assessment.” We finally met. He had before him a list I had made of the sermons I had preached on my Internship. He asked if I had copies of all my sermons available, as he wanted to see a few more of them. I said “I don’t have a very organized paper filing system, but I should have all of them on my computer, and can produce duplicates within a few hours. I can find things on my computer faster than in my paper files.” He said something like “So you have paper files.” I answered affirmatively, restating that they were not organized but my computer hard drive had organized copies. He asked me to go home and get my files and bring them back. I did. Two milk cases of file folders, tabbed by Bible book and a few topics. He then pointed to one of the sermons on the list and asked me to produce it. I looked in the relevant Bible book file folder, and it was not there. I then thought of a topic I might have filed it under, and fruitlessly looked there. I was not too anxious, as I had explained that this was not my primary filing mechanism. He asked for another. I could not find that either. Then I realized that the Sunday I had planned to preach the sermon that was still on the list was the Sunday something drastic had happened and I had changed my approach and thus my text, but had not updated my records, so I had not ever printed that sermon. I though I was wise in not trying to explain that. He then asked for a third. I could not find it. I did find the fourth one he asked for, but not until he had said “I see you are very disorganized” The anger at the unfairness of that comment geysered up in me. Inside of me the acid lava of past manipulations started upward with a volatile rush that astonished me enough that I was panicked into clamping it down. I did not respond, for to open my mouth would have allowed the venom out. I instinctively knew that any objection, even if I managed to say it politely, or even lightly in some self-deprecating way, would have given room for the next subversive volley “So, I see you are having trouble with my authority over you” and then there would definitely be an eruption of some sort, the kind of eruption that creates in young boys and grown men their love for Superheros able to put any foe in their place.
That’s how it went. The report he wrote recommended to the faculty that I not be allowed to candidate. I had some avenues of appeal. I took the first one. I appealed to the Board. I was denied. And as I was contemplating appealing to the next and last earthly level, the Synod, I had an experience that turned a tide in me, an experience where, in the jaws of what I felt was tremendous injustice and mistreatment, I learned the power of God’s nearness in my submission.
There was a faculty member who had mentored me, or certainly guided me through some of the torrentous rapids of the process. He had also hinted that he had issues with the direction of things at the Seminary, and that one day, given the right situation “the gloves would come off.” In my lack of humility I convinced myself that my case would be the catalyst for him degloving and throwing the gauntlet. I went to talk to him, telling my tale of woe, and asking his advice on whether I should appeal to the next level.
His answer was one of the more astonishing and deeply disappointing unexpected answers I have ever heard. He said “Pete, you have to submit to this. You have to give in.” following it by saying further some things about the price of fighting and the perpetual baggage I would obtain from that even if I fought and won. I really don’t remember too much of his further wise words, I was in shock.
I left his office and went to a quiet corner of the library to mull this over. While there, in my version of conversation with God, I shook my proverbial fist at God, and then gave up, gave it all over to God, saying “I can’t do this, I don’t know what to do. My family has been through enough, and now the final goal of the journey has been denied. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but if my mentor says submit, I’ll submit, it’s your problem now God.”
In that moment of defying God while saying words of submission that I still don’t know if I really meant or was just ‘trying them on’ in my despair, I had a physical sensation that was very unique. To describe it I need the reader to mentally picture something. Imagine your body is threaded throughout with small fish-line noodle-threads that enter at the center top of your head and are strung down all through your body, through to the tips of your fingers and toes. They are tied into a knot at the top of your head. The sensation I had in that moment of speaking defiant surrender and submission was of someone grabbing that knot and pulling, it was sensation of all those threads being pulled out the top of my head. It was a massive mysterious release.
I bawled in a fetal position for a significant time, then fell asleep in a sense of peace and surrender and being cradled that I can’t well describe. I slept for several hours, missing supper, and causing my wife some worry, as I usually kept her well posted on what was going on and she knew I would be having some crucial meetings that morning that I would have been eager to report on to her.
In that experience I began to learn about submission. Submission in the face of very obvious injustice experienced by a person who deserved some flack, but not in the proportion it came to him in. I began to learn both the meaning of “like a lamb led to the slaughter” and it’s power.
Since then, with more life-lessons layered onto that first one, and having read some authors like Rene Girard who put some of those experiences into a Christ focused framework for me, I have been ‘experimenting’ with that approach.