The Art of Surrender

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

“And I am thine! I rest in thee. Great spirit come and rest in me.”[1] I offer these words from our hymn as a way for us to enter into this idea, this spiritual practice, this way of being: surrender. Surrender is our theological theme for March. I call this sermon The Art of Surrender.” But I don’t want to give you a false impression. I am not accomplished in this art. If you’ve seen my new blog at, you may have noticed its title: “Stay on the Battlefield.”[2] That was also the title of a sermon I preached in January—hardly the words of one who practices the art of surrender. And among liberal religious people and Unitarian Universalists I don’t think I’m alone. Surrender doesn’t come easy to us. In our March newsletter I put it this way: “Liberal religious spirituality can be so focused on finding the self that we forget the equally important spiritual task of surrendering the self to something greater.” Surrender is not our collective spiritual norm. For many of us, including me, it is challenging.

Here’s what I mean. When I begin worship, as you know, I invite you to “find that place inside, that place of comfort and solace, that place where your voice is strong, that place where your conviction resides, where you know your truth.” As I say those words I’m inviting you essentially to find yourself. Those few words at the beginning of worship articulate so much of what we take for granted as Unitarian Universalist spirituality, this finding of the self, growing of the self, healing of the self, rejuvenating of the self; this identification of the things that matter most deeply to us, this striving to live the life we long to live. But I also recognize this is not an invitation to a whole spirituality. I don’t invite you to find that place inside, that place of comfort and solace, that place where your voice is strong, that place where your conviction resides, where you know your truth…and let it go. I don’t invite you to find yourself and then surrender yourself to some compelling reality larger than yourself. How utterly different that would feel.

When I speak of surrender here, in a liberal spiritual community, from a liberal pulpit, I am speaking about what for me is both a practice and a way of being: allowing ourselves to rest not in ourselves but in some reality larger than ourselves. And I am thine! I rest in thee. Or perhaps we surrender when we invite that larger reality to enter into us. Great spirit come and rest in me. I don’t want to suggest that such surrender is completely foreign to the Unitarian Universalist identity—it is not. But, again, it isn’t our spiritual norm. Consider our Unitarian Universalist principles. They speak to the centrality of the self, to respecting the self, to working with other selves for justice and equality. Our principles prioritize the individual’s free and responsible search for truth and meaning and the right of conscience. Our principles call us to conduct moral reasoning; they engender in us moral courage; they imply an expectation that we will bring our reasoning, moral, courageous selves into the world to act in some way that serves the world. This is not surrender. This is full-blown engagement with a reasoning, moral, courageous self at the center.

Our seventh principle, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” informs us we are embedded in a reality larger than ourselves, but it doesn’t explicitly call us to surrender ourselves to that reality. If anything, we typically interpret it as a prophetic call to protect the environment, as a reminder that we have a responsibility to engage in activities that sustain the web rather than deplete it. This is using the self as a moral force for environmental justice. This, too, is engagement, not surrender.

This week I looked through our hymnal for hymns and readings that might speak directly to surrender as a spiritual practice, as a way of being. I could find nothing. I’m sure I’ve read every word in the hymnal during my nearly twelve years of ministry. I don’t recall ever encountering the word surrender in this book. I may be wrong, but I don’t think it’s in there. Surrender is not a collective Unitarian Universalist spiritual norm. And to the extent we allow this to continue, I believe we do ourselves a spiritual disservice. I say this because, while a spirituality geared towards finding the self, building up the self, and using the self as a moral force is incredibly valuable in struggles for justice, in struggles for religious freedom, in building the beloved community, in participating in democratic institutions, in engaging in any effort that seeks to affirm human worth and dignity; nevertheless such self-oriented spirituality is not sufficient for apprehending the full range of human experience: it is not sufficient for encountering mystery and unknowing; it is not sufficient for encountering notions of eternity and infinity; it is not sufficient for living in this very present moment—in fact it often gets in the way of being fully present; it is not sufficient for encountering anything over which our selves have no control. For these things we need to learn the art of surrender.

A provocative image of surrender appears multiple times in the Christian New Testament when Jesus says to his disciples, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[3] I find this provocative in part because many early Christian communities were persecuted, their members executed for public expressions of faith. There was immense risk involved in taking on a Christian identity. We can imagine early Christians hearing this scripture and recognizing their lives were in danger. Thus, these words could be taken very literally where losing one’s life referred to martyrdom—certainly a kind of surrender—and finding one’s life referred not to keeping one’s physical life but to gaining eternal life.

For our purposes I’m interested in a more metaphorical reading of this scripture rather than a first- or second-century life-and-death reading. In my words this scripture might read: Those who train their spiritual focus on the self—on discerning the self, on building up the self, on using the self as a moral force—will always risk losing the self. While those willing to surrender the self into some larger reality will be transformed, will attain some new degree of insight and wisdom, will enter into life with renewed vigor and energy. Of course, we cannot know prior to surrendering how we will be transformed, what insight and wisdom we shall accrue. That is why surrender feels so risky. It may not require that we give up our physical lives, but it always requires some degree of vulnerability. It requires ‘letting go,’ changing course or moving into the unfamiliar and the unknown. As we heard from spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle, “sometimes surrender means giving up trying to understand and [simply] becoming comfortable with not knowing.”[4] But we don’t typically like not knowing. It’s risky.

Can you see the paradox here? Our instinct, more often than not, is to cling to who we are, what we have and what we desire. I know this is my instinct. Yet I also know that as we cling we force ourselves to face the possibility of losing that to which we cling. Buddhism tells us that through such clinging—through such attachment—we suffer. The harder we cling the greater our suffering. Yet if we can learn the art of surrender—surrender who we are, what we have and what we desire—if we can free ourselves from attachment in those moments when attachment no longer serve us—then we can grow in spiritual depth and gain our lives anew. This is always risky. It requires trust or faith that “those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life will find it.”

In a March 3rd article on The Huffington Post, spiritual writer Jay Michaelson[5] tells the story of Ananda’s enlightenment. Ananda was the Buddha’s personal attendant. He knew the Buddha’s teachings better than anyone. But he wasn’t yet enlightened. After the Buddha’s death, five hundred of his closest disciples gathered to clarify and record his teachings. Except for Ananda, all of these disciples were fully enlightened. This posed a problem. In order to ensure an accurate transmission of the teachings, the disciples needed Ananda there—he knew more than anyone. Yet the teachings also needed to be uncorrupted by selfish desire, and that meant everyone in the conference had to be fully enlightened.

The disciples told Ananda to get to work. “Practice diligently,” they said, “so that you can become enlightened and join us in this important meeting.” Ananda tried his best, meditating day and night. Yet the night before the meeting he was no closer to his goal. He kept practicing, entering deep states of concentration. But it didn’t work. Eventually tiredness overcame him. He realized he would not succeed. He made his peace with his failure. He prepared for sleep. And as he lay down to bed, he became fully enlightened.[6]

Only when he surrenders, only when he lets go of the thing he desires most of all, only when he makes peace with his failure, only when he accepts what is—that he’s tired, that it’s time to sleep—only then does enlightenment come. Those who lose their life will find it.

At the most practical level, conversation about spiritual surrender is simultaneously conversation about our need to control—control ourselves, control our relationships, control our surroundings, control events, control the future—even control the past. The story we heard earlier from Rachel Naomi Remen is certainly about control. “Shortly after her thirty-fifth birthday, [Joan] had entered into a battle with time, a plastic surgeon at her side. With his skill she had stripped back the years, reclaiming her eyes, the chin, and even the breasts and bottom of her youth.”[7] Control. “No one really needs to grow old,” [Joan said]. “Aging is a choice.”[8] And then we encounter her some years later in the grocery store. She has surrendered. She no longer wages her battle with time. We don’t know what happened or why, though we suspect her experience with cervical cancer led her to surrender. She has accepted her body as it is. She has accepted life as it is. She is transformed, physically unrecognizable to Dr. Remen—and she laughs: “I’m growing old. Who would think that someone like me could be so grateful to have wrinkles?”[9] Those who lose their life will find it.

When she was seeing the plastic surgeon in an effort to keep her appearance youthful, Joan thought she was preserving her life. What she didn’t grasp was that she was struggling against life. She was resisting the natural progression of things, trying to control something she ultimately could not control. She was spending enormous energy maintaining an illusion, clinging to a self that was certainly real but, in more fundamental way, was a hoax. I asked Sandy to sing Anna Nalick’s “Breathe (2 AM)” because it recognizes so clearly that there are aspects of life we cannot control. “We can’t jump the track, we’re like cars on a cable,” she sings. “Life’s like an hourglass glued to the table. No one can find the rewind button now.”[10] But even though we know this, we still try. We cling. We attach. We resist change. We construct elaborate illusions about how life should be, and in doing so we fight life as it is. We resist the natural progression of things. Remember Rilke’s words from our meditation: Stones don’t do this. Blossoms don’t do this. Children don’t do this. “Only we, in our arrogance, push out beyond what we each belong to for some empty freedom.”[11]

What we each belong to. Dr. Remen says something similar when she talks about spiritual practice. “When we pray,” she says, “we stop trying to control life and remember that we belong to life.”[12] “And I am thine, I rest in thee.” Surrender. “When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.” Surrender. “I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”[13] Words from the poet, Wendell Berry.

From time to time I tell you I believe in God. I do. Yet through the course of my ministry and through the course of my life, I have not yet learned how to surrender myself to God. For all the anxiety that builds up in me for reasons great and small; for all the goals I set for myself that I do not achieve, or at least not in the way I had hoped; for the all clinging, for all the attaching, for all the ambition and the desire to be successful, to be good, to please, to stay on the battlefield, to win for the sake of justice and peace; for all the concern I carry—and I know so many of you carry—for what the future holds for our planet, for what our children’s lives may be—for all of this, surrender to God would be so wonderful. I have not yet learned to do that—and I feel it as a very deep longing.

Even so, I read those words from Wendell Berry, and I am reminded there are moments when I can see the natural progression of things. I can behold life as it is, not as I want it to be. I can witness the way wild things live—without forethought of grief. I can sense there is indeed grace in the world. And in those moments I find I can let go. I can align my living with the way life really is. I can rest there, and I can, without hesitation, invite life as it is to rest in me. I can surrender. And the life that for a time seemed lost in anxiety and fear, can be found once again. And I wonder if, perhaps, this is all I need to know of God: that I can surrender to life as it is.

I hope we never give up that search for the self, that building up of the self, that using of the self as a moral force in the world. But knowing how tenuous, how illusory, how limiting that self can be, it is my prayer for each of us today that we also learn the art of surrender. In those moments when our clinging and our attachment become unsustainable, may we find the strength to let go, to change course, to move into unknowing, to lie down where the wood drake rests, to lose our lives so that we may find them once again.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] MacFayden, H.R., “The Lone, Wild Bird,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #15.

[2] See:

[3] Matthew 10:39. See also Matthew 12:25; Mark 8:35, 10: 28-31, Luke 9:24, 14:25-27, 17: 33; and John 12:25.

[4] Tolle, Eckhart, Stillness Speaks (Vancouver: Namaste Publishing, 2003) p. 72.

[5] For information on Jay Michaelson see:

[6] This story is adapted from Michaelson, Jay, “The Path to Buddhist Enlightenment: Sometimes Assertion, Sometimes Surrender,” The Huffington Post, March 3, 2011.

[7] Remen, Rachel Naomi, “Surrender,” Kitchen Table Wisdom (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 188.

[8] Remen, Rachel Naomi, “Surrender,” Kitchen Table Wisdom (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 188.

[9] Remen, Rachel Naomi, “Surrender,” Kitchen Table Wisdom (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 189.

[10] Nalick, Anna “Breathe (2 AM),” Wreck of the Day (New York: Columbia Records / Sony Music, 2004).

[11] Rilke, Ranier Maria, “How Surely Gravity’s Law” in Barrows & Macy, tr., Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 116.

[12] Remen, Rachel Naomi, “Surrender,” Kitchen Table Wisdom (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 271.

[13] Berry, Wendell, “When Despair For the World Grows in Me,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #483.