Posted by: Mark Nielsen | July 7, 2008

My Electronic Wailing Wall: Surrender, Recovery & the Necessity of Tears

I’ve always been a sucker for a good metaphor, and one of my favorite writers on spiritual matters, Anne Lamott, put me in mind of a very good one today: the Wailing Wall, the last remnant of the ancient temple courtyard in Jerusalem. Here’s an excerpt from her most recent book, Grace (Eventually) :

… a picture of a young boy and his father in yarmulkes, pushing prayers written on paper into cracks in the wall. This is something I do all the time, shove bits of paper with prayers and names on them into desk drawers, little boxes, my glove compartment. I have found that… turning the problem over to God or the elves in the glove compartment harnesses something in the universe that is bigger than you, and that just might work.

Anne herself is a recovering alcoholic, and writes quite humorously and eloquently about her journey, about the various ways God chased her around northern California until she finally surrendered and came to Jesus. I’ve been thinking alot lately about the idea of surrender. Certain prayers and attitudes are a healthy form of surrender, as Christian and Buddhist theologians have been teaching us for years. They say that letting go, giving up control, embracing humility, is the way to peace and happiness. Yet in an uptight, me-first, macho, militarized, post-9/11 world, the idea of surrender is not fashionable. Then again, when have I ever been fashionable?

Surrender also came up in church yesterday (Redeemer Lutheran in Park Ridge), as one of the earliest of the Twelve Steps in traditional recovery program language. Here’s how people in “the program” usually put it:

Step 3
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

“God as we understood Him.” This phrase is where the conservative evangelicals that I occasionally keep company with tend to part company with AA, considering it either a respectable but non-Christian system, or else a cultish organization of anarchists and tool of the devil (though not many would go that far… given the number of recovering addicts and success stories, it’s hard to make a case that God does not support the program).

Why don’t conservatives accept Step 3 at face value? Because those who cling tightly to an exacting and narrow interpretation of the Bible would like to believe they already understand all they need to know about God, through relationship with His son Jesus. Surrendering to the possibility that some things just cannot be known or explained scripturally, or that God as someone understands Him would not include Jesus, is too much of a stretch for them. Therefore a more subjective view of God, however one is able to see or experience God, is also too much of a stretch. For me –getting more theologically liberal by the day in how I look at the biblical text itself– the jury is still out on some of what Jesus actually said and did, and what I should therefore do.

Jesus was just such a confusing cat at times, wasn’t he?

Don’t get me wrong, though. I have great respect for scripture, and the utmost respect for Jesus — at least on the days when I’m not a sinful, piggish, opinionated clod only out for myself. On those bad days, Jesus is my perfect older brother, and I have a severe distaste for Him, because how could I ever possibly measure up to such a high standard? Those are my depressive days. My lonely days. My angry days. My self-pitying, potentially addicted days, which I often fill with too much tv or non-prayerful computer use. Basically that’s Mondays, alternate Wednesdays, and any other day upon which I have to take some responsibility for the well-being of myself and my family, and yet don’t want to do that.

And there’s the rub: I have to surrender control, and yet still maintain an attitude of responsibility and steady service to the principles set down by a Higher Power. I can’t just give up, say WTF?, and move on with my own business. I have to follow the path that has been shown to work. I have to have self-discipline, and set goals, even as I give up an investment in the outcome (knowing that it will not exactly match what I want personally). At this moment of surrender, the proud young Turk within me wants to stand up and say, “Wait. What’s in this for me? Why should I follow, if this path is so hard, and the ultimate destination is unknown (or sometimes unpleasant, if you’re doing it right, like Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King)?”

At which point the Holy Spirit shows up (hopefully) and answers for God, saying, “Because this is the path to health, dipshit. The path to abundant life. Do you want to be healthy and growing, or miserable and lost, wandering around some more in your own private 40-year desert?”

See how God is not always as gentle as those nice evangelicals once told me He was?

Meanwhile, remember those old Catholics, the ones who used to whip themselves? Well they may have been overdoing it, but they were still onto something: they knew how to surrender, and they knew how tough it is to do, over and over again, every bleepin’ day of our whole bleepin’ life. 

Which leads me back to where I started, the Wailing Wall. It took God so many years to get the Jews to a point spiritually where they were wise and humble enough to build His City, and then to build those temples properly and with the right attitude. It took both strength and humility, as modeled by leaders like Solomon, to create and maintain the home where Jehovah and his Ark (containing the original “Twelve Steps”) could take up residence. And then God turned around and chastened His people yet again, taking down the Second Temple as well, leaving nothing but an old retaining wall that keeps the mountain from spilling over onto the temple courtyard. That’s our Wailing Wall… it’s a glorified earth dam, a retaining wall.

And here’s something I didn’t know till I looked it up today: that expanded courtyard and its Wailing Wall were built by none other than Herod the Great. This is the same guy who was one of the worst Roman collaborators ever, who was outsmarted by the Magi, Mary and Joseph when Jesus was a baby, and then later killed his wife and two of his sons. So why did they call this guy great? Goes to show you: power does not equal greatness. It’s no wonder God had to get rid of Herod’s precious Second Temple.  It was nothing but a monument to  gross injustices, slave labor and corrupt, reprehensible acts by a man who couldn’t carry Solomon’s jockstrap. 

Besides, with the coming of Jesus, God moved off the Temple Mount and out into the world anyway. So the remaining ruins of the courtyard wall aren’t much more than a tombstone, really — an important landmark to what once was great. The old Jerusalem, the old temple, the old ways — those are all gone now. We have to surrender to the future, to what’s healthy and best for everybody that has a stake in the New Jerusalem (which seems to cover just about everybody, right?).

Thus, a desk drawer or glove compartment will suffice from now on, as repositories for the prayers of those of us who still want to write down prayers for peace in Jerusalem, or for the healing of our wounds so we won’t drink or gamble or compulsively shop anymore, or for anything else that’s too big a problem for us to solve through merely human methods.

A computer and a blog work pretty good, too. Pardon me while I go finish my wailing in private.


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