How long shall we cling?
I am reminded of winter these days as temperatures are falling, and so are the leaves. Well, most of them anyway.
It was wintertime last year while walking when I stopped in my tracks. I heard something I had not heard in months. And it sounded out of place amidst the quiet wintry solitude of frozen rivers, snow-laden trees and crunching snow under foot.
I heard leaves rustling in the winter wind. I looked up into the branches of a giant oak tree most of whose brown, dried leaves did not fall to the ground in October.
These leaves were still hanging on despite the fact they were basically dead. And despite the sub-zero temperatures and the wind-chill factor. They sure were clinging! Talk about stubborn! They had refused to surrender to the natural change of seasons.
I sometimes worry that by moving forward in my life with big, life-changing decisions, I will lose something important to me. And so I hang on to the present circumstance like a crutch. Better the devil you know, right?
The rich man thought he had it in the bag by “following all the rules” of his religion (Mark 10:20). His question — “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17) — was rhetorical. In a manipulative, self-congratulatory way, he approached Jesus — even kneeling before him. He had self-righteously fooled himself into believing he already knew the answer. The gospel writer doesn’t even assign the rich man a name, underscoring the fake, surface nature of the man’s presence.
But Jesus cuts through the crap, skims the fat off the top, and goes to the jugular! Indeed, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus sees through the rich man’s pretense, and uncovers the real, authentic person beneath the surface. There he finds an enslaved heart, and brings to light the truth:
In order for the man to be liberated and set free, he has to surrender what owns him, what captivates and grips his soul: For him — it’s material possessions. For someone else, it might be different. But he has to learn, if he wants to grow, to let go and not hold on to those things that keep him stuck.
It is not in hanging on, but in letting go when faith makes sense. Faith, for Martin Luther, was more an attitude of trust and self-abandonment. He wrote, “Faith does not require information, knowledge and certainty, but a free surrender and a joyful bet on God’s unfelt, untried, and unknown goodness.”
This may seem impossible, even undesirable. We don’t want to let go of those things that have defined us for so long. Whether we are talking about buildings, or investments, or our image, our special collections of treasurers we keep in our homes — how can we do this?
Those leaves that were clinging on to the oak tree through the winter would eventually have to let go. Why? Because the new buds in Spring will push them off, whether or not they like it!
Will we wait until forces beyond our control compel us to let go? When a crisis happens? When we no longer have any choice but to yield to the inevitable?
But have we heard the promise of God, here? Because we’re not letting go of whatever we need to let go of into nothing. Our choice to release our grip isn’t a release into emptiness. In our letting go we are making a certain bet on God’s goodness.
There is comfort and hope here: For, in God’s economy nothing is lost. In some mysterious way, even though I feel like I have lost something dear when I let go, I can trust that someday God will use what I have lost and reconcile it to my life again.
The rich man went away grieving. I hope the story didn’t end there. I hope that after the rich man had some time to think about it, he would have returned to Jesus. That’s all.
That’s all we need to do: Turn to Jesus with an open and honest heart. Why wouldn’t we? You see, when Jesus told him to sell all, the scripture inserts the phrase that “Jesus loved him” (v21). Jesus loves us, first and foremost — and it’s not a fake love, it’s real!
How is this possible, when obviously this man is missing the mark? How can Jesus love such a sinner?
Yet, when we turn our hearts to Christ, we discover that God accomplishes what we cannot, and what often comes as a surprise to us. I like the Scots Confession (1560) written shortly after Martin Luther’s death (1546): It says, “… God accepts our imperfect obedience as if it were perfect, and covers our works, which are defiled with many stains, with the righteousness of his Son.”
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).
God will complete the “good work” begun in each of us (Philippians 1:6) — that nothing good in our lives will ever be wasted, but will further the reign of Christ on earth. This means that those who do not have what I have will benefit from my “letting go”. And in so doing, I, too, will receive abundance from others — whatever I need.
All things are possible with God, even sticking a camel through the eye of a needle (Mark 10:25). We can’t conceive of God’s wonders. But it’s not about us. It’s about what God can do.
And God can do anything. Even bring justice and peace where it doesn’t exist now. Even feed the hungry, raise up the poor, humble the proud and mighty. Even overcome the greatest challenges we face.
So, I can be bold and let go even when it’s not easy — but important and necessary. And then watch and wait for the new thing that will sprout in Spring.