Updated: Aug 3
It’s one thing to talk about surrender to an invisible God, it’s another to actually do it.
Most religions express this surrender through some kind of conversion experience or rite.
I was baptized at the age of nine into the Christian religion. The funny thing, to me, was that there were all kinds of serious conversations when I was considering conversion, but nothing after the conversion ceremony was done. That left me more than a little confused. I said the words, did the thing, got dunked in a baptistry, dried off, and then……., nothing. It left me wondering what I was converted to.
I really did feel the need for God in this action. I did feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit concerning my sin, and my need for a savior. I remember that moment well.
I lived in Australia at the time, where my parents where missionaries in the coastal town of Mackay Queensland, right off the Great Barrier Reef. I was riding my bike through the neighborhood when I saw two kids, about my age, fighting with each other on the front lawn. They were scrapping, fist-fighting, and trying to put each other on the ground. My sensitive nine-year-old self felt the wrongness of the moment. I remember thinking, “this is not how the world should be.” But I was also somehow able to do more than just see a problem over there, with those kids on that lawn. I was able to trace the problem back to myself. There was a problem in the world, and the problem was also in me. Of course, my Christian upbringing told me clearly what that problem was, and what to do about it. Hence my conversion. But what did that really accomplish?
I remember feeling the presence of God for a few weeks after I was baptized, but after a few weeks, that feeling left.
I had a conviction, performed a conversion rite, and felt the presence of God for a time. But after a few weeks, I was left feeling the same as before. What was it all about? If it did not change me, or solve the problem of sin inside me, then what good was it?
The problem with any kind of conversion rite is that it’s mostly symbolic. Christian baptism is just an outward expression of an inward transformation. The outward symbol is easy to understand and perform. The inner transformation is more difficult on both accounts, to understand and get to. Sometimes we'd prefer the magic pill, the onetime action that sets everything right. Sometimes, the idea of a long, hard journey towards inner transformation isn't that appealing.
Surrender to God takes time. It's a process, not a point. That’s why contemplation entails practices to point us to and keep us on the path. How do we learn how to hear and participate with an invisible God?
Contemplation entails the belief that we can know and experience God. It also teaches that our disconnection from God produces much of our dysfunction and misery. That's why surrender is important. It's not just acknowledging or "worshiping" God, but getting in tune with Him in a way that allows God to direct our lives. Coming to know God takes practice, and practices. Here are some contemplative practices which have helped put me in the flow of surrendering to God.
1. READING. I’ve read the Bible a lot. I also read a lot of other writings from other spiritual teachers. My three favorites at this time are Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, and Henri Nouwen, all contemplative teachers. That’s what’s working for me right now, and has helped point me to the place where I’m finally starting to surrender to God in deeper ways. But that doesn’t have to be where you start. Reading is a great way to get into contact with a wide variety of spiritual teachers from all kinds of places and times. We can’t get into the flow of something we know nothing about. We must begin to learn, and reading is a great start. But it also needs to become a great practice. Generally, I’m always in a book, listening to a podcast, or watching a video that’s continuing to inform me about what life with God is about.
2. PRAYER. Prayer is just having a conversation with God. I struggled with depression and anxiety from a young age. I had heavy things on my heart, and needed someone to listen, someone that cared. That someone, for me, was God. The most helpful thing I can say about prayer is, don’t think of it as prayer at all. Think of it as talking to your best friend, who’s always with you; a friend who knows you better than you know yourself, and wants to help you discover yourself and your purpose in life. The next most helpful thing I can say is, keep doing this for a long time, on a daily basis, and it will begin to help you be more connected to God. Where reading gets God into our minds, prayer gets God energy into our hearts.
3. EXPERIENCE. This could also be called experiencing beauty, but in a purely visceral, body sense. I’m talking about getting the body in contact with the world God has created. That entails moving, but also seeing, hearing, and all the physical senses. For me, getting my body into nature usually does the trick. It puts my eyes, ears, feet and skin in contact with God in ways that nothing else can. It allows me to leave a lot of things behind and just enjoy being. We can get our bodies in contact with God by getting into nature. But we can also do this by riding a bike, going to a music concert, or visiting an art museum. All these entail experiencing the material beauty of God in the physical world.
4. MEDITATION. Meditation is kind of the opposite of the first three, it’s creating a space for God to enter into. While many spiritual practices entail an inner or outer activity, meditation entails the ceasing of inner and outer activity. It is our attempt to let go of the more conscious self and allow for an experience of our deeper self as connected to God. It is a kind of emptying in order to be filled. There are different kinds of meditation, and you can search that out on your own, but the one I practice most is called breathing prayer or centering prayer. This is not like thought prayer or vocal prayer. This kind of prayer attempts to quiet the heart, mind, and the body through the opposite kind of action; stillness. To do this I use one or two words which I say mentally while breathing in and out. I keep repeating those words for a while, as I attempt to let everything else but the sound of my breathing become my focus. This was especially helpful during my year of recovery, after my breakdown, when I struggled with out-of-control thoughts and emotions. Meditation became the equilibrium to that chaos. The opposite weight for too much emotion and thought was trying to get to a place with no emotion and thought.
We become what we practice, and we’re practicing every day. The trick, and the point of contemplation, is to take control of what we’re practicing and be more intentional about it. So, keep learning, listening, practicing, and growing in your journey with God.