Practicing Lent: Submission/Obedience

A conversation about faith practices for Lent with my good friend Jason Evans.

Jason: On Pentecost Sunday, I will be confirmed in the Episcopal Church. Many have asked me if confirmation is a means to some end. “Is it necessary for your job?” “Are you planning on becoming a priest?” Neither of these were my motivation.

I remember reading Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline years ago and thinking to myself, “I’ve never practiced the spiritual discipline of submission.” I’ve been a follower of Jesus for most of my life but I have never been called to submit to the wisdom and authority of the community–to trust the Spirit at work through a collection of God’s people … or if I was called to such a practice, I wasn’t paying attention. I decided to go through the confirmation process because I needed a physical example, a symbolic ritual to root me to the practice of spiritual obedience.

Mike: Lent is the traditional time of preparation for new converts for baptism, confirmation, and reception into the tradition. In the service, you make promises in front of a bishop. Episcopalians make a big show of a lot of liturgy, and that image of making promises to a Bishop is a pretty powerful one. The Bishop represents the unity of the church. She (or he) is the representative of the whole community of the faithful. When you make the promises of the Baptismal Covenant, you choose to take on an element of discipline.

For those of us who are ordained, this can take a whole other tack. When I was approved to go to seminary, I was ecstatic. I really wanted to study at Yale’s Divinity School. My bishop told me no. I was going to HIS seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. Obedience can be a tough pill to swallow. I spent my first year at seminary resenting his decision, but knowing that if I wanted to be a priest, I didn’t have a choice.

A year into seminary, I started to discover some pretty amazing friendships. I realized that Washington opened some great opportunities for experiences that weren’t available to me in New Haven, Connecticut (where Yale is located). I was chosen to be a seminarian, and later a priest at a church right by the White House. I helped with a huge young adult ministry and a Latino congregation. Through a friend from Virginia Seminary, I met my husband. My life today would be completely different if I hadn’t obeyed my bishop. I discovered that obedience wasn’t so much about the content of the decision, but in my reaction to the decision. It wasn’t about where I went to seminary so much as who I was as a person when I got there.

There is a certain gift in giving some of your power over, a freedom. You can focus less on making the right choice, and more on trying to grow as a person. Today, I am very grateful for my time at my unchosen seminary. I’m such a big Virginia Seminary supporter that I have somehow been elected Vice President of the Alumni Society. (And I got to nominate my former Bishop to run for the executive board, which made both of us laugh). Obedience for me opened up some incredible doors, but it wasn’t easy to take at first.

Jason: I feel the need to step back for a second and look at this practice from another angle.

It would be quite easy for someone like me–a white, hetero male–to talk about practices such as obedience, or humility, or nonviolence–for example–and fail to take into consideration that for others these practices may sound or feel more like subjugation, humiliation, or annihilation. I’m self-aware enough to see that part of my privilege is being able to choose submission. I can’t answer for others, but for myself this is part of why I feel the need to practice submission–part of being a Christian, for me, means a willingness to let go of authority I didn’t earn but received due to societal sin.

That said, choosing spiritual submission is not the same as being subject to oppression. Oppression presumes someone is less valuable. The opposite would be self-aggrandizement, which presumes that the one’s worth supersedes all others. The practice of spiritual submission begins with the conviction that each of us is born with priceless worth. It ends with the conviction that the purpose for that priceless worth is found in service to the whole. The practice of obedience comes down to a willing response to offer your God-given gifts to the needs of your faith community without your personal benefit as contingency.

Mike: I’m grateful for your clarification here. While I don’t share your “hetero” identity,  it is important to acknowledge that we both speak from a position of incredible privilege. One of the best paradigms for talking about submission is the reading from last night, Maundy Thursday. Jesus, at the last supper washes the disciples feet.

I had the opportunity once to hear Andy Stanley, the Evangelical pastor from Georgia, preach on this lesson. It was at the morning service we held at St. John’s for President Obama’s second inauguration. St. John’s has held a service for almost every presidential inauguration since the early years of the United States. The preacher looked out over the crowd, a congregation that included the President, the Vice-President, most of the President’s cabinet, even Oprah was there. He asked them: “What do you do when you discover you are the most powerful person in the room?” You could hear a pin drop. I could tell, a lot of them were trying to decide who the most powerful person in the room was.

I think Andy Stanley hit the nail right on the head. Jesus says to his disciples that they should wash one another’s feet for “servants are not greater than their masters.” We follow, we obey, we submit ourselves as Christians to a teacher who lead by serving. Submission is the way of getting ourselves out of the way, getting our egos out of the way, and remembering our place. Sometimes that practice has gone awry in Christian history. People have wielded spiritual power for self-serving purposes. But practiced well, obedience/submission can be life giving, for ourselves, for the church, and for the world.

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