A few years back a friend announced, “For Lent this year, I’m giving up.” I waited for him to finish the sentence, but that was it. He was just giving up. We both laughed.
But there’s a strong religious tradition suggesting some kind of giving up may be exactly what we’re called to do. James 4:7, for instance, calls us simply to “submit to God.” And in doing so we give ourselves up, dying to ourselves as we are said to do in baptism.
Nor is the idea of giving up limited to Christianity. Indeed, the word Islam means submission.
And what is the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Scriptures about if not a kind of giving up? The teacher’s first words there: “Perfectly pointless, perfectly pointless. Everything is pointless” (Common English Bible translation). And yet even that form of giving up is not somehow final, not despair. Before he is finished with his mournful soliloquy, after all, what does the Teacher say? “Remember your creator … .”
In modern times, ideas about giving up have returned with surprising intensity. For instance, German Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the midst of World War II, pondered what a “religionless Christianity” might look like. Had he given up on the faith? Not really. Rather, he had given up on those aspects of religion that, in the end, are unimportant to being a follower of Christ Jesus.
Similarly, Diana Butler Bass, in her 2013 book “Christianity After Religion: The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening,” talks about those unhelpful aspects of religion that must be given up if Christianity is to find its sea legs in the 21st century.
And even more recently, theologian/philosopher John D. Caputo, in “Hoping Against Hope: Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim,” says he’s working hard to identify what must be given up for Christianity to thrive: “I am attempting to retrieve a deeper religious attitude from the homo religiosus, from the dogmatism and supernaturalism of the ‘men of religion,’ in whose hands religion is codified, regulated and even turned into an alibi for murder and violence. I am seeking to know what religion would look like, what form it could take, if it were wrested free from people who consider themselves authorities in matters in which we are all unlearned novices and perpetual beginners.”
What might all of this mean for Presbyterians in the pews today? It could mean that we would do well to give up those annoyances that drain every congregation of energy: fights over whether the choir should wear robes; complaints about the young new pastor not wearing a tie on Sunday morning; desperate efforts to hang onto the hymns of our childhood; pseudo-friendly smiles for newcomers that hide our unwillingness to listen to them, to invite them into the congregation’s special culture, to find out what they may know about following Jesus that we may not.
Our famous propensity for doing things decently and in order has served us well in many ways, and I don’t want to toss all that without some reflection. But in other ways, it sometimes has blocked the church from being sensitive to where the spirit of God might be trying to move us. Being decent and orderly is characteristic of an institution, not a movement. And as theologian Leonard Sweet once noted, an institution is in the public’s eye while a movement is more often in the public’s hair.
What would happen if we determined to give up the institution and seek to become a movement again — one that submitted to the restless Holy Spirit? Giving it up entirely makes little sense, of course, but we can dream a little about moving in that direction and see how such dreams might here and there become a refreshing reality.
BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog Read about his latest book. Email him at email@example.com.