Four days ago—suffering a little from ‘conference cringe’—I drove from Dubbo to Melbourne with an old mate (Paul) for the Surrender conference in Victoria. We left quite late in the day, we did not get bogged, we did not confuse anyone (except each other), and we were surprised by a servo attendant who told us that ‘the costumer is God’. So … by now those close to us will know which ‘Paul’ it was who came with me.
We reached the outskirts of Melbourne more or less on schedule and then followed the wandering—and sometimes wobbling hopelessly—blue dot of our gps across the spidery lines of Melbourne at 3am looking for Belgrave Heights. The satellite failed us and we found ourselves getting lost lots, laughing lots and sort of enjoying the ride. Finally, when it was truly getting wet and miserable, we reached the actual summit of the mountain itself and moseyed around tents and cabins in a slow tyre-crunching and headlight-startling cruise until we settled on a flat bit of gravelly mud where we pitched our tent and went to sleep. Next morning we discovered we were perched above a sharp slope at the bottom of which a busy yellow hunk of back-hoe growled and bit into the earth for most of the day—seemingly oblivious of our brinkmanship.
From there we went our separate ways and I found myself listening to a Catholic latino lady1 telling an awful story about living through the burning of the Bronx; the crack epidemic in the Bronx and then organising a protest march against the drug problem, which culminated in the burning of her church. Standing there and watching the people weeping over broken statues, she heard God say, ‘I am not here, I am walking around inside these beautiful human temples of mine that are being burned down by drugs every day!’ She also spoke of moving from ‘being a fan of Jesus to being a follower’, and of ‘enabling people in your neighbourhood to see that they belong to each other’, and of people crying, ‘Lord! When are you coming?’ and the Lord replying, ‘No! When are you coming?’ She added, ‘We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.’
I was quickly cured of my ‘conference cringe’ and found that the rest of the weekend, which included a huge variety of missional tribes, was true to that first note struck by the lady from the Bronx—where she and her family still live by the way. In another moment ‘by the water fountain’ (literally), I found myself sharing help and hindrance advice with a deeply hurting young person who had lots of questions about childhood trauma, something that I’ve had to walk through myself. Then there was our Cornerstone tent with Gus’ pizzas and Rose & Chris’ community garden extravaganza and a well thought through statement of ‘what we are for’: life deep formation preparing people for a lifetime of mission. It was a relief to see it being explained and being made available and useful in an appropriate way, knowing that there would be many young people getting challenged and stirred up but also needing to find some place that would enable them to walk sanely, intelligently and sustainably along the road towards that vision mountain they had first glimpsed.
Being at Surrender was a good little picture-story of the fact that we are called to prepare this world for the great day of its resurrection and the return of its king by growing little gardens of goodness (the ‘culture of eternity’3) here on earth. The particular ‘gardens’ on display included an exhibition of indigenous art—one of the pieces inspired by the story of a young aboriginal boy who had murdered a man and, as an outcome of the trial, was invited to live with the family of his victim: an unforgettable story and an unforgettable work of art that called to mind the Day of Pentecost when the murderers of Jesus—’whom you crucified’ as Peter put it—were invited into God’s family. Then there were the other exhibits and stalls: young people volunteering to help release kids from slavery, getting sanitation into villages, translating the bible and the setting up family-style households for girls coming off heroine and so on. Add to this the easy-going but sweet and rhythmic worship music, the random call-outs from the stage for happy birthdays, the haka, and prayers in different languages. All of which somehow made it easy to see why (despite some of the more diabolical messes we have gotten ourselves into over the centuries) we have a long and energetic history of Christians happily foregoing personal wealth and comfort in order to love and serve their families, neighbours and tribes in ordinary moments every day: initiating meaningful conversations, hosting reconciliations, volunteering at soup kitchens and taking on foster care; breaking up dictatorships, confronting drug lords, building hospitals and hospices; creating birthday parties, administering medical clinics and a host of other ‘… ings’.
For me personally, there was a kind of voice at Surrender, which said, ‘These people know that everything counts and nothing will be in vain even if it does ‘all go up in smoke’ in the end.’ Yes it was a conference and we were all ‘on show’ but I’ve been to lots of conferences and when the sweet and holy carelessness of the Paraclete’s love soaks into the deepest places, dissolving denominational, racial and other ‘boundaries of pride’, you get the sense that the stuff on the stage (as great as it is) is not the main event, that the big part is what is happening in casual conversations, random glances, and meetings between old friends, or even warmth between those who once might not have felt so warm. It is unmistakeable.
You know that you are all being hopelessly and self-forgetfully caught in The Grace and you couldn’t contrive it even if you tried. In these places and times of truly, deep and natural human and uncontrived surrender, we do not fall for the trap of being religious or churchy, instead we get a taste of the fact that possessions, money and even our own lives are destined to become fountains of eternal love, if only we will allow them to be released into the lives of others—not out of a morbid fear or a sanctimonious desire to be ‘unselfish’ but out of a kind of ‘joining in of the dance’ that is love made alive and hilarious. As Anthony Bloom once said, ‘All the food of this world is divine love made edible … The moment we try to be rich by keeping, we are the losers … This is the Kingdom, the sense that we are free from possession’ i.e.: from being possessed by our possessions. And in particular, from imprisoning eternal love in our own souls because of a grubby little desire to somehow hoard it. It is thus that the Christian life is released from being a grinding and noble journey of ‘stoic surrenders’ to a childlike and astonishing journey of ‘sweet surrenders.’
On behalf of those who came and soaked up the goodness of it all I would like to pass on a deep ‘thank you’ to those who thought of, prayed for, arranged and staffed; spoke at, played, sang and shared their lives at, a Surrender that truly was a ‘sweet surrender’.