Saturday, March 08, 2014

the surrendered life

“The Church of the Brethren has several women who are much honored…but they’re never listened to.” That’s how the Church of the Brethren archivist, Bill Kostlevy, introduced an article by Anna Mow a couple of weeks ago during the denominational staff gathering.

The article, “The Surrendered Life,” ran in the October 7, 1950 issue of the Gospel Messenger magazine, but it originated from a speech given to the 1949 Annual Conference. Anna, born a Southwest Virginia girl like me, had quite a life by 1949 – international missionary, author, mother, church leader and professor. She was a Bethany Seminary professor living in Chicago, hosting (as her biographer Dorothy Garst Murray puts it) “an international roster of Who’s Who of Chicago” in her family’s home.

And here’s what Anna argues in “The Surrendered Life”:

One of the most devastating things we can do to anyone who wants to follow the Lord is to let him get the idea that he can be partially consecrated. Actually it is psychologically and spiritually impossible to be half surrendered to God. Surrender is ‘without reservation’ or it is not surrender.

She goes on to skewer just about every major denominational programmatic effort and talking point: “simplicity,” Brethren Service, fundraising, “holiness,” “fellowship,” conferences, camps, parties, interest groups, “peace,” the beatitudes. Anna wrote in the 1940s, but she may as well have been sitting there with us in Conference Room B at the Church of the Brethren General Offices in Elgin last month.

To be fair, Anna never worked as a denominational staff member, or, for that matter, pastor of a congregation. She did not inherit a crumbling institution built on 70-year-old cultural assumptions. She was never forced to answer to 100,000 vehemently divided people as to how and why she would maintain theological integrity in the face of division. She never had to balance an institutional budget or fire faithful staff. She never sat in the seat of an employee whose surrender is contractually expected to be to the Church.

Which is probably one of the reasons she was able to say the things she did:

The ‘surrendered life’ might be a life surrendered to the church, to service (even Brethren Service), to missions, to temperance, to peace, to a certain interpretation of doctrine, even to prayer – and still fall short of the will of God. The surrender must be to God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, our Lord. It is not a commitment to a cause or to an institution, it is a commitment to a Person, the divine Person, first of all.


There’s an old guy at my church who is always telling me how much I remind him of Anna Mow. The other day, he sank down into the rocking chair in my office and told me, “I listen to you preach and it’s just like Anna Mow. You just can’t be contained.” I mostly have no idea what he means, and I suspect that his comparisons are - at least in part - an attempt to draw me into conversation through flattery. But the thing is: it works. I love Anna Mow. She’s a theological giant in my tiny little corner of the world. I love that she never wrote systematic treatises, that she was perpetually translating gospel truth into practical knowledge. I love that she grew up in tiny towns in Virginia then grew up to travel the world, that she spent her later years hosting foreign dignitaries and writing and speaking to kids. I love that she was known for her big, joyful laugh. I love that her theology can’t be pinned down to satisfy any of us who want to hold her up as a paragon of any particular virtue: feminism, pacifism, Biblicism, evangelism, Brethrenism.

One of my favorite Jr. High kids impersonating Anna at a lock-in last month. I find the resemblance remarkable.

I love Anna Mow, so comparing me to her is a sure way to get my attention. The old guy at church knows this. But Bill Kostlevy was right – I love Anna, admire, honor, surrender my image of myself to her, but rarely do I sit and listen to what it is she is saying. Yes, yes, bestow on me the laud and honor, but no thanks, I’ll just wriggle out of that nasty little complication of actually paying attention to what that might, in fact, require of me.

Because here’s what Anna is saying:

It is required of us only that we be faithful. The question is not ‘Will the way be hard or lonely?’ The only choice for a Christian is ‘not my will, but thine,’ to be followed by a courageous ‘arise, let us be going.’

I am trying to listen – to Anna and to Christ. 

It is not easy.

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