This Lent we’re going to practice letting go to be more present. And, no. It isn’t going to be a walk in the park.

This Lent we’re going to practice letting go to be more present. And, no. It isn’t going to be a walk in the park.

As a parent with two kids in college these days, I find myself saying goodbye…a lot. And everytime I do it, I find it difficult. As much as I see them as capable, smart, funny, and independent young adults, part of me also still sees them as wide-eyed, wonderful, slightly sticky preschoolers who I desperately want to protect and have close. Watching them walk away into a world that’s completely outside of my view and my control can make me excited for them. But, also, a little worried. And a little sad.

So in those goodbyes and in the moments that follow them, I wonder: Will they be safe? Will they be happy? Have I done everything I was supposed to do to prepare them? Have I done enough? Could I have done more? And, where did all the time go?

Letting go isn’t easy. It’s a full-body, full-being challenge.

Most of the time, as parents and as humans in general, we live under the illusion that we can protect the people we love, and ourselves, and keep it all together, all of the time. We can try to turn this illusion into reality by holding everything as tightly as possible – our children’s hands, our tailored appearance, our grip on the steering wheel, the schedule, the remote control. We hold our emotions in so we can be more productive. We even hold our breath.

We didn’t come up with the idea to do all this holding on our own. All around us are voices suggesting we should know more, try harder, do better, look better, rise above, get a grip. Sometimes we hold our expectations, for ourselves and others, so high that we can’t help but fall short. Living in a pandemic hasn’t made this any easier. Daily headlines announce new dangers and new disappointments in bold type, followed by lists of new “shoulds” for us to follow. When other people’s decisions about how to navigate the pandemic don’t mesh easily with ours, it’s easy for strong emotions to stir or spike. And when we’re not worrying about COVID, we’re bombarded by self-help experts exhorting us to “take control of your future,” “master your mindset,” and, while you’re at it, organize your closets, and lose a few pounds. On top of that, there seems to be a new right way to parent for every baby born, a new political cause to become an expert in for every week of the year, and a new social media platform to login to every time we pick up our phones.

Underneath everything we are trying so hard to hold on to, in the place where our hands are beginning to cramp and and our exhaustion is starting to show… is fear. Our fear is that if we let go, everything will probably collapse around us. Our children will run into poison ivy patches and our friends will notice our failures. We won’t live up to our potential or finish our projects, and no one will pick up the slack and make sure all the need-to-dos get done.

Letting go isn’t easy. I like how Ann Lamott puts it: “Why couldn’t Jesus command us to obsess over everything, to try to control and manipulate people, to try not to breathe at all, or to pay attention, stomp away to brood when people annoy us, and then eat a big bag of Hershey’s Kisses in bed?”

But Jesus doesn’t ask us to do that. Jesus, instead, has a habit of saying frustrating things like: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28). And “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:25-27)

“But Jesus,” we reply, “I’m pretty sure if I let go of these worries, everything will be terrible. Things will go to ‘you know where’.”

Here’s what I think Jesus is getting at: while we’re busy auditing the past for failures, scanning the future for danger, and holding out for certainty, we’re missing out on something beautiful: the present. When we cling to the illusion of control, we miss the chance to be fully here, fully now, fully with the God who actually IS in control. We miss out on gratitude. On celebration. On joy. We miss out on rest, and on the kind of vulnerability that lets our true selves out and our loving God in.

That’s a lot to miss for an illusion.

On Ash Wednesday, we mark our foreheads with ash: “From dust you came, and to dust you will return.” And all day long, every time we glance in the mirror, we get a reminder that we are finite humans, not God. We are not all powerful, all knowing, or almighty, and the God who is God, who breathed living souls into our dusty selves somehow, someway has got this whole world in God’s hands. So we can let go of feeling like it’s all on us. And simply… be. Be with the ones we love. Be with the God who loves us. Be present.

Letting go isn’t easy. Not for me. Maybe not for you either.

But I honestly believe it’s worth it. I may fight it. But I know it.

So this Lenten season, we’re going to practice letting go and being present. Together. 

I don’t think we’re going to get to Easter and suddenly be experts at presence and not holding on too tightly. But I think as we practice this stubbornly un-easy task… as we work together to loosen our grip and rest as Jesus invites us to…we’re going to encounter all kinds of good (and probably surprising!) gifts.

The Rev. Jeff Braun is the Senior Pastor of Winnetka Congregational Church, a progressive, LGBTQ-inclusive, justice-oriented and family-friendly church on the north side of Chicago. His calling is to share God’s word of love as spoken through Jesus, to make sure that everyone knows they have a seat at the table and to help us all recognize our oneness in God and with all God’s children.