Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What is a Cross? Lenten Meditation

I have Sophia to thank for posting the method of discernment used in this meditation. Her post awakened in me a desire to preach more directly on this issue (which I skirted nicely... or brazenly, you choose! here): what is a "cross"? How do we read Jesus' invitation to pick up a cross in ways that are neither self-destructive nor self-deluding? Finally, finally, after reading the words of Wuellner, I was able to articulate something that had been only vague vowell sounds in my head, but which had, at its heart, the conviction that Jesus does not want us to suffer.

“What is a Cross? Prayers of Discernment”
Mark 8:34-37
Lenten Meditation Week 4

Let me tell you a few little stories:

A registered nurse is living firsthand the reality of the sandwich generation: she has teenagers still at home, and parents whose health is deteriorating, necessitating her greater involvement in their care. And, of course, she works full time at the hospital. She sighs, “I guess it’s just my cross to bear.”

A man is attempting to play with his 4-year-old son on the beach; the child is severely autistic. A couple who are looking on from a distance murmur, “Wow, what a cross that must be to bear.”

A young couple witnesses the death of their 11-year-old son in a car accident. Distressed, a friend of theirs wonders, “Why would God send someone that kind of cross to bear?”

In popular parlance, for lots of people of faith, anything that is difficult for us to deal with in our lives constitutes a “cross to bear.” We’ve all been told, from the time we were small, that enduring everything from discomfort to terrible suffering can be our opportunity to do as Jesus tells us, to deny ourselves, and take up our cross, and follow him. This understanding has even, at times, led ministers and priests, otherwise well-meaning folks of the cloth, to encourage victims of abuse to stay with their abusers, since it would, of course, be Jesus’ will that they endure their suffering patiently.

I hope tonight we can walk away from that particular interpretation of this passage. That’s because I believe it’s wrong. Period. No qualifiers. When Jesus talks about our taking up our crosses to follow him, he is not telling us to endure the suffering that is out of our control. He is most certainly not telling us to put ourselves in situations (or to remain in circumstances) in which our safety was at risk, all because that is his will. When Jesus spoke of the cross, he had a specific understanding of it, and those who followed him understood what he was saying.

When Jesus speaks of a cross, he is referring to a specific instrument of torture and death that was used by the Roman Empire for purposes of intimidating and controlling those whose lands they occupied. The Romans lined their roads with crosses, to which they nailed one particular kind of criminal: insurrectionists, those who sought to overthrow Rome, to loosen its grip on their homelands or people. That way, people coming and going into the cities that Rome controlled had before them a gruesome vision of what would happen to them if they dared stand up to the Empire.

As Jesus begins speaking to his disciples about the cross, he is letting them know in no uncertain terms what he himself finally understands: that what he is preaching, the gospel of good news to the poor, release to the captives, restoration of sight to the blind and the ability to walk to the lame, the open table of welcome to all, young, old, saints and sinners… this is a dangerous gospel. This message has the power to confront Rome in all its oppressive, militaristic might, and to cause it some measure of difficulty. Therefore, Jesus knows, he understands in the deepest part of his heart, that the gospel he is preaching will lead inexorably to the cross. If he chooses to continue to preach that gospel, the cross cannot be avoided. Rome will look upon him as an insurrectionist, and there is only one path for an insurrectionist to walk, the path to crucifixion.

Now, mind you, Jesus is willing to walk that path. That is not to say he desires it. But he is willing to walk it, he chooses it, because he understands that, in the end, Rome cannot prevail, but God will. And he understands that it may well take his death to truly take on Rome and expose its ugliness to the world, and to bring life and hope and relief to everyone Rome has oppressed. Jesus is willing to take up the cross in order to lift the burden of suffering from others.

That is what a cross is. An instrument or situation of suffering, voluntarily taken on, so that the burden of suffering might be lifted from someone else. Our cross is our free choice to lift the burden of suffering from another person.

But notice: it is our free choice. No one assigns us a cross and forces it onto our shoulders. Our physical suffering (which may be profound), our mental anguish (which may be nearly intolerable), our burdens and responsibilities do not, in themselves, constitute our cross to bear. Our cross is something we choose to take on because we see that the end result is that someone else will suffer less.

The handout tonight is from a book by Flora Wuellner, Enter By the Gate: Jesus’ 7 Guidelines for Making Hard Choices. I have not read the book myself (yet), but I was struck by this passage, which a friend shared with me. In it, Wuellner shares her insights on how to discern if something is your cross… how to discern whether God might be calling you to pick up some measure of difficulty or suffering so that others’ suffering might be lifted. Here are some of the things she shares:

First, no one forces the cross on us. If we are in a situation from which we cannot escape—say, being imprisoned in a concentration camp during the reign of Hitler—that is not a cross. That is a horrible injustice of which we are a helpless victim. If it’s a cross, we are free to pick it up or to put it down.

Second, our cross will call to us. We will feel a deep resonance with taking it on, with picking it up.
Third, even though we will experience suffering and pain as a result of picking up the cross, we will also find a measure of joy, and strength, and even the renewal of our spirits. Picking up the cross does not mean unrelenting misery: there is also joy that comes along with it.

Fourth, and I think this is truly the most important piece of this discernment, our ability to love will deepen. I think of the second example I used tonight—the man with the autistic son. You know, caring for his son and the real challenges that presents could be a cross, if, in the end, his love for his son deepens, and he does find moments of joy even in the pain. But if all his life is miserable, or angry, if his ability to love diminishes rather than deepens… then what he is doing may be good, it may be noble, it may even be the right thing to do… but it is not his cross.

Fifth, if our cross is truly ours, truly legitimate, we will see some positive results, at least at times, our work will bear some fruit. Someone else’s suffering will lift. Wuellner cautions, if we so no positive results, if all is bleak and desolate, if suffering is not relieved… it may not be our cross.

Sixth, Wuellner tells us that angels will be sent to comfort us, as Jesus was comforted in the wilderness and in the garden of Gethsemane. If there is no relief for us, no comfort from anyone or anything… it may not be our cross.

And seventh, a Simon of Cyrene may be sent as well. You may remember: he was plucked from the crowd that was watching to assist Jesus in carrying his cross to the place of the skull. That will happen to us. Someone will help us, and we’ll feel our own burden lightened, at least a bit. If not… it may not be our cross.

What is a cross? In terms of our discipleship, in terms of the path we walk as believers, the cross is a free choice we make to lift a burden of suffering from someone else. This choice often causes us pain and hardship. But it is our choice. It is not forced on us, it is an invitation to which we respond. Jesus invites us to deny ourselves, and to take up a cross—to lift another’s suffering—and to follow him. We have the ability to do that, or to not do it. We have assurance that, as Jesus received comfort and assistance, we will too. We have the hope that, even in suffering, we will have moments of joy and peace. We have the promise that Jesus himself—the one who sought in all circumstances, in every way to lift the suffering of humanity—we have the promise that he will walk the path with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.


FranIAm said...

This post leaves me speechless and also filled with hope for a new way of seeing.

Jan said...

Thank you for pointing the way to seeing anew.

Jane R said...

Very fine. I've linked to it on my blog. Thank you!

MikeF said...

Wonderful post! Thank you!

Like Jane, I've linked to it myself.

Sophia said...

Thanks, Mags--it is so rare to hear good preaching on the cross. Isn't Flora amazing?

I think the cross can also lift suffering from us (the oppressive, abusive kind that comes from internally accepting, at least partly, the lies that evil tells about us)--and that this is hinted at in her emphasis that there will be joy and peace along with the suffering. Or in John's image of Jesus' cross as his hour of glory and triumph as well as sacrifice--his absolute freedom to speak and be the truth whatever Pilate can do to his body. This is a dimension of how I see the consequences of my own embrace of my call to IC priesthood....Which in itself is determined by the injustice of the present system. Free given the circumstances, which aren't....God's preference would have been that I and others have a clear path and more opportunities for service, I'm sure.

I also think that other kinds of suffering that aren't freely chosen can sometimes be transformed into a cross--as in your example of the man with the autistic son. In the sermon which inspired my post, this was mentioned--but without the crucial caveats or anything on how to do it in a healthy way.

Okay, enough...thanks for letting me ramble on a subject I spend a lot of time thinking about!

Lindy said...

I clicked over from Jane's place, and glad I did. Very thought provoking. Thank you.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Beautiful, Mags! I sent the link to my EFM group, because we were discussing this (in a roundabout way) last night. Thank you for such a thought-provoking post.