Cross-carrying

 Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  -Mark 8:34

Lately I’ve been pondering cross-carrying. On the one hand, that concept is not a familiar one within our culture. On the other hand, Jesus said that I need to take up my cross if I am to follow him. So it begs the question, What kind of cross am I to carry? What’s it for?

There are so many crosses to choose from: duty, obligation, penance, martyrdom, suffering, longing, care-taking, shame…and the list goes on and on. But I’m more and more convinced that the only cross I need to carry is the cross to which I nail my false self.

False self…that persona I’ve so carefully constructed over the years, the one I’ve created in response to the expectations of the world I live in–culture, community, workplace, church, friends, family. It’s the mask I wear in hopes that you approve, like, and accept me. It is manipulative and self-protective in that it seeks to control my environment so that my status quo is not disturbed or disrupted.

While I might choose to carry other kinds of crosses, the cross God chooses for me to carry is the one to which I nail my false self.

In his book, The Deeper Journey, Dr. Robert Mulholland makes this distinction:

There are two fundamental ways of being human in the world: trusting in our human resources and abilities or a radical trust in God…You might describe these two ways of being in the world as the ‘false self’ and the ‘true self.’

Dr. Mulholland goes on to point out that when Jesus says we should deny ourselves, he’s not talking about giving up chocolate for Lent. “He is calling for the abandonment of our entire, pervasive, deeply entrenched matrix of self-referenced being.”

Jesus is calling for me to nail that false self–the one that’s more about shame than grace–to the cross. It’s not a once and done deal, however. It’s not that easy! The false self is shed in layers, one after another, as I go through life. That’s why I need to carry that cross…the one that’s just waiting for the next abandoned layer of my false self.

What takes the place of my false self, though? What’s my identity as this false self is being stripped away? The Apostle Paul suggests that I am to put on Christ’s identity…

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!  -2 Cor. 5:17

But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.  -Rom. 13:14

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  – Col. 3:1-3

Most days Christ’s identity feels too big, but that’s OK. I trust that God is growing me into it as I obediently and gratefully carry my cross.

 

For or Against?

 “Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”

 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”  -Luke 9:49-50

How often have I looked at someone who is not demonstrably accepting or approving of me and assumed they were against me? Nothing specific has been said or done to indicate any animosity towards me, and yet I am suspicious and wary.

Case in point: my church previously worshipped in an urban setting. This particular area is on the cusp of one of the more dangerous neighborhoods of the city and so we were advised to excercise caution. Occasionally I was the first person to arrive at church early Sunday morning and, if I met anyone on the street as I approached our building, I immediately felt distrustful and apprehensive, especially if they did not smile or nod a greeting. While there is a case to be made for caution, my subconscious response ran deeper than that. I assumed they were “against” me. Why? I was not born with that instinct. However, I grew up with a fearful parent whose default response to a stranger was distrust. My apprehension was something I learned.

Jesus teaches a different posture. Jesus says that if someone isn’t against me, I should assume they are for me. That’s a big paradigm shift! As I have worked to un-learn what I was taught, I remind myself when encountering a stranger that I don’t need to lower my head and avoid eye contact, assuming they are “against” me. Rather, I choose to believe that they are for me (or at the very least neutral, which they most likely are!), greeting them with a smile and perhaps a kind word. In the process, I pray that they will know that I am “for” them, too…and in the process maybe our little corner of the world will become a gentler and more gracious place.

Do you subconsciously assume people are “for” or “against” you? What’s your natural instinct? Does it align with your behavior? Is it time for a paradigm shift?

Before I see someone as a problem, may I see him or her as a human being.  –Prayer: Forty Days of Practice, by Justin McRoberts & Scott Erickson.

 

A Wren’s Song

Nearly every morning this little Carolina Wren sits atop the feeder pole, her perky little carolina wrentail cocked up as she surveys her domain. While she is a small bird, her great big voice belies her petite body, and her song is unmistakable as she greets the morning. She strikes me as being bold and confident and joyful as a new day begins. She inspires me!

How do I greet each new day? Altogether too often, I have allowed the past to influence today. Yesterday’s screw-ups, missed opportunities from days gone by, consequences of poor choices made years ago…all these can hijack my day almost before it begins!

And then there’s the future. What lies ahead? Will I be able to provide for myself for the rest of my days? Will I remain healthy, or will I develop Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia like my grandmother and my mother before me? Will I get to the place where I can no longer care for myself? Will I be a burden to my kids? Anxiety about the future is just as detrimental as regret over the past when it comes to the fresh start today offers .

Today is a new day! God has new things for me today–new experiences, new insights–that won’t fit into an old me. (I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in the second chapter of Mark’s gospel about putting new wine in new wineskins.) Each new day brings the same opportunity to start fresh, to be ready to grow and expand with whatever comes! Regret over the past and anxiety about the future simply shrink me to the point where there is no room to receive the newness of today.

How are you today? Are you ready for a fresh start? You, too, can learn from my little wren friend, lifting your head to sing a bold, confident song to greet the morning. It’s a new day… Sing!

But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today”…  -Hebrews 3:13

 

 

 

Monday Morning Second Thoughts

Yesterday was Good Shepherd Sunday according to our liturgical calendar and I had the privilege of providing the sermon.  I love the John 10 passage in which Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. He speaks of how he knows his sheep and his sheep know him. He says his sheep listen to his voice, trusting him enough to follow where he leads. Great stuff for a sermon on listening for the voice of God through prayer, which is one of my favorite subjects!

Our prayer team has had a fruitful year thus far. We have had an often urgent, ongoing medical crisis in one of our families that we’ve been praying for since February. We have rejoiced when God has answered some of our specific requests; we have persevered when he hasn’t. Yesterday seemed like the perfect opportunity to share with the parish what God has been doing as the team has prayed, and we wanted to give him praise and honor and glory as we shared the highlights of our prayers this year. We shared the wonderful ways God has answered our prayers for wisdom, for healing, for a much-needed car, for a new home, and then we wound it up with Psalm 100, a prayer of thanksgiving. I thought we did well!

But I woke up this morning feeling burdened by what we didn’t share. As I re-lived that testimony time yesterday, I saw the faces of the people whose prayers had not been answered in the way they wanted–the people who have not been healed, the job that has not been provided, the one who struggles to know the love of God. What about those prayers? We didn’t give God glory for those answers, did we?

As I wrestle with these questions, I sense the Holy Spirit gently reminding me that I carefully prepared that sermon, that I sensed his direction to remind people that the Good Shepherd knows and cares for his sheep, that he never abandons those who are in his charge, and that we can faithfully follow him, trusting in his goodness. The team’s intention was to share the blessing we have experienced as we have prayed together, and to give glory to God for the ways we can see he has answered. Our motives and intentions were not wrong or bad.

Wait…did you catch that? “…the ways we can see he has answered…” To say that God doesn’t answer a prayer is a lie. He always answers. What’s more, he always answers in the way that brings about the greatest good for everyone involved, some of whom we may not even know. It’s not unusual for it to take years before we can see how God answered. Sometimes we can’t see his answer until we step into his presence at the end of our earthly life.

We see this quite clearly in the life of Jesus. He didn’t always get what he asked for. Jesus prayed first that the cup would pass from him. It took him three attempts before he could finally and whole-heartedly pray, “Not my will, but your will be done, Father,” and then to step out in faithful obedience. (Matthew 26:36-45)

There is a holy mystery in suffering. We don’t want it, we don’t like it, but we can’t avoid it. Here’s the good news: We can trust that God will indeed work good out of it in his time and in his perfect way. We can trust that scripture is right and true when it says that there will be no more mourning or tears when the Kingdom comes in its fullness. We have this hope, this blessed assurance in Christ.

The day will come when we won’t second-guess anything we’ve said or done, when our best intentions will be perfect. In the meantime, my prayer is that God will redeem my clumsy attempts at sharing his perfect love, his goodness and his faithfulness to all, especially to those who are suffering. I know that prayer will be answered!

If you are struggling today with the disappointment of seemingly unanswered prayers, my prayer for you is that you sense the comfort, care, and protection of the Good Shepherd who is devoted to you and will meet your every need for understanding in the fullness of his time. Until then, may you trust in his ultimate goodness. Amen and amen.

A Redeemed Life!

During last night’s Easter Vigil I listend to the reading from Genesis 3 and I cringed…

…God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. … And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?”…

I hear God ask that question of the woman and my spirit shrinks in shame. I, too, am a woman who was once as easily deceived as Eve, rejecting God in favor of choosing my own way. If you are a woman reading this, perhaps you feel that same stinging conviction whenever you hear God saying, “What is this that you have done?”

But then, later on in the worship service, I read aloud the words of Matthew…

Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

Do you see it? Jesus–the one who redeemed the first man’s sin (as well as the sins of all who followed, men and women alike)–redeemed Eve’s careless decision in what feels to me to be a very personal way. Eve was the first to take a bite of that apple, the first to reject God. Similarly, the women were the first to see the resurrected Jesus, the first to declare the Good News that he is alive!

(At this point I feel the need to clarify that, while my comments are obviously gender-based, they are not to be interpreted as any sort of statement on feminism!)

As I read from Matthew’s gospel last night, my spirit soared with renewed freedom! I felt a kinship with Eve that no longer made me cringe, and a deep gratitude that God hates nothing that he has made…including Eve and me. I can look forward to the day when I will literally hear God say, “You are my daughter with whom I am well pleased!”

All this because Jesus was born and lived a perfectly blameless life, free of any careless choices…a life which he willingly laid down so that he could be raised up again to a new life…an eternal life, in which I am invited to share as though I, too, am blameless…his life which redeems mine.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

Grace, Gift, and Generosity

This week is about grace, gift, and generosity…

Those words spoken by Rev. Peter Matthews during his Palm Sunday sermon settled into my heart yesterday with an intensity that surprised me! For the past few days I have been pondering the irony of Palm Sunday: Jesus riding on a colt, nearing Jerusalem amidst cheers of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”, all the while knowing that he was riding towards a gruesome death, called for by the very people who were now singing his praises. I have imagined the anguish he must have felt as he tried to reconcile this praise that was rightly his with the coming crucifixion that was certainly not.

Holy Week of 1988 forever changed my experience of Easter. My life commitment to Christ was still relatively new. We had just moved far from our Kentucky roots, settling in a little town in southern Alabama. In our search for a new church home, we were led to an Episcopal church which was a far cry from what I was used to. I decided to participate in all the events of Holy Week, curious to experience fully the traditions of this new denomination. As I journeyed from the palm-waving praise of Palm Sunday to the somber reflection of Maundy Thursday–kneeling in the dimly-lit sanctuary, listening to the haunting words and melody of “Were You There When They Crucified my Lord” softly sung acapella which provided an apt backdrop for the stripping of the altar and the draping of the cross–I wept with an awareness of Christ’s suffering that I had never before experienced.

As painful as the anticipation I felt in that Maundy Thursday service was, returning to the darkened sanctuary with the black-draped cross for Good Friday itself was heart-wrenching. By this time, I had so entered into Christ’s passion that I was simply wrecked…or so I thought. I grieved and wept, and for the first time I could understood that ancient Jewish practice of putting on sackcloth and pouring ashes over one’s head in an expression of unbearable grief. Saturday’s Easter Vigil brought little relief. That black-draped cross and bare altar overshadowed the baptism of a young woman that evening.

Finally, Easter morning dawned! We headed to church with an anticipation the likes of which I had never before felt for Easter Sunday! I was not disappointed… We entered into a sanctuary resplendent with beautiful flowers and freshly polished brass, the black drape happily missing and the altar covered in starched white linen, the candles lit in welcome. The choir sang a beautiful anthem as the little children in their Easter finery (and I do mean finery–no one does this like southern mommas!) processed into the sanctuary, each with a flower to place on a styrofoam cross wrapped in chicken wire–something quite ugly to start with and absolutely beautiful when the children were finshed with it! The joyful praise, so much richer than those Palm Sunday hosannas, reverberated as we worshiped our Risen Lord. It was then that I was totally wrecked!

Long story, I know. But I needed to relive it in order to see clearly why those words spoken by Fr. Peter yesterday captured my heart. For the past 30 years I have experienced Easter in much the same way as in 1988. Each year I recall the memory of that particular Easter and how it changed my perception of that final agonizing week of Jesus’ earthly life…how it changed me. I’ve entered into the darkness of it in order to fully experience the unsurpassing joy of Easter.

But this year I want to embrace Holy Week differently. I’ve pondered and lamented my sin and the world’s sin and the darkness that Jesus came to illuminate, as any Christian must! But today I want to lay all that aside to remember what this week is really about: God’s incredibly generous gift of absolutely amazing grace! I want to experience all week that unsurpassing joy I typically save for Easter morning!

My prayer for you is that you will open wide your arms, unclench your hands from whatever you are holding so tight, and simply receive the deeper truth that this week–of all weeks–is about grace, gift, and generosity. Amen and amen!

Who do you say that you are?

I’m not generally one to procrastinate, but occasionally I fall victim to that little voice of temptation. As I scrubbed the day-old stain–chiding myself for letting it sit so long that the stain had worked its way into the fibers of my shirt, spreading like some sort of disease–I couldn’t help but think that sin works in much the same way. The longer it goes without being confessed, the more it works its stain-disease into the fiber of my being, corrupting my identity.

I hate to be called a sinner. While the simple definition of a sinner is “one who sins,” the connotation in my mind is “one who habitually sins.” In other words, that’s their primary identity in God’s judgement. Yes, of course, I was once a sinner. I willingly chose to do what was wrong in God’s eyes, in the interest of self-gratification. But I am not that person anymore, thanks be to God!

Half my lifetime ago, the Spirit of God spoke quite plainly to me and I repented of my wrongful choices, allowing the blood of Jesus to wash me clean. As a result, self-gratification became wanting to choose the right and the good and the God-pleasing (admittedly not perfectly or instantaneously). I am no longer a sinner in God’s judgement. Rather, I am his beloved child, saved by his amazing grace!

Clearly and honestly, I do still sin. I live in a corrupted body and in a fallen world. Sometimes I willfully sin, but more often it is unintentional. And when the Spirit pricks me with stinging conviction, I turn to Jesus to confess, repent, and receive his cleansing forgiveness. And I do it quickly, lest the stain spread; this is no time for procrastination!

I know that, for some folks, referring to themselves as a “sinner-saved-by-grace” is what best helps them remember who they are in Christ, and aids them in choosing the right over the wrong. Certainly there is nothing wrong in that! However, for me, calling myself a sinner lowers the bar of expectation. It tempts me to feel helpless, and somehow still under condemnation (which is, of course, the enemy’s lie!). But when I claim my identity as a child of God, saved and cleansed by a price I was unable to pay, the bar is set higher…high enough that I have to reach for it. It prompts me to stretch myself by asking, in the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola, “What return of love can I make?

How we think of ourselves often determines our behavior. Who do you say that you are? Which way of identifying yourself best helps you make a return of the love that saves you? Questions worth pondering…