“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Really, Lord? That’s what You want us to do? … Are You sure, God? Can’t we renegotiate this? I mean I know You love me and all of your children. You keep telling us that we are beloved children. So, why would You want us to do something so hard, so painful?
I’ve got some other ideas… Can’t I just be a nice person? Do my best to use the gifts you’ve given me? Build a safe and secure life? Isn’t that what You want for your beloved?
No? It’s not?
What do You mean? Ever since I was little that’s what my parents and grandparents kept telling me… And I know a lot of other people who heard the same message. Though not everyone. But, it’s also the message I’ve sent to my own son. It’s a message many people in this culture seem to have embraced, too.
What am I missing? What don’t I understand?
The world’s values and Your values are not the same. Hmm…
I know that. All I have to do is to watch the news to see the discrepancy. I see the political and business leaders who put profit over people. I watch as some try to divide us by race and class and gender. I see those whose thirst for power is so great that they are willing to indulge in lying and misinformation. I know that those are not Your values. And I get so upset when I see all those things. I feel awful.
Lord, the thing is I also feel scared sometimes. Did you see what happened at the Capitol? Do you know how many guns people in this country have? Have you looked at the Climate Clock lately? My God, it’s a terrifying time. (Oh yeah, you’re God. You already know all these things.)
Well, I’ve just got to express that sometimes I feel so overwhelmed by all that’s wrong with the world that I just want to retreat. I want to stay tucked away safely at home. With my husband and my cat. I don’t really want to even leave Annisquam or Cape Ann. Sometimes the world out there feels like too much.
Yes, I want to be Your follower. You are amazing! You cast out demons, healed the sick, fed the hungry, and even raised Lazarus. I love being in Your presence in prayer and hearing your lessons at worship. I love remembering all You did when you walked on this earth. It’s something to imagine You performing miracles and turning over the money changers’ tables. You inspire me. I love how I feel when I’m with You in Spirit. Such peace… Such joy.
Lord, I’ve got to say I’m really surprised about how you spoke to Peter. “Get behind me Satan!?” Lord, he knows who you are, the Messiah. Why were you being so harsh with him?
Oh… You were trying to make a point. Peter was trying to fit you into his agenda. He hoped You would put an end to the cruelty of Roman rule. He couldn’t bear to think that Roman leaders complicit with religious leaders would kill you, especially in such a tragic and shameful way. That’s so understandable. It’s not easy for anyone I know to face the death of someone we love. Especially when it’s violent. And could be avoided. Peter may not fully understand what following You really means, but he loves You so much.
Oh, Lord. How often are we humans guilty of the same thing? How often do we pray to You to get what we want when we want it? And it’s not like our prayers are frivolous. We want our friends to get well. We want our family members to stop suffering from mental illnesses and addictions. We don’t want to see our loved ones suffer and die. What’s wrong with that?
You think I’m still missing the point?? You want Your people to be healed, too. Oh…But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that circumstances can change. Death is a fact of life. Pain and suffering are facts of life. When people inevitably face the hardest times in their life the cross is actually good news – good news! It means that You will be with us in our pain. You will be with us when we suffer. And it means that those who follow You, must, out of love, do the same thing for others. Suffering and death are not optional in this life; they are thresholds to resurrection.
Lord, I think I may be starting to understand. Sometimes You need me to drop my long-term plans, and hopes, and dreams – even when they’re good – because there is something else You need me to do out of love for someone else. You need me to be Your love for them. Following You means I have to hold my agenda and plans loosely. I have to let go of what I think is the right outcome because You see more than I do. I can’t change the fact that people I love will struggle and die. I can’t change the fact that someday I will die. Following You means I have to set my heart on love, even if it means suspending my plans. I have to remember that Your plans are greater than my plans. Your ways are higher than my ways. If I can just trust that, You will teach me lessons I didn’t even know I needed.
But, how do I do this?
You think I already know? Yes, I saw my grandmother give up her work to care for my mother when she was diagnosed with a neurological disorder. I’ve watched friends care for their parents as they’ve gotten older. How many times have I seen one spouse care for another with dementia. I’ve seen a whole community rally around someone near the end of life. And I’ve seen so many people at the end of life come to acceptance and find a peace that surpasses understanding. I’ve even seen the President of the United States take on the pandemic with his whole heart and offer comfort to those who are grieving. And I recognize the sacrifices I’ve made as a parent; and appreciate the ways my husband and I have taken turns in our marriage putting each other’s needs first. I’ll never forget the time I had knee surgery, just as we were about to move to Cape Ann. David was left with the final packing and preparing all the meals- something he had never done. For six weeks. That was a cross.
I think most people learn what it is to deny themselves when they have a family or a loved one who is in trouble and really needs them. But, I have to tell you God, making a sacrifice for someone I love is far easier than making a sacrifice for someone I don’t know or I struggle to love. It can be hard even in Lent to repent, to change my ways and follow you, when the cross feels so heavy – like dealing with racism or the climate crisis.
It seems, God, that You are asking me, You are asking all of us, to love the whole world the way we try to love those who are dearest to us – with our whole hearts, making whatever sacrifices are needed out of love. And it’s because You love me that You want me to take up the cross. It’s a paradox, isn’t it? You want me to love even the parts of me that I find unlovable. You even want me to love those people I find unlovable. You want me to love without exception. Like You did.
That’s why You want me to take up the cross, to love freely and generously, without concern for my ego or agenda. Sometimes I want to leave the cross on the ground. Especially when I am tired or feel burdened. I want to ignore it. Avoid it. Hide from it. Hope You will make it go away. (That’s what I really want.) Anything but face it.
But, that’s not Your way. You invite me, You invite all of us, to be with pain. With my own pain, with other’s pain, even with the pain of the earth and all her creatures. Because of love. Whenever I try to ignore or avoid or hide from pain, I am ignoring and avoiding and hiding from myself, from others, and from You. And the more I do this, the greater the distance between us, the greater the separation from my own soul.
I know that when I take up the cross, when I am present to pain, I will meet You. It happened when I cared for my brother with Huntington’s Disease; it happened at the bedside of my Hospice patients; it happens when I listen to someone who is grieving, it happens when I face my own inner demons. It’s… so… hard. But, taking up the cross has expanded me in ways that You knew I needed, even when I resisted. You awakened my soul. You opened my heart.
I think I get it. And, yet it is so easy to fall back to sleep, to fall back to forgetfulness, to take the easier path. This pandemic year has forced many of us to retreat. To seek safety and security. To protect ourselves while also protecting others. This time has messed with my head. With all our heads. Please, God, don’t let it mess with my heart, with our hearts.
Because of the pandemic I see so many crosses – my own and others. I have come face-to-face with my shadow this year. I have watched family members and loved ones struggle. And I feel bombarded by the crosses of the world – racism, poverty, mental anguish, the isolation of those in nursing homes, overworked parents, socially deprived kids, gun violence, lying and political polarization, the climate crisis, and more.
There is no way I can pick up all of them. But, I know, this doesn’t mean I shouldn’t pick up any of them. Don’t let me go numb. Help me, God, to resist apathy; to not simply be a bystander, but to see out of love which cross is mine to bear. And I know, You never leave me to bear any of my crosses alone. Never. You always show up when I take up my cross.
I’m grateful for this conversation, Lord. Thank You for carrying Your Cross and for showing me how to carry mine. Thank You. Thank You. Thank You. Amen.
Question for reflection: What does it mean for you to take up the cross? Consider beginning your own conversation with God.