“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow in my footsteps.”
In 1981, when I graduated from high school in Niskayuna, New York (a suburb of Schenectady), I vowed to never again live in Niskayuna or any suburb like it. (I don’t like suburbs.) One afternoon nineteen years later, when I was living on the campus of Wellesley College, where I was a chaplain, the phone rang. It was my younger brother, Dave. “Sue, I can’t live alone any longer. All I seem to do is think about my diagnosis of Huntington’s Disease and it’s just too much. Will you come home and live with me?”
Not only was my brother asking me to go to a place that I never wanted to return to, he seemed to be asking me to relive the long nightmare of a disease that is like Alzheimer’s and MS put together, a disease that took our mother’s life. Remembering how my grandmother had left behind her job so that our mother who was struggling with Huntington’s and needed full time care could move in, I said, “Of course, Dave, I will.”
I hung up the phone and was frozen for a moment. How could I do this? How could I leave behind the life I had built for me and my 7 year old son? I was overwhelmed.
Later that night I entered the darkened chapel on campus to lead our weekly Taize service. I lit some candles and placed the icon of the crucified Jesus on the altar. A small group of students gathered and we began singing “O Lord Hear My Prayer.” As I gazed at the icon of Jesus, something powerful happened. I saw my brother as the crucified Jesus and I felt deep within that God would be with me to help carry this cross; a cross that was both my brother’s and mine. A profound peace and resolve came over me as I realized that I could trust the One who gave me this new mission to care for my brother, God.
For just a moment, please close your eyes. What is your cross? What is that part of your life that weighs heavily, perhaps drags you down, that hurts you, is destructive of your life energy, that causes you to suffer? Could it be a catastrophic illness or the fear of one for yourself or a loved one? Might it be an estranged relationship? The experience or threat of financial disaster? Could it be entrenched mental health issues – yours or someone who is close to you? Could it be unresolved conflict, unmet dreams, thwarted hopes? What is your cross? And, most importantly, what is your relationship to it? (You can open your eyes.)
One of the truths of this life is that at some point along our journeys we all will have burdens to bear. Sometimes we are born into challenging situations – like being a child of an alcoholic or addict; Sometimes they find us – like being on the other end of a distracted driver’s accident or being someone who unexpectedly finds themselves on the front lines of a pandemic. Or without a job or income during a pandemic. Sometimes we face the cross when a loved one dies, especially suddenly, and our grief takes over. And, ultimately, all of us will die; and some of us will do so, like Jesus, knowing that the end is approaching soon. At some point in our lives, each of us will be faced with a cross.
What we do with our crosses, how we respond to them, can make all the difference. We can try to ignore them or deny them. We can see them but fail to address them. Or, we can do as Jesus implores and take them up.
Many of us have seen or experienced first hand what happens when someone tries to ignore their cross. The cross doesn’t magically go away. In fact, it’s impact often worsens and grows. When we are unwilling to look at our greatest challenges, destructive habits often find their way into our lives. Addiction, depression, and scape-goating can arise when we don’t deal with our own burdens. We may go looking for comfort and happiness in places that can never satisfy. The inner wound grows worse and we often wonder why. We can even grow bitter. It takes a lot of energy to ignore our crosses. And sometimes the fear of taking up our cross can even paralyze us on the inside so much so that the energy and grace of life does not flow through us with ease.
As James Martin writes, “Accepting our cross and giving up (what we thought was the direction of) our lives means that, at some point, we have to make peace with the unalterable fact that frustration, disappointment, pain, misfortune, illness, unfairness, sadness and death are a (normal) part of our lives and they must ultimately be accepted without bitterness. As long as we nurse the notion that pain in our lives is something we need not accept, we will habitually find ourselves bitter — bitter for not having accepted the cross.”
As our Buddhist friends know, when we resist pain, our suffering will grow. It is in acceptance of hardship while opening to grace that transformation is possible.
To take up our crosses means that we have to let go of our expectations of how we think our lives are supposed to be. It means being willing to change our plans, to let go of our agendas, to trust and follow God along another path that we probably didn’t see coming and most definitely did not want. Taking up our crosses is a radical act of trust in the call to go into the roughest seas with the assurance that God will meet us there.
To deny ourselves is to deny that voice that says things must go the way I think they should go; my way or the highway; To deny ourselves is to deny that part of us that craves only ease and comfort; that puts my wants above yours; that sees only my own interests, what’s in it for me.
The good news is that when we take up our crosses, we follow One who has already gone ahead of us, Jesus. We have someone who will lead us, who will light our way, whose presence will help us work through our fears. We need not take up our crosses alone.
If we try and walk the path of the martyr or the savior – thinking and behaving as if we alone can fulfill our mission we make another fundamental spiritual error, allowing the ego, not grace, to lead the way. Remember, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross.” Jesus is not asking us to be superhuman.
He sends the disciples out two-by-two for a reason. To take on a mission that Jesus gives, means that we are to do so with others.
The night that I was praying in the chapel at Wellesley I let God have it. I was not happy.
I was not happy that my mother had Huntington’s, not happy about what my brother was facing , not happy that this disease seemed to be destroying my family and not happy that I felt totally overwhelmed by the immensity of what I was taking on.And I let God know in no uncertain terms that in saying “Yes” to this mission, I expected, I demanded that God help me.
What I didn’t know that night in the chapel was how my father would step up to support me financially and emotionally in the care of my brother and my son. What I didn’t know then was how a new friend, Deb, would walk into my life and make it possible for me to take my brother and son on trips to Boston, Montreal, Hilton Head, Sanibel, and Fort Lauderdale, bringing joy and vitality to our days even as my brother’s symptoms worsened. What I didn’t know then was that when I went to work for Hospice I would meet a nurse, Louise, who would come to our house when my brother could no longer shave himself and do it for him; and ultimately, teach me how to do it safely. What I didn’t know was that in returning to a place I never wanted to be I would meet my husband, David, who would sit by my side as my brother lay dying.
When we choose to take up our crosses and follow Jesus, we can not imagine the companions who will share the journey with us, companions who will make all the difference, companions who will show us the meaning of love.
To take up our crosses and follow Jesus is to be in the service of love. We can find meaning and purpose that brings more satisfaction to our lives than the mere pursuit of happiness ever can. Sr. Michaela Sheehan writes, “following is a call, a vocation to share in the fate of God for the life of the world, a task that could only be done through, with and in God: a call to be converted, to become selfless, to allow Jesus to be first.”
Often in those moments when we are called to take up our crosses, we have no idea how we will complete our mission. We usually can not see the road ahead. We wonder how we will ever find our way through to the other side. In those moments, we often feel weak, vulnerable and unsure. But if we can allow ourselves to walk with God through the valley of the shadow of death – the death of our plans, the death of our expectations, the death of doing things our way – God will surprise us and delight us in ways we could never foresee, ways that bring more growth and satisfaction than we could imagine. We discover that God can take our greatest challenges and turn them into new life. We discover that we can do more than we thought possible; that we are more than we knew; and that the nature of God is greater than what we believed.
The way of the cross is also not only the path of the individual’s spiritual journey. Listen again to this verse: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow in my footsteps.” Though we don’t often think in these terms, this invitation from Jesus also suggests that as a community of faith we ought to examine our collective crosses.
What are the crosses we share? In this day and age, climate destruction and racism are two examples that we as a people ignore at our peril. Both issues are destructive of life, weigh us down, and feel overwhelming. Yet, if we choose to act and join with others, to call on God to lead us, they can become opportunities to transform us and our world for the better. To live in a sustainable way, we must deny those unconscious habits – like our use of plastics – that destroy ecosystems. To live in a just way, those of us who are white must recognize our privilege and transform systems that exclude, demean, and destroy people of color.
The way of the cross is not depressing or defeating, but deepening – deepening our sense of ourselves, of our purpose in life, and of our relationship to God. We can be bold – we can carry our individual and collective crosses because we anticipate the promise of resurrection. In every cross, there is hidden within an invitation to new life. We may not be able to imagine what that new life will be, but we can trust in the One who goes ahead of us, the one we are called to follow, Jesus.
One of my favorite liturgical poets, Steve Garnaas-Holmes, says it this way:
“Abandon the illusion you’re a self-contained individual.
Be a part of this wounded world and find yourself with Christ.
Set aside your narrow desires, give yourself fully for others; be the hands and heart of Jesus.
Renounce self-protection, accept your brokenness, and reach out for love.
Let go of self-centered plans. Join in the healing of the world. You will not be alone.
Follow your soul, not your ego. Follow it right into people’s suffering.
Follow it right into the heart of God.
Pour yourself out; let the world pour in;
then you are one with the Beloved, one with God.” Amen.