Taking Up Crosses

Mark 8.27-38

The notion of ‘take up your cross’ needs a thorough exploration because we’ve misused the notion fairly thoroughly in modern life. We’ve tacked the notion of ‘cross’ onto just about every kind of discomfort and suffering humans face and (often quite blithely) admonished people to ‘take up their cross.’ This is both silly and dangerous.

This is because there are many kinds of suffering and amid all the different agonies there are only a few paths that give life. In the same way, there were lots of crosses in the Roman world, but of the three on Golgotha that day, only one held Jesus. Further, the cross was often used to put down revolts with leaders crucified as mile markers along main roads. Those crosses did not give life, they were put up as a Dire Warning.

In the same way, of the many sufferings, the multitude of crosses, which we face in the world, a lot of them do not bring life. They are painful because the situation is painful and we are actually supposed to avoid it. Like those cute shoes that pinch our feet into agony, and the creepy person who makes us really uncomfortable, pain is often a deeply unsubtle hint to “stop doing this dummy! Run away.”

Slamming our hands in doors, burning ourselves on the stove, and getting splinters are so common that they’re practically a rite of passage. They hurt because we’re not supposed to do them and our body strongly objects if we persist. Calling this sort of thing ‘my cross to bear’ and trying to take up agony for the sake of agony is considered supremely silly and something for which one ought to seek professional care.

It’s fairly obvious that this sort of ‘suffering for the sake of suffering’ is deeply unhealthy and we work hard to help each other avoid it. Unfortunately, we then turn around and proclaim to the abused spouse or child that their abuse is somehow ‘a cross to bear’ as if suffering is, in itself redemptive.

Certainly there are times when suffering cannot be avoided. Our family is a prime group of people whom we cannot throw away without significant self-injury. Even unhealthy relationships can be hard to end because the other person does touch us on a positive and deep level.

Addicts aren’t addicts because they like being horrible human beings, people with eating disorders don’t take them up on a lark. On some deep level, even the most self-destructive behavior touches some tender spot in our heart. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t do it. But no matter how much these behaviors may touch our hurt places, they do not heal us and dwelling in them slowly destroys us.

If all suffering were truly redemptive, as we are so often told, then addicts in their addiction would be the most redeemed of all. The abuse victim cowering through life as a shallow reflection of their deepest potential would actually be the strongest, healthiest, most lively person of us all. But they are not because suffering for the sake of suffering simply brings on suffering. It’s an endless loop, a treadmill to nowhere.

Ultimately, it’s part of the fallacy of “that which does not kill me makes me stronger.” This is bogus. What does not kill us fails to kill and that is all it does. It is what we do with our survival that CAN make us stronger. If we learn lessons of strength, it can be a defeat with a ‘seed of victory in it.’ If we learn lessons of weakness it can be the fractured hip that stays with us all our shortened life. If we learn no lesson at all, whatever failed to kill us last time is going to get another crack at us and probably won’t miss this go ’round.

So much then for the whole notion that our cross is our suffering and that any suffering will do. There were two convicts up there on crosses with Jesus, one turned toward him and found in death a door to life. The other turned away.

So suffering crosses exist all around us, they abound even, filling up our field of view and taunting us with the impossibility of escape. And truly, as Lois Bujold put it “pain, like time will come on regardless.” Our redemption however comes in the next part of that quote “the question is, what beauty will you win in the midst of that pain.”

A suffering cross is essentially inevitable and we rightly distrust the happy clappy, “too blessed to be depressed” people because more often than not, they’re being less than truthful. Like the person who is always “fine” no matter when you ask, they’re at the very least lying to your face, they may even be lying to their soul.

If suffering crosses are inevitable, are we then doomed to distress and lonely death?

Would you be surprised if I said “no?”

If crosses can’t be avoided, if we will, as one wise man explained it die in a ditch anyway, our power is in choosing the ditch. There are many crosses in this world so our power is to take up the life giving cross of Christ instead of some other, life stealing cross. We take up the suffering with a seed of victory in it, the grief where we learn that there is a rock to cling to in the darkness.

We learn that our feet sink into the mire only so far and then we hit the strong, lifting hand of God. We weep and weep and weep until we learn that there is a peace beyond our fear and hope beyond our sorrow. We discover that “I do are the two most famous last words, the beginning of the end. But to lose our life for another I’ve heard, is a good place to begin.

What we learn, in all the ways we learn it, is that when our cross is connected to Christ, when the cross we bear is itself the Cross of Christ, we find life. We find the table in the wilderness where the blind can see and the poor possess. We find that, at the end of ourselves, at the end of our strength, there is so much more. There is, fundamentally, a suffering that is a gateway into life, something that seems a defeat and yet is full victory’s beginning.

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That Cat

Part of our life is what I call The Crazy. This is the cruft that builds over time as we live. It is made up of the assumptions we make about and conclusions we draw from the world around us. Because we’ve come up with them, or been given them by trusted people, they become part of Fortress Me. They are built into the walls of our Deepest Self and after fashioning them and building them in, we generally do not go back to re-evaluate them. This is an error.

Even though the assumption was made when we were in fourth grade (and we have, just perhaps, changed since then), we cling to it and defend it with the fierce fear that if we “lose” it, we will die. Thus we build and defend the Fortress of Identity, the Citadel of Crazy, deep within.

The healthy impulse for later self-improvement batters at the walls and gates of this citadel. Psychological help on the other hand, attempts to undermine the integrity of the stones from the outside, shining the light of different perspective on our assumptions. Both methods work from the outside, attempting to break into the fortress. Sometimes, like an invading army, they can break in. But this pits strength against strength because the fortress mobilizes all our energy to defend what is essentially “me” from destruction.

In my experience of the life of faith, I will say that sometimes God follows the same path, coming at us from the outside, pushing hard on our defenses and challenging us with questions like “Do you really think I’m a God who doesn’t allow second chances?” (Just to quote one of the powerfully uncomfortable questions that I’ve had thrown at me over the years). Sometimes the Bigger Battering Ram(tm) really is the most effective technique. Sometimes instead, God wins our life with a purr.

This is because sometimes, maybe even a lot of the time, God sends That Cat in first. You know, Jesus the slyboots kitty who waltzes right into the middle of our Citadel of Crazy, curls up in our Comfy Chair of Command and starts purring. Suddenly we are confronted by the seductive power of “don’t you want to pet me?” All that nice, warm, wonderful fur, the ronron (as our French friends transcribe it) of peace, and that tail just tip-tip-tipping lazily. In other words, we are invited to choose warm, cuddly, and living instead of our cobwebby Fortress halls.

This is a dramatic image change from our historical vision of God as thundering smasher of things but that sort of makes my point. We’ve allowed the notion that faith life is labor and struggle to permeate our thought world so thoroughly that we’ve become blind to the simplicity of hope in gentleness.

So think about That Cat, the one in your history who just wouldn’t take a hint to leave instead insisting that “this is my home and I love you.” If you lack such a cat in your past, perhaps through random chance or being a dog person, go and find a cat person to tell you about That Cat.

At their best, they blithely ignore our defenses and preoccupation to insist that “it is petting time.” They blatantly park themselves in the middle of our life and reshape us around their vision. They sleep bonelessly, find the sunny spots, and just generally make themselves a permanent fixture in our life. What we thought of as “my bed” or “my couch” becomes a place someone else allows us to share with them.

That Cat ignores all the defensive structures and “no trespassing” signs we put up, all the frantic “no, don’t go in there” shouts we make, and then in the middle of our frustration, rolls over in that utterly relaxed way, gives us a slow blink and asks “why yell, when you can luxuriate in fur?” It’s infuriating, and complex, and life changing, and beautiful.

Plus, That Cat doesn’t pay any attention to our rules. Did you think you were the sovereign ruler of all you survey? The Soft Paw of Doom will disabuse you of such folly. Did you think you were a complete loner? “I’m sorry, you have ignored me long enough, your keyboard is blocked until you pet me.” The Citadel is changed from the inside.

This is the way Jesus works on us too, the Slyboots. He saunters in, makes himself known, and then blatantly invites us to love. Over time our Crazy starts to fit less well. When that happens we can either get rid of That Cat (unthinkable and generally impossible) or take the time to re-examine our Crazy (previously unthinkable, but maybe…). Then the Citadel unbuilds itself from the inside.

Can a God this loving actually despise me as much as I’ve been taught to despise myself ? (“pet me you fool and stop being silly”). Can a God as physically, tactile and real actually despise the world and care only for my “immortal soul”? (Excuse me, that’s Greek Paganism, stop talking nonsense). Is contempt for others really God’s will? (Stop huffing helium balloons, it’s starting to affect your thinking). Am I really worthy? (Pet me you gorgeous creature).

Relentless, tactile, present, giving, love that gets in everywhere. That’s God as That Cat, overturning our Crazy by being in our life and sneaking us up to the point of change.

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Playing Churchball

James 2.14-17

We have been taught, or perhaps just picked up along the way, the notion that the straight and narrow is really, really narrow, like 0.5 mm narrow. All contradictions in the text are seemings only and a test of our faith. Ultimately, everything that seems confusing will (we are assured) be combined into a single, unified, narrow path we can walk on the road to salvation.

The problem with this sort of understanding is that it’s so blatantly unhelpful when we run into classic theological problems like the issue of Justification v. Sanctification (AKA “faith v. works”) which has roiled the Western church for ages and served as a point of mockery and warfare between Lutherans (and later, other Protestant groups) and Catholics.

Any good Lutheran knows that Ephesians 2.8-9 contains the Final Truth about how we are saved. It is our faith and not our works that leads us on the path of holiness. We are taught to mock those ‘gotta work harder’ Catholic fools who insist on “earning their way into heaven” and to remain smugly certain that Sola Fidei, “faith alone” saves.

The fact that this reliance on an ethereal “me and Jesus” faith leads us into “a little folding of the hands to rest…” and is the source of much deserved derision, is overlooked because “at least we’re not like Those Catholics (who are trying to earn their way in). It’s such a Lutheran problem that we’ve become the punchline of an old joke about a parishioner confident that they are going to heaven “because in all my life I have not done one good work.”

James insistence that “faith without works is dead” becomes a direct contradiction to this ‘faith alone’ business, so what are we to do? Some people just gloss over it as Luther did, calling the whole book of James “an Epistle of Straw,” a thing to be ignored. Others are determined to find a way to unify the two texts as some sort of single narrow way. I on the other hand, wonder at our preference for the “narrow.”

You see, in Hebrew the “narrow place” is the place of danger and when God saves it is inevitably to put is in a “wide place,” a place where we are standing on “the rock that is higher than I.” The psalms again and again point to being bound, being trapped, being in a narrow, wedged space, as a evil thing while being in a broad space is to be freed by God. So what if the “narrow road” Jesus is speaking of is primarily “narrow” in contrast to the “whatever, whatever” of the broad way of destruction?

What if, instead of seeing these to passages from Ephesians and James as mortal enemies or as fundamental contradictions which much be reconciled, we saw them as out of bounds markers on a playing field. And what if that playing field was the one on which we played a game called Churchball?

There are lots of games out there in life and we can play a bunch of them but to play churchball means we need to be on this field. As long as we keep the ball between the out of bounds markers, as long as we don’t hit it past the foul poles, we’re playing churchball. We can be on the right hash mark, the left hash mark, way out by the sidelines, or off in left field but as long as we stay inbounds, we’re playing churchball.

With that simple change in our understanding of the biblical contradictions we are suddenly gifted with a lot more freedom than we were taught. The saved by faith Ephesians text keeps us from wandering too far into relentless doing. Meanwhile the show your faith in the work of your life James text keeps us from folding our hands and sleeping. No longer irreconcilable, they become boundary marks to keep us on the field. We still have to keep our life in bounds if we want to play churchball, but the narrow way no longer has to pinch for us to walk it. In fact, we can run.

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A Sister Was Given To Me

2 Corinthians 12.2-10

Because I am a Terrible Human Being(tm) and suffer from an overdeveloped (and possibly twisted) sense of humor, I like to read verse 7 as “… Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a little sister was given to me…” I do this partly because yes, I have a difficult sibling relationship and so I try to laugh about it. I also do it because we have wasted far too much time trying to figure out exactly what kind of thorn in the flesh Paul had.

Was it something to do with his eyes, his speech, something more unspeakable? Scholars speculate, people argue, and we miss the reality that it doesn’t bloody well matter what the thorn, this “messenger of satan” that tormented him, actually was. What matters is the insight he gained. He learned something profound about strength and weakness.

He learned that God’s power comes to completeness, is perfected, reaches final form (telos) in weakness (asthenia). For the linguistically inclined, yes, this is the same word as is used in the Great Commission (“the coming together in completeness of the aeon“) and 1 John (“perfected love casts out fear”). God’s power achieves its goal, its telos in our weakness.

And hereby hangs a critical distinction, weakness in scripture is NOT the same as we’ve been taught to define weakness. Culture has taught us that weakness is a lack, an inability to do something. We have even been told it’s a feminine quality, “girls are weak and guys are strong, and so the world rolls along.”

Being weak then means that one is, well… girly, incapable, and in dire need of a pat on the head and an ‘aw poor baby.’ Understandably, being weak (as culture defines it) is not all that appealing. Further, because ‘weak’ is gender linked by culture, it is both shameful to have it (because culture shames women for being women) and an invitation to pity. It is no wonder that, when confronted with culture’s image of “weak” we want nothing to do with it. But that is not scriptural weakness.

The Greek word is asthenia and it does mean weakness but it is the weakness that comes of being ill with a debilitating disease. There’s even a woman whom Jesus heals of her asthenia in Luke’s Gospel. The translators call it “illness” but the Greek is asthenia just the same. Furthermore, in that account it is called a “spirit of asthenia” which moves this from the strictly physical “can you benchpress 200 lbs” realm right over into the “this is a spiritual quality of being” realm.

This is because “weakness” as our incapacity to do something is often a quality of the mind rather than the body. We believe we cannot, or should not, or may not do a thing and so (surprise!) we can’t. Men are taught that we can’t have emotions (because “feelings are girly”) and we look puzzled or answer flippantly when asked “how are you feeling?” Women are told they can not have power (because “strength is unfeminine”) and all the indirect power fighting is born. For that matter, none of us are taught how to lose and go on. This leads to a theme in Louis L’amour’s work, namely ‘the man who cannot lose.’ The Big Bad doesn’t know how to lose gracefully so he starts a campaign of vileness and cruelty in order to win when the hero shows up. In the process, he becoming a rabid monster who must be destroyed for the safety of us all.

In all these cases, the inner chains that bind us are called “strength” by culture and so we go along pretending to be strong (when we are not). We are even taught to mock those who seek freedom from these chains as “weak” (even though their bid for freedom takes great strength). And thus we end up in a bind (quite literally), unable to tell weakness from strength and uninterested in finding freedom.

And that’s where Paul was until the thorn in the flesh (excuse me, little sister) came along. Without the torment of the too small shoe pinching him he never would have tried to change. But once he recognized it for what it was, once his “sister” drove him around-the-bend batty, he realized that he had to change. The shoe doesn’t fit, the role isn’t you, the story offered by culture is actually a lie so how do we find a way out of the mess? We go to the escape maker, chain breaker par excellence.

In other words, we stop relying on our culturally defined “strength” and accept our human limits. We come to the end of ourself and find that God is there. We reach the point where our own trying is not even remotely enough and then we find that there is a perfect power that has been waiting for us to let go.

And that is how God’s power comes to completeness, its perfect, final form, in our asthenia, our weakness. By coming to the point where we can admit within our deepest heart that “our own efforts availed us naught” we can finally stop the culturally defined dance of mandatory strength and victory (or the culturally demanded denial of same) and instead actually find real power in our own giving of our lives into the care of God. And since the God into whose care we give our life is the one who brought Jesus back from the dead, we can trust this faithful God to bring us out of the depths as well.

So God gave me a little sister, not because God hates me or wants me to be miserable, but so I can get over myself and the stories culture has told me about self and strength and instead reach for the real power, the real strength that begins where I leave off.

So, um, thanks sis, you really are a gift from God.

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“Self Seeds Wantonly”

Mark 4.26-34

Some plants can be a pain to propagate. They’re finicky about where they grow, need particular pollinators, they don’t make a lot of viable seed,.. The list goes on and on of reasons it is hard to get some plants to grow from seed. Other plants have no problem at all, in fact they seem eager to set and scatter new seed. Gardeners warn each other of these kind of plants, They may be beautiful and easy to care for but they “self-seed freely” as the guides usually say.

They can start from a few plants in one corner of the garden but if you don’t watch them, they will soon take over the whole place. You’ll find flowers growing up through cracks in the pavement, running riot through the grass, and turning even the most well ordered garden plot into a mass of whatever this new flower is. They are easy to establish and spread, but they can become a nuisance so, as I said, we warn each other. “Watch out for that one, it self-seeds.”

This does not however mean that we do not use them, one of my favorite old time flowers is Nigella damascena also called “love in the mist” for it’s feathery leaves and beautiful, profuse flowers. But Nigella is also a special case, because it doesn’t just self-seed feely, it does so wantonly (as one guide put it so memorably).

A handful of Nigella seeds can become a whole flower bed full in very little time. In fact, if the climate is kind, this annual can actually go through two life cycles each year, going from seed to flower to seed pod twice in the same time “normal” and “decent” flowers bloom just once.

But it is beautiful enough and easy to weed out of your flower beds so keeping it in line is not a major effort. It does however illustrate the power in the seed

I have mentioned this before but it bears repeating. The life and power in us is very like what is in a seed. This is because a seed has within itself all the power, all the energy, it needs to grow and thrive. Get a hand lens and a peanut and you’ll see what I mean. Pop the peanut open and look at that little bumpy bit in the middle with the lens. You’ll see proto-leaves at one end and a point at the other. This is the heart of the plant, coiled with energy and waiting to grow.

The life in us is at times harder to see, especially when we are tired and overwhelmed with living. Life is made up of a myriad of choices and those choices are not always clear or easy. In fact, they are often everything but clear and easy.

Faced with the complexity we may well be tempted to curl up and hide, to look at all we face and say “the journey is too much” for us (but note, we have a rather famous bible story about someone who said just that). As the angel showed Elijah, so Jesus told his parables. The seed of life in us is indeed the power that wells up in us to eternal life.

That’s why, even though the seed of life in us seems small, even though the touch of Christ in our hearts feels faint, that seed has the power and it will grow if given the slightest chance. Christians understand that we have the seed of God’s life in us through baptism, and that from the seed grows a mighty oak of grace and life.

Therefore, faced with the challenge of growing and in need of the confidence to become as tall and strong as we can in the face of the junk we have inherited from the world around, you have the Seed of Life in you and it is all the power you need.

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Raising our Ebenezer

1 Samuel 7.12

We love the song, but do we even remember what it means to “raise our Ebenezer?” For that matter, what is an Ebenezer?

It’s a compound of Eben “stone” and Ezer “help” and the scripture reference is 1 Sam 7.12. The Israelites had gathered together and their Philistine neighbors decided to pull a surprise attack. Caught in the open and unprepared, the Israelites were afraid but God thundered from on high and the Philistines fled. In commemoration of this deliverance, Samuel put up a marker stone.

This was a common practice back in the day. Jacob took the stone he’d slept on the night he saw the vision of angels and made it a marker that “the LORD was in this place and I had no idea.” The Pillar at Mizpah was a witness between Jacob and Laban. And what did Joshua have the Israelites do when the crossed the Jordan? Set up a pile of stones. Even today, when marking trails above treeline, we use piles of rocks called cairns. Furthermore, we still used stones to remind us of important events. Both the Cenotaph in London and the Vietnam Wall mark painful but important happenings.

So Ebenezer (Stone of Help) is a stone that marks a moment in our life. It is, to push  the Hebrew a bit, a Stone of Help to mark that “God has helped (Ezer) us this far” in life. So that stone marked the place where God had helped the people. Where are your stones? Really, where are the memorial markers you’ve put down to remember how far you’ve come and how you’ve been brought thus far?

We live in a culture that corrodes our memories, drawing our attention away from what gives us life and into the hurry, hurry, superscurry of the Next Big Thing(tm). This is actually one of the key reasons why regular gathering for worship is important for a life in faith. If we are not constantly reminded of the transcendent reality surrounding us, we will forget. In our forgetting we then fall away from who we are and who we can become. To quote the Echoing Green, something “goes tragic” in us.

To prevent tragedy then, we remember, We “do this in remembrance” and recall the mighty acts of God in our life, and we raise our Ebenezer. So where are yours? Take a good look at your life and ask where are the signs you’ve put down to say “thus far I have been helped?” If you can’t see any of them, perhaps it’s time to look again. Perhaps it’s time to seriously review what we’ve seen and done and lived to check if our suspicion that we’re alone in this is really true.

Fundamentally, this is the spiritual practice of self-examination. This is not just the practice of looking into ourselves to see motivations and the emotional impulses which drive us. We also look into our history to find contradictions to the social story that “you are all alone” in life and “no one cares.” When we find those stories, we mark them, we raise an ebenezer, a place called remember. We can then point to this place and say “see, here is where I was helped.”

That finally is what an ebenezer is, a marker that we’ve gotten this far by the help of others, by the intervention of God.

For super bonus points, our ezer (helper) doesn’t even have to be an eben (a stone) because in Genesis when God looked at Ha’Adam and said “it is not good to be alone,” God made an ezer k’negedo (helper before you). In other words, the KJV’s “helpmeet” is actually a proper/suitable (the archaic meaning of “meet”) helper to stand before the person. And yes, the k’negedo “before/in front of” is important here. This helper, this marker of God’s Grace, this gift of another into our lives who calls us to become more than we believe we can, can be as much a person as a place.

So where are your ebenezers and what do they mark?

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