On Carrying a Cross & Following Jesus

The Scripture Texts for Proper 19, Year B, Track 1  are:

Proverbs 1:20-33 | Psalm 19 | James 3:1-12 | Mark 8:27-38

ashleyrosex_-Close-Cross; source: http://www.bishopinthegrove.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/ashleyrosex_-Close-Cross_yph0pk_zxz0yg.jpg We think we’ve got this figured out. To carry a cross, we hold fast, stay true, and stake our claim on what is right and good. We do what is right and stand up for Jesus. We stand behind the cross we boldly carry before us. But somehow we find ourselves back to back and going nowhere fast. Somehow we’ve created walls with our crosses and have lost sight of Jesus. We know we’ve lost sight of Jesus because there is no room for true love of neighbor, and love of God looks more like violence than compassion. Others don’t see Jesus, either. Or the Jesus they do see looks nothing like the Jesus of the gospel.

Whatever we think it means to be a Jesus-follower, today might be a good day to have a moment, like Peter, when Jesus flat out tells us that we don’t have our head in the right place. Today, Jesus tells us that if we want to be one of his followers, we need to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him, losing our life for his sake.

“Tell my would-be followers to deny themselves,” Jesus says first.

How do we deny ourselves? What are denying ourselves of?

I think of the phrase that I’ve been hearing and seeing a lot lately: “Not my monkeys, not my circus.” When I hear or use this phrase myself, there’s a sort of disassociation happening. We’re not responsible for what’s going on because that’s completely someone else’s problem, from the players to the whole play. But what if we look at problems around us and see ourselves as part of creation, part of God’s creation. Looking at it this way, I cannot deny responsibility nor accountability, but I do realize a crucial thing: I am not God.

What if to deny ourselves means to deny myself the first seat of power? What if I do the amazing thing and let God be God. What if I let Jesus bear the cross for humanity? Instead of trying to walk with Jesus under the weight of the world, whispering in his ear what I think the best next move is or even trying to show him what the best next step is by walking ahead of him, how about I let him go before me. Lead me, Jesus, through the valley. Show me the way out of death into life. I don’t have the power to do any of this alone. All power is yours, O God; help me, your willing servant.

Jesus says to the disciples, “Tell my followers to deny themselves and take up their cross.”

We have to remember that we’re not taking up the Cross, the cross upon which Jesus hung, “the emblem of suffering and shame,” if “The Old Rugged Cross” rings in your ears as it does mine. That cross embodies all the torment and rejection and suffering of the world absorbed when our saviour was crucified. That’s Jesus’s cross, not ours. We reverence this cross, and we can cling to it with humility and respect, but it’s not ours to carry.

I cannot know what your cross is, but I imagine it’s similar to mine.

My cross is made of all the splinters pulled from my wounds–some bigger than others–and is held together by the sap, sweat, blood, and tears that is my awareness of the suffering in the world both far and near. It’s made heavy by my grief, my fears. And y’all, it gets heavy. So heavy that there are times I can’t listen to or read the news because the reports are so awful, the pictures too painful. I could distract myself with what we call entertainment, but I don’t want my heart to be numbed, drugged into apathy or ignorance. Drugs and addictions come in many forms. So the weight gets heavy, heavier still by the “what if’s.” What if the Islamic State grows stronger? What if the voice of reason and common sense gets out-voted? What if my children don’t learn the way of loving kindness? What if I fail my family, my church, my God? All this and more is in my cross. Can I even lift it?

As if in one breath, what Jesus says is, “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Follow.

With Jesus before me, I see Light. I feel hope. I taste joy, and I hear faith. I am strengthened, or my burden is lightened. All the pain of my cross has already been carried for me. Jesus bore the weight of the world; I carry my mess of splinters. The cross I can pick up and carry reminds me that I have scars, scars that taught me to be calm and strong. Scars that taught me to listen, to be kind. Wounds not yet scarred that remind me to be compassionate, not to judge. These scars and wounds are marks of responsibility, gifts I have that will help me serve in God’s will for this world.

Do we follow Jesus with our cross before us? As far as we’re told, Jesus was removed from the cross. Jesus didn’t take the cross to hell and back. He took the wounds, the wounds the apostles saw, that Thomas had to touch. If we put our crosses before us, we might lose our way and get stuck. We might focus on our suffering, losing sight of Jesus and the hope and light he gives us. We know what our crosses are, what they mean to us, what they teach us. They empower us to overcome darkness and death, thanks be to God.

This isn’t an idealistic kind of discipleship. This is very much our real way of living in this world.

In the face of decade-long horrific violence, there are Christians–followers of Christ–who take seriously the call to be peacemakers. There are people like Amado Bello, who was raised Muslim and is now a Christian pastor in the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, who risks his life to speak to those who have the power to kill him. Not only does he speak to them, he treats them with respect, as fellow human beings, trying to understand them. And he prays with them and suggests routes they can take not to be killed “because I love you,” he says. “While driving with his family, (Bello) was stopped and surrounded by a large Boko Haram contingent. Bello expected to be killed, but one militant looked into the car window and recognized him. ‘He’s a good man,’ he told the others. To Bello, he said, ‘You may pass.’ . . . The family drove on without incident,” though they feared the worst.

The militant who let him pass was a man who had previously washed Bello’s car. Bello didn’t know that the man was a militant when he was talking about the importance of listening, understanding, and addressing problems rather than turning to violence and murder. Bello spoke the truth of the gospel and practiced the compassion of our Lord, empowered by the cross that above all things taught him to love his enemy and to pray for those who persecuted him, and he was recognized as Good. He was willing to lose his life for the sake of the gospel.*

Despite the harsh reality, stories like Bello’s can seem distant and unreal. Our neighbors aren’t often seeking us out to persecute us. More often, our enemies are guised as “friends,” say, Friends on Facebook, who say or do something that offends us. We want to strike back, lash out, “unfriend” them. How often do we offer them our sincere prayer? An openly gay, black priest serving in Kansas City, Father Marcus Halley had the presence of mind–the presence of Christ–not to lash out against Kim Davis in all the furor these past couple of weeks. What he did offer, was a letter, a letter he openly published which she may or may not have read. Among other things that I encourage you to read, he says, “It is my meet, right, and bounden duty that I affirm your humanity. Like our Lord who willingly offered himself in love to those who could not or would not return it – I am duty-bound to do the same. Why? Because creation will know that we are Christians, not by the way we argue right versus wrong, but by the way we love one another.”

In denying ourselves, we put our greatest love first. With God before us, we take up our cross, not buried by it or hiding behind it, but we take it up in our very being. And we follow Jesus, together. We follow Jesus boldly yet humbly, wherever he leads, so that all will recognize us by our love.

*Story of Amado Bello: Peggy Gish, “Learning to Love Boko Haram: A Nigerian Peace Church Responds,” Plough Quarterly no. 6 (Autumn 2015): 13-20.

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“Nothing complicated about it”

When thinking about how we move through the day, I’m more likely to imagine a digital clock ticking the minutes and hours away as we scurry from home to school to work to lessons and sports to home to bed. So much of our day is guided by appointments and obligations, most that make our lifestyle possible and others that make our lives enriched, and we consider ourselves privileged to do all this.

Then I come across something like this, reading out of a book I happened upon in our church lending library:

“In ancient times people found it natural and important to seek God’s will. With little spiritual guidance and in utter simplicity, they heard from God. There was nothing complicated about it. They understood that every moment of every day presented an opportunity for faith to fulfill a responsibility to God. They moved through the day like the hand of a clock. Minute after minute they were consciously and unconsciously guided by God.” -Jean-Pierre de Caussade in Abandonment to Divine Providence*

I confess that I do not in every moment think first about how my next move will “fulfill a responsibility to God.” While I may occasionally think, “God, what would you have me do?”, it doesn’t often enter my mind when I am making my daily rounds around the house or through our city’s streets. I’m more likely to be caught up in my own thoughts about what I have or haven’t accomplished on my unwritten to-do list. We are creatures of habit, and my routine is about what I need to do next, what I’m expected to do. It shouldn’t be a surprise that our society is primarily full of egocentric people, taking care of ourselves before everyone else because our primary thoughts are typically about ourselves. It’s natural for us to put #1 first, whether that be me, my family, my country, etc.

What would it be like if it were “natural and important to seek God’s will,” to hear from God, to move through our day “minute after minute . . . consciously and unconsciously guided by God”? De Caussade has a way with words (even in the translation) that points both toward a simple yet profound beauty. This beauty comes to me even as I see photos of the horror of the Syrian refugees and read the clamor of American citizens advocating for rights to marry or to live without fear.

The guidance of God contrasts sharply to the suffering and oppression at hand. Any action that is born of hatred and violence, of fear and anger, does not align with what I understand to be God’s will, that we love God and our neighbor. Christians aren’t the only ones who believe this, either.

Perhaps that’s why there’s nothing really complicated about it. If we let God’s will guide our next move, we move in compassion. If we believe in God, in God’s unconditional love for us, it is our faithful responsibility to share this love with others, including ourselves. This means that we surrender to the will of God: we surrender to experience the tremendous freedom that is found in the power of unconditional love. It’s not popular. It’s risky and counter-cultural. It makes us vulnerable because we open our hearts and become an easy target. I think God knows this kind of love well.

I’m going to replace the battery in my watch, the watch my husband gave me as a gift. I cannot promise that every time the minute-hand moves that I will first be thinking of God, but de Caussade said we can be “consciously and unconsciously guided by God.” When I fail to ask for guidance, may my faith guide me even when I’m unaware.

*As found in Nearer to the Heart of God: Daily Readings with the Christian Mystics, Bernard Bangley, ed., 2005

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Good Friday, 2015

The Triduum–the three days in the church that try to capture the great mystery of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (the Paschal mystery)–will break open our hearts and pry open our eyes if we are strong enough to turn toward God.

These three days come every year.  They are part of the church calendar, a cycle predictable enough to be printed like any other desk or pocket calendar. But like the seasons of the year, there can be times of tumult. A perfect storm arises when conditions are just right.  Weather fronts collide, funneling chaos onto the land, and I cannot help but feel that this is what happens on these Holy Days.

If we dare, we look toward God and invite the past to reenact itself.  As a congregation, we participate in the retelling of the story. We come together to wash each other’s feet and to share a meal.  We walk the Stations of the Cross, and we sit in silence . . . and wait.

Simultaneously, we imagine ourselves among the disciples or in the crowd.  Maybe even just a fly beside one who is choosing to betray or another struggling to do what should be done . . . or near the One choosing to forgive and breathing his last. Can we steel our strength to be the Mother watching her child be crucified? Can we handle the thunder and the silence?

It is easily too much.

Carrying the Sacrament to the side chapel after the Maundy Thursday service, the glass flagon was heavy and full. The liquid within sloshed with my steps through the darkness.  There was enough light to glint from the glass and to illuminate the wine, the blood.  My throat caught, and my stomach turned in the briefest of moments. The blood of our Lord and Savior.  This was but a drop, and if it spilled, if I were to drop this fragile vessel, I imagined it would spill for miles. But there we were, walking softly, reverently placing the reserves onto the altar.  The candlelight hushed the room and twinkled in everyone’s eyes.

Walking home, the nearly full moon was shrouded by clouds.  The evening continued normally, marked by the “Open” sign at the coffee shop and the frat boys’ shouts at their houses. So many feet to wash.  So many people to love.

Soon we’ll walk along the road of our small town, between a parish and chapel. People will carry a huge and heavy cross, and the fullness of time will push all bounds, trying to break into our consciousness. From Golgotha of the past to Syria of the present to the oppressed and invisible neighbor–all out of sight but very much here and now. All the pain and all the love sucked into one vortex that if we are willing will tap into the conduit of our lives. Nothing more than we can stand but enough to break us open, awake us from our numbness, set us free to love as we are commanded.

On the other side of the suffering and silence, our greatest joy awaits. Only true Love can take us there and back again, year after year, moment after moment.

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Calendar Lust

The past couple of weeks I have been looking at new calendars/appointment books.  The inkling coincided with back-to-school shopping, and I’m as bad as anyone else about wanting to get something new to mark the transition into another school year.

Having decided on one, though, I wonder what is wrong with the current one that I have which will get me into the first week of January–surely plenty of time to find the next one (or actually to get proficient at using my phone calendar!).  In my current well-worn book, dates are marked for the upcoming semester for the three different school calendars; helpful notes are in the back pages.  I have a good thing going.

It was during an early afternoon walk in the woods, in a moment’s rest and dreaming, that I wondered if it might be that I want another chance to manage my time more wisely.  Maybe a new calendar will help me bring order to the coming chaos that is my last year in seminary and the ongoing juggle of having four active children.  That sounds like me, doesn’t it?  Thinking that something that might bring a little more control, a little more order will surely help.

Yes, it sounds like me, but, no, it’s not likely to make anything any better.  It’s just a book with calendar pages, after all, inanimate, void of all engagement.

These thoughts coincide with another thought: I’m working on a week of gratitude on Facebook.  I’m to list three things I’m grateful for each day, and I’m supposed to tag three friends whom I think will/might participate.  I’ve already given up on the tagging bit, but I’m totally in for being grateful.

Once you’re knee deep in gratitude, it begins to surround you.

“I’m not certain that there are such things as measures of our spirituality, but if there are, then gratitude is probably the best one.  It indicates that we are paying attention.” — M. Craig Barnes in The Pastor as Minor Poet (2009)

Barnes reminds me of my old friend Mindfulness, and I realize that I do not need a new calendar.  Temptation knows how to get to us every time. Marking my days with gratitude as so many wise folks encourage has a way of prioritizing one’s life.  The more I am aware of what I am so grateful for, the more I see where and how God is busy at work in my life, guiding me ever-so-subtly while ultimately allowing me to make the decision in every moment.

Am I paying attention?

This life I have chosen to follow still gives me many choices, plenty of opportunities to mess up like anyone else.  Barnes’ little book is full of the rich reminder of the responsibilities I am taking on . . . and seemingly more and more each day.

I will be getting a new calendar in January, if I find I still need a paper one when my current one expires.  In the meantime, it is perfectly worthwhile to remember that a sense of order in my life isn’t found within the pages of the best-intentioned calendar.  A sense of presence and awareness go a long way to creating the best days and a life well-lived.

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Poetry

When I agreed to go to a preaching program, I truly had no idea what I was getting into. Bring a sermon, your prayer book, and a Bible, I was told, so I anticipated sermon feedback and worship And hoped there would be helpful, practical workshops.

I was was not disappointed.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the joyous fellowship of getting to meet and visit with others in our Episcopal Church–seminarians, those newly ordained, and those who have been at it a long while. And I didn’t expect all the poetry.

For some, they’re stuffed full of the poetic comments and commentary.  For me, I’d beg for another. Some voices I could listen to all day, and others I would rather read myself.

Most importantly, I found that somewhere between the feedback, the plenaries, the laughter, and the many lines of poetry, I heard God. I heard myself being told that I was here not by accident.  I heard that I was here to see and hear for myself things that otherwise I might have missed or taken for granted, and I heard that I am a wordsmith neglecting my trade by not giving the time to hone my skill.

So I am left with a challenge, but it is also permission.  Going forward I know how important it is to read a variety of material and to live gathering diverse experiences. I am challenged to do these things but also granted the permission to do so. I cannot deny the excitement of the possibilities and the intimidation of taking full advantage of the abundant life God has blessed me with.

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It’s All in the Breath

We do everything with a breath. Even if we are holding it, the breath is with us.

When we’re first born, we inspire, we breathe or inhale our first breaths in this world, and we spend the rest of our days living into this inspiration, motivated to make something–if not something material, then something of ourselves.

We perspire, breathing through this creative process because it’s hard. Anyone who says life is easy hasn’t truly made anything. The most gifted people in the world would probably tell you that the process isn’t a cake walk.

If we’re lucky, we get to conspire. “Conspire” has a negative connotation, associated with joining forces to do something evil, immoral. Literally, it means to breathe with. That implies being of one breath, united in the creative process. What you do together may well be something evil, but when we conspire to do something good, beautiful things happen.

At our end, we expire, breathe our last. Those of us who have attended the bed of the dying know that there is a palpable finality in that last exhale; you know that there is no more. We often say that the dead person’s work is done, but not fully understanding what her greatest achievement was, maybe it’s more accurate to say that she will not be creating anything else except through the ripples of her influence.

For a Christian, the breath is synonymous with Spirit. Maybe it’s the only way we can get a handle on something so beyond our comprehension. In pneumatology (the study of the Holy Spirit), Spirit is sometimes explained in “spirations.” (Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff was my introduction to the spiration concept, though he’s not alone.) This gift of life is made possible only through our breath.

I wonder about those who struggle with breathing disorders. In any struggle, our awareness heightens, and we wrestle more audibly and visibly and obviously, even if we are the only ones to notice. That we struggle with or defy doesn’t negate that which is.

If the breath isn’t with us, we are dead. If we ignore that the breath is with us, pay no attention to the gift of breath or our struggle with it, we may be the living dead, contributing nothing life-giving if there is creation happening at all.

I imagine that this is why so many traditions fundamentally pay attention to the breath. A breath prayer is simply giving focused attenention, intention, to the inhale and exhale. Each breath is a moment in which a decision is made, a decision to create something life-giving, life-affirming. We have to opportunity to conspire with Spirit. This positive, creative conspiration threatens a death-dealing culture, threatens the status quo, but this is the kind of conspirator I hope to be.

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Morning Prayer

Since being at seminary, Morning Prayer has become part of me–not part of my routine but part of my well-being.  Particularly on Saturdays or when the school cancels it for some reason during the week , it might be mid-day before I realize what it was I was missing or forgetting, but I notice.

In group we use the Daily Office out of the Book of Common Prayer, Rite II or I, Episcopalians that we are.  Alone, I take advantage of the gift offered by Mission St. Clare and use my iPad, or I use the Daily Devotion provided in the BCP.  This morning, however, my prayer was in practicing some Taize hymns on the piano.  What a better way to fill my mind and heart with mantras to carry me through this day?  One of my professors often says that the point of practice and worship–of our Christian journey in general–is to be ever-deepening our relationship with God.  In the repetition of the Taize hymns (like this one), I can almost feel the deepening spiral, and it is healing and restorative.

How we choose to begin our day, it sets the tone, does it not?  May your mornings be filled with grace, peace, and love.

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Said and Unsaid

A seminary education covers a broad spectrum of everything pertaining to the religious life, much of which is unquantifiable.  How does one measure love? wisdom? mercy? grace? good? evil?

We can talk about God, but how does one experience God?  How do we experience God when evil happens in our life or the lives of others?

There is much written and taught about prayer.  There are steps to follow and different styles to try, but the actual doing is up to the individual.  Each experience is unique, and no one knows how God will be revealed in any given moment.

But God was there.  God is here.  God will be forevermore.

That’s hard to teach.  It’s hard to learn.  That’s faith, right?

Sometimes there are no words, and the silence speaks volumes.  

These are the thoughts I had when I saw these photos, a tribute to Boston by Amanda Soule on the day of the bombings.

 

 

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Fog

When folks told me that Sewanee had fog, I really did not think anything unusual about it.  Seriously, though, I had never experienced the fog that I had only seen in movies, the kind like Scarlett O’Hara had nightmares about and the kind like in the movie The Others.  This kind of fog.

The day would have it that my morning would be packed with meeting-to-lunch-to-class, after a paper revision.  But my morning took a more leisurely pace or perhaps a still, quiet pace.  The pouring rain gave way to the mist and fog before I had to leave for my meeting.  Miscommunication upon missed communication later, I find myself returning to my desk, through the fog, to have some more solitary time.  Here I am.

The fog surrounds the plateau, to me becoming an outward sign of the mystery that surrounds us.  We study the history, the context, the methods, the meanings, and we are told throughout it all that we will never plumb the depths of God, the very Mystery we seek to explore.

Often people say they are in a fog or feel foggy.  When they say this, it is sometimes to express a sense of inability to comprehend or to find a way.  The fog is literally a cloud that seems to dull the senses and/or obstruct our view.  Walking to my car, I cast my eyes downward both to protect my glasses from the mist and to keep from straining my eyes in a way that made them hurt.  Driving on the roads, the lights meagerly attempted to alert others of the car’s presence.  I had to drive slowly, cautiously, because there are so many curves, and I do not yet know my way here.   A powerful force in nature just by its presence, the fog renders me vulnerable.

Maybe sometimes I just need to show up.  Of course I do not know even a glimpse of what I need to know.  Of course the way is revealed to me one step at a time.  In a place where there are many learning to be servants and leaders in God’s name, this fog can be a none too frequent reminder of our humanity and our humility and our need for God’s grace.

 

 

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Another Beginning

We give birth to so many things in our lives.  We create art.  We forge friendships.  We beget children.  These are no small things.

What I notice most about the most significant births is that they are born from a place of surrender.  My ego gives up, and I let what needs to be born come forth.  With each of my children, such is the nature of their birth.  In some of my better writing, the words seemed to form themselves.  My most sincere friendships found their own way to my heart and took root there.

This home, this school, this town we find ourselves in now, I imagine the same holds true.  In the stillness of the morning, I marvel at the sunlight falling down through the trees.  I wonder at the moisture, the thunderstorms, having come from a place not far away experiencing harsh drought.  (Believe me, I’m trying to send the rain back home!)  I am here for formation.  For a true birth to happen, I will have to let go.

That doesn’t mean I let go of all that was, of all who are a part of my life.  In as much as this is a community affair, this is mostly a time for me to grow, not away from who I am but more fully into who I am, who I am meant to be.  No one says a birth is easy, nor do I hear often that they’re beautiful affairs to observe (aside from those who hold the process near and dear to their hearts when a baby is being born). But I give thanks in advance for those who will serve as witnesses to my own birth, who will hold the space around me, love me unconditionally, and remind me that the ground is still there when I feel I’ve lost my way.

 

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