Using Our Cross To Unlock The Door

“Then Jesus told the disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

So, what are we waiting for? Let’s take up our cross.
You and me.
We each have one.
Everybody does.
They are not of equal size or weight. Our cross is unique to us, shaped by the life only we have lived. And only we, truly, know what the burden feels like.
But what does Jesus mean by “take up”?
We can “take up” golf. We can “take up” jogging. And we can “take up” sewing.
Can we also “take up” our cross?
Yes, we can and doing so is far more important than “taking up” a new hobby.
Jesus doesn’t tell us to take up our cross and follow him because he enjoys a parade. Jesus is urging us to take up our cross and make something meaningful of it because he knows that our own pain helps us to understand, and so minister to, the pain of others.
When we take up our cross and use it to lighten the world of some of its darkness, then we are following Jesus in the truest way possible.
Tellingly, from a certain perspective, a cross, in its physical appearance, can resemble a key.
And that is precisely what our cross can become when we take it up.
A key waiting to unlock a particular door because our cross, like our life, is unique to us. There is no other life, and no other cross—and so no other “key”—exactly like ours.
Therefore, our cross is the one and only key that can unlock a door behind which someone in particular waits in prayer, asking God to free them from the darkness of their pain.
We can set them free if we allow God to make that miracle happen.
The choice, as always, is ours. We have the freedom to resign ourselves to the darkness of our own pain, the freedom to remain stuck to our cross, static and going nowhere. But, if we answer ‘Yes, Lord,’ then the miracle may become doubled:
God knows how and where all of us have been broken by life. God also understands how the broken places in you can fit into the broken places in me to bring us both closer to wholeness.
By having faith in Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him, we may find that behind the doors that we unlock with our cross “key” are those waiting to use their own crosses as the keys that also set us free along the way.
No, we may not—probably will not—be completely cured. Miracles can and do happen but most of us will have to wait for heaven to forever free us from the effect of every hammer and all of life’s nails.
But God knows how to fit us to each other in ways that soften the jagged edges of the broken places in each of us and bring moments of healing along the way. The most frequent miracle is God-given loving companionship at key moments in our journey. Some will last a lifetime. And beyond.
Jesus, bearing his cross and asking us to shoulder ours, beseeches us to follow him toward those softer places.
When we do, the world becomes a little softer, too.
And its light a little brighter.

The Desperate Non-Conformity Of Love

“Do not be conformed to this world.”
Seven words.
Eight syllables to live by.
Paul’s advice, delivered in his letter to the Romans, is as important today as it was 2,000 years ago. Perhaps, even more so, as one looks around at the state of the world in which we live.
Seriously, checking out the daily news headlines and soundbites, who would want to be conformed to any of that?
But, as soon as we’re born, the world tries mighty hard to achieve that goal. Almost like some military bootcamp aimed at squeezing out our unique personality traits so that we’ll obey orders without thinking.
“Conformation” classes begin almost immediately and the conformity blues play its tune right on along the rest of our lives, trying to coax us into thinking like everyone else, believing like everyone else, dreaming like everyone else, shopping like everyone else, voting like everyone else, eating like everyone else, dressing like everyone else, shaving, smelling, driving, you-name-it like everyone else.
Oh, and there’s surely one more: Hating like everyone else.
Mass individuality.
Uniform distinctness.
Fighting to wade ashore against the riptide of conformity to find our own grains of sand with which to build dream castles is a difficult, ongoing struggle.
The temptation to fit snuggly into a comfortable and desirable profile or demographic is powerful. We want to belong to something bigger than ourselves so that we don’t feel so terribly small.
That’s one reason history is littered with dictators who found it so easy to manipulate populations, to conform them.
Assimilate them.
Force them into capitulation by tricking them into believing the choice was theirs.
That’s why Jesus is so wonderfully dangerous.
Not for us, but for the powers that wish to conform us to this world.
Jesus was—and is—the ultimate non-conformist and his path of non-conformity is open wide for us. So wide that it’s not even a path. So wide that wherever each of us goes individually the path of non-conformity exists.
Cross the road like the non-conformist Good Samaritan.
Turn swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.
Move a mountain.
Plant a mustard seed.
Be a mustard seed.
Turn someone’s water into wine.
Touch a leper.
Enter through the narrow gate because the other side brings you to a place that is not the least bit narrow at all and wide open to every possibility.
Believe in love.
Not cookie-cutter love.
Not conformist love.
Not one-size-fits-all love.
But love.
The actual thing, itself.
The living, breathing holy presence that is God among us.
Unconformable.
Waiting for us—longing for us—to become something bigger than ourselves:
Love.

There Is No Race Or Ethnicity In Grace

 

What a difficult story to swallow: Jesus has just gone to the district of Tyre and Sidon where he encounters a Canaanite woman who begs for mercy and the healing of her daughter.
Unusually, for him, Jesus says nothing, according to the Gospel of Matthew. His silence is so disconcerting that the disciples grow irritated with the woman’s continued pleas and ask Jesus to send her away.
What is more disturbing, however, is that Jesus seems to agree with them. When he finally does answer, he says this:
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
In other words, the woman’s anguished begging for Jesus to heal her daughter is—seemingly—dismissed outright because of who she is and where she lives.
There are several explanations for this uncharacteristic behavior by Jesus: He’s simply exhausted. He’s had a bad day. He’s testing the understanding of his disciples or the faith of the woman.
The first explanation might be true but Jesus had to fully expect being approached by those seeking his blessing and healing. Especially because he was in an area he did not routinely visit.
If his silence and then grudging, seemingly cold-hearted reply are merely a test, it seems to me that the disciples fail but the Canaanite woman passes with flying colors.
“Lord, help me,” she persists, prompting another apparently callous response from Jesus:
“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
The woman’s test of faith—or the disciples’—got harder and harder, but she was up to the challenge, even if the disciples weren’t.
Actually, I suspect Jesus knew the woman wasn’t going to take ‘No’ for an answer. Nor, I believe, did Jesus want her to walk away without her child being healed.
If Jesus was waiting for one of the disciples to challenge his refusal because it ran contrary to his core teaching about loving your neighbor as yourself, Jesus was going to be disappointed. But the woman’s response would not fill him with the least little bit of chagrin.
“Yes, Lord, but even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables,” she boldly replies.
Jesus then proclaims her great faith and, just like that, the woman’s daughter is healed.
One can only imagine the startled reaction of the disciples.
Contrary to their expectations, Jesus was telling them that this woman and her child are also God’s children.
The disciples clearly didn’t think so. They had come into the region of Tyre and Sidon with stereotypes and prejudices firmly in place. They had looked at the woman and thought, “She’s not one of us.” She looked different. They had listened to her speak and thought, “She’s not one of us.” She spoke differently. Clearly, the disciples looked at her and listened to her and thought, “She’s one of them.”
Jesus directly challenged that point of view by the end of the Gospel lesson. But, in a real sense, Jesus is trying to get our attention, too.
We are all so blessed that God doesn’t look into the world and divide people into “us” and “them.”
How fortunate that Jesus offers to be a shepherd to every sheep.
Grace would not be grace if it came with premiums, restrictions based on race, membership guidelines on ethnicity and special zip codes for its delivery—you know, only to those who live on the right side of the tracks and in the best neighborhoods.
Ultimately, if that woman and her child are dogs, then we are, too.
But the truth is what Jesus taught: We are all children of God and there is a seat for all of us around the Lord’s table.

 

 

 

Let The Wind See You

 

Oh, how often have I seen the wind.
Just like Peter in today’s Gospel lesson.
Jesus had been working hard, teaching the people that they are the light of the world, that they are blessed and sons and daughters of God, no matter how worthless or powerless they feel to do anything about their own lives or the world around them.
When he finished for the day, Jesus pointed the crowd back toward their homes and neighborhoods—their daily lives—and told the disciples to travel by boat across the Sea of Galilee.
Jesus sent them on their way, explaining that he was going up one of the mountains embroidering the sea and pray. “I’ll meet you on the other side,” he told the disciples.
The boat, however, began being battered by the waves. A storm came out of nowhere—which does still happen rather frequently because of the surrounding weather conditions in Galilee.
The boat was far from land, the Gospel of Matthew tells us, “and the wind was against them.”
Oh, how often has the wind felt like it was against me.
But always, somehow, Jesus comes walking across the water toward me, over the water and through the wind.
The wind of my fears.
The wind of the world whispering dread and doom.
The wind whispering and then howling that love will never overcome hate, that every sword will never be turned into a plowshare, that there will also be one sword left to defeat the last person standing, plowshare in hand, believing in the Gospel of Jesus that God is love.
But always Jesus walks through all of the winds that are whispering and howling, and over the battering waves that make me afraid that all is lost and that my boat will sink.
Jesus keeps coming through the surrounding storms that make me certain that I will never, ever get to the other side of whatever fear and doubt I happen to be trying to cross in my boat at the time.
I am so like Peter, the most human of the disciples. Impulsive. Out there. Let me be the one!!! But so susceptible to my human foibles.
“Lord, if it’s you, command me to come to you on the water,” Peter shouts after Jesus pointedly tells the disciples to “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid (and there’s that fearful word—afraid).
Peter is desperate to conquer his fear by walking over the storming waves he’s afraid will drown them. And, Jesus says, sure, come right ahead.
Just as Jesus tells each of us to leave our fears behind and walk on, over and away from them.
But, Peter is Peter. Peter is human. Peter is you and I.
Peter gets half way to Jesus and then he “sees the wind” and begins to drown.
Peter gives so much power to what he fears that he actually sees the wind. Gives shape and form to something that is invisible.
Just like all of us do from time to time. We believe that what we fear is so strong, stronger than we are, stronger than Jesus.
And so we begin to drown in our fear.
But Jesus is still there, always there, reaching out his hand, lifting us up and away from our fears until, just when we think it could never happen, we reach the other side and hear a voice:
Don’t see the wind, Jesus tells us. Instead, let the wind see you, and who stands by your side, no matter what storms life blows your way.

Awaiting Our Transfiguration

If mountaintop experiences were an Olympic sport, Peter, James and John would have won the gold medal after Jesus took them up the mountain to pray.

The three disciples must have suspected, or hoped, something special was going to happen when Jesus sought their company up the mountain.

But they never could have imagined watching Jesus’ face change as he prayed or seeing his clothes turn a dazzling white, or Moses and Elijah appearing and having a conversation with Jesus.

But all of that did happen.

Jesus and Moses and Elijah appeared, Luke’s Gospel tells us, “in their glory.”

In other words, they were “transfigured,” an event to be celebrate in two days—Transfiguration Sunday. Now, for a long time I thought the word “transfigured” meant someone was changed.

But it goes a bit deeper than that. It means to transform into something more beautiful or elevated, or exalted, depending upon which dictionary you consult.

But what does this Gospel lesson mean to us? Is it one more miraculous story that modern folks find hard to believe or relate to?

No, it shouldn’t be. However miraculous their mountaintop moment with Jesus was, what Peter, James and John experienced holds great meaning for us.

In fact, that meaning reverberates at the very core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Transfiguration was not for Jesus alone. Embarking on the journey with our Good Shepherd offers each of us moments of transfiguration.

Not as witnesses, but as active participants.

Mountaintop experiences can, of course, take place anywhere. One doesn’t have to climb a mountain. You can be on your living room sofa, taking the trash to the recycling center or scrambling an egg.

Suddenly everything becomes clear. We gain a keen insight into life, into our spiritual journey or our relationship with God.

They are mountaintop experiences because we have felt ourselves transported a little ways beyond the material world, nudging into the spiritual.

We are elevated beyond the everyday experiences of our life on Earth.

Whether we realize it at the time or not, we all have been transfigured by things we do for others, acts of kindness or forgiveness that change—if only for a moment—the way we feel inside.

Our heart and soul feel transformed into something more beautiful than they were before we reached out to someone else. Transformed, inside, into something more elevated, more exalted.

But we are also transfigured by what others have done for us.

Our outward appearance hasn’t changed. People don’t look in our direction and see someone who is suddenly dazzlingly white. Nor do they see Moses or Elijah in conversation with us.

But, what about Jesus? Do people look at us, and see him?

I believe there have been times in all of our lives when we touched someone in such a way that they felt the presence of Christ through us, by what we said or did for them.

I know this is true because I have been on the receiving end of such moments more than once. I have been transfigured by the kindness and love of others.

So, transfiguration isn’t theoretical. It is literal. It can happen anywhere at any moment.

Virtually everything Jesus said or did can directly impact our lives in an experiential, participatory way.

We are offered transfiguration right where we sit, stand or kneel because the mountaintops that matters most are inside us.

Sometimes, however, that truth can be so hard to remember and too easy to forget.

Moments of transfiguration, like mountaintop experiences, are fleeting, ephemeral. They well up inside us like an overflowing emotion and then, like an emptied bucket of water drawn up from a well, they are poured away.

Sometimes the transfiguration is triggered by a moment in a particularly moving song, a painting, a passage in a book, a sunset or a sunrise. And then the song is over, the painting left behind, the book closed and today becomes tomorrow.

But each moment of transfiguration takes us further on the journey, and in a specific direction.

Those moments of transfiguration change the course of our lives and over the course of a lifetime that makes all the difference in where that journey takes us, who we meet and how we change the lives of others and are changed by the lives of others.

We won’t hear the voice of God say—as Peter, James and John heard God say of Jesus—“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”

But if we are very quiet and still, we will feel God calling us by our own name, telling us that we, too, are his children, we, too, are his beloved.

God loves us before, during and after our small, but beautifully important, moments of transfiguration.

And love—both human and divine—has the power to transfigure us most of all.