Using Our Cross To Heal The World

By Ken Woodley

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

We each have a cross to bear.
Everybody does.
During this pandemic, it often feels like we’ve got two or three.
Our crosses are not of equal size or weight. They are unique to us, shaped by the life only we have lived. And only we, truly, know what our own life’s “hammer and nails” feel like.
But what does Jesus mean by “take up”?
We can “take up” gardening. We can “take up” meditation. And we can “take up” crossword puzzles.
But can we truly also “take up” our cross?
The cross words of Jesus tell that we can and he doesn’t tell us to do so 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 world, and all of us, need that so desperately today.

The Fool Calls Jesus A ‘Pathetic Patsy’

By Ken Woodley

Just when I thought—for the 500th time—that The Fool couldn’t sink any lower, I learn that he called Jesus a “pathetic patsy” because our Good Shepherd was captured and then died on the cross for us.
How did this guy ever get such a large audience?
There he goes, wheeling through Galilee on a chariot he calls “Fool Force One” and bragging about how his wisdom exceeds that of Solomon, Socrates and Plato.
I weep for our people and this land we love.
One day I heard Jesus talking by the sea. He was teaching about love and light. Blessed are the poor in spirit, he told us, and those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart and the peacemakers.
Everything that Jesus was.
Everything The Fool is not.
Yet, The Fool called Jesus a “pathetic patsy.”
A big chariot, your Foolishness, does not equal greatness.
Jesus exemplified greatness every day of his life because every day he gave his life to us and for us. Jesus could have been anything he wanted to be. Many people wanted him to be king, in fact. But Jesus wanted only to be our Good Shepherd, to give his life to protect us, his sheep.
Greater love has no person than this, that they lay down their life for their friends.
That’s what Jesus said.
That’s what Jesus did.
He sacrificed himself for us.
The Fool never would.
Jesus was a soldier in a war of love against hate.
He gave his life so that love would prevail.
I am certain that love shall one day do so.
And I pray every day that there is never another Fool ever again anywhere in this world with such an audience and power.
Oh—and by now I shouldn’t be surprised—there is one last thing:
The Fool has been calling the gospel truth of the resurrection “phony good news.”
Don’t believe him.
I saw Jesus on the road to Emmaus.
He touched my soul.
The Fool never could.



The Desperate Non-Conformity Of Love

By Ken Woodley

“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 even important today than it was 2,000 years ago.
Seriously, checking out the daily news headlines and soundbites as August turned into September of 2020, who would want to be conformed to this world?
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. Especially hating everyone who thinks differently, looks different, dreams differently, loves differently.
We see that diabolical social disorder all around us.
So much of the world wants us to bring our guns and pull the triggers.
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—right up to this very day—is littered with dictators and would-be dictators who find it so easy to manipulate large portions of a nation’s population, to conform them into lock-step thoughts and actions, and always to benefit their own ego-driven self-interest.
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 by dividing us to each other.
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.
Get your knee off someone’s neck.
Don’t bring your guns.
Don’t pull your triggers.
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.


Bullets In The Backs Of Us All

By Ken Woodley

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, if your daughter cannot breathe because someone is kneeling on her neck, what is that to me? Bullets in the back? Sorry, man. You’re in the wrong tribe.
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.
Just like George Floyd and Jacob Blake. Like you and me, with them.
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.”
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.
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.
Ultimately, if that woman and her child are dogs, then we are, too.
The knee is on your neck and mine. The bullets are in the backs of us all.




An Answer In The Wind

By Ken Woodley

Oh, how often have I seen the wind.
Just like Peter.
Especially during this pandemic. Sometimes it feels like my anxieties have anxieties.
Jesus, remember, 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, with or without COVID-19.
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, I feel the spirit of Jesus 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.

When I Fell In Love With God


By Ken Woodley

“Jesus put before the crowds another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’”


Neither of us saw it coming.

It just happened.

A heart-on collision.

There were so many broken pieces

that I couldn’t tell where mine ended

and yours began.

Your headlight was in my backseat.

My steering wheel spun on your left axle.

We put ourselves back together again the best we could

but I’m not sure we did it flawlessly

you said with my voice

as your heart beat inside me

that day in Galilee

by the sea,

or the foothills of Virginia,

and the word love so far beyond the tip

of our tongue

that it spoke in the air we breathed,

sending us out into the world together

to see what might happen next.

Himalayan Morning

By Ken Woodley

“Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea”

—Matthew 13:1


My desert feelings can’t remember the flat line of their own horizons

and my valleys of shadow recall nothing

the darkness ever said to them.

I awake to an inexplicable altitude

and the music of the last voice I heard

before I woke up

echoing off vertical feelings that cover me

like the sunshine after it has lifted mist.

“Going up?”

The answer surrounds me, like the smell of coffee.

I yawn and stretch into the passing shapes of clouds

that seem to know just where they are going.

My peaks are everywhere.

At the end of a day’s climb

I stand upon the ridge of all that I have ever known.

The air is thin and bright.

I breathe as deeply as I can,

only to exhale in surprise.

A harmony beyond the sky has filled the deepest,

the everest part of me

and no matter where I look

I know the melody will go on forever

if only this afternoon

I can remember to memorize the tune God has just sung to me

and bring the mountaintop home.

Again last night I was certain that I never could

but tomorrow—once more—I believe I shall

remember one more note at least and this:

No matter what happens next

every note of the melody remembers every note of me,

even those that I have never heard,

the ones I must believe in enough to discover for myself

and then sing to my deserts and my valleys.

The Second Shadow

By Ken Woodley

The weight is so heavy.
Too burdensome.
I don’t see how I can go any further.
No way.
It has been so hard for so long.
Years and years, it seems, so another single step feels impossible.
The valley of this shadow seems to stretch forever and the slopes that surround me look and feel too steep.
Each time I try to climb up and out of this, I slip and slide and stumble and fall. I am cut and bleeding and still this burden refuses to fall from my shoulders, fall away from my heart, or from my soul. Its weeds are everywhere and there are days when I cannot see my flowers. Can’t even smell them.
Today is one of those days.
The weeds of this burden blind me to even a single petal of one solitary flower.
And all around me are people on the same journey.
Carrying their own burdens that are too burdensome.
They don’t see how they can go any further.
No way.
It has been so hard for them, too, for so long.
Years and years, it seems, even if it has been a few days, weeks or months, so another step feels impossible to them.
The valley of the shadow surrounding them seems to stretch forever and the slopes surrounding them look and feel too steep.
Weeds surround them. Their flowers are nowhere to be seen. They can’t even smell them.
All of us have stumbled and fallen and the weeds seem certain to take every one of our blossoms away.
But, on our bruised and bleeding knees we pray.
Unable to gaze skyward any longer, we look down and see our bent and humbled shadow in prayer.
Prayer is all we have left, hopeless words searching for hope.
And that—yes, that—is when we see the second shadow.
A second shadow beside us.
Beside every one of us.
The shadow of someone carrying a yoke across his shoulders.
This shadow of the man and his yoke look just like the shadow of a cross, a crucified man somehow journeying right by our side.
Has he been there all along?
Did we mistake our burden for his?
Or his burden for ours?
None of that matters, we realize, as the flowers of this moment bloom, the sudden petals painting even the weeds into some kind of rainbow pasture where we rest and feel our burdens lifted. Our heads are anointed with oil.
In a moment, we shall all journey on.
Our burden won’t be gone but it will feel lighter because we do not carry it alone.
Jesus knows all about crosses.
That is why he can help us carry our own.

Casting Our Nets


By Ken Woodley


I throw myself into the water,

just where Jesus tells me to,

his voice reaching out through the darkness from the shore

where small flames begin to flicker into fire,

and I swim around the fishing boat on my back

looking up at all of the sudden stars

that twinkle like happy eyes

a very long way away

that still seem right beside me

and I open my own eyes wider

to catch all of their light

and twinkle back,

hoping they will feel that I am

right beside them, too.

And this was my catch:

light,

not fish,

so much light

that my net could not contain it.

All of the light went shining off in every direction

toward everyone else fishing in the darkness

for a reason to keep sailing upon this often stormy sea.

Just as their light has often found me

and led me on

to this very moment

where I understand that light

is not meant to be caught, scaled and sold in the marketplace.

This passage through the darkness is meant for sharing.

Meant for a holy and loving communion with others,

Jesus explains when I stand

warming my water-dripping shivers by his fire

on the shore,

his eyes twinkling like two happy stars

right beside me

as he gives me a roasted fish to eat for breakfast

and a loaf of bread that he has broken for me

and for you

as we embrace in this shimmering pool of light.

And So We Sing

By Ken Woodley

And so I sing

a broken song

of fragment notes

and shattered melody

splintered on a wooden cross

and smashed

beyond repair.

And yet I sing

this broken song

because this broken song

sings the broken song of me,

my broken song of shattered notes

and fragment melody,

splintered on a wooden cross,

smashed beyond repair,

about a sun that’s rising

into a broken day

from the fragment dreams

of a shattered night

that had no hope of dawn

because there were too many

hammers

and too many

nails.

Until

there were none at all

and the broken sun

kept rising

into my broken song

and yours

and we shone

through every fragment note

and shine through all

the shattered melodies

no longer splintered

on a wooden cross,

nor smashed beyond repair.

Now even the broken darkness sings

the persistent song

of a rising sun

that warms our wondrous scars

and paints them on the sky.