We have a sister and good friend who is currently living with us. I’ll call her Beth, which is not her real name. Sexually and physically assaulted and abused as a little girl, Beth was unprotected by an alcoholic mother with serious mental health issues who forced her to get married at the age of 15. She was not pregnant – mom just wanted her out of the house. Over the next few years, she had two little girls and a husband whose chief fault was continuous pot-smoking.
Just a teenager who was genetically predisposed and socially conditioned to cover depression and pain with alcohol, Beth set to partying and inevitably got a DUI, which her mother then used as leverage to take her children from her with the help and coöperation of child protective services. Mother then used the courts and her own coercive abilities to force Beth to travel far out-of-state to a rehabilitation facility. While she was there, mom used the courts to gain full custody of the girls as well as prohibitions against Beth visiting them.
Emotionally crushed, she stayed half way across the country, and, plagued by lack of esteem, panic attacks, depression, and physical ailments, looking for solace, hoping for genuine familial connection, fell in with one abusive codependent enabling man after another. She was close to death when my wife Kathy came into her life – sent, we believe, by Abba Father.
Beth is now clean and sober and has committed her life to Christ. She is physically disabled and struggles with depression and panic. Kathy takes her to medical appointments multiple times each week. Caring physicians and proper medication are helping, but the depth of her inner pain is beyond the help of medical science.
Today is Mother’s Day, and she sits weeping, longing to connect with her daughters whom she never meant to leave. We have contacted them both. They refuse to have anything to do with her and will not communicate in return. It seems that their grandmother (who now resides in a psychiatric facility) did an excellent job of brainwashing them into believing that Beth did not want them.
Abba, who art a friend to the friendless, a mother to the motherless, and a father to the fatherless, wrap your strong, loving, eternal arms of grace around all the Beths out there for whom Mother’s Day brings sorrow and pain, rather than joy and thanksgiving. Amen.
A nesting pair of majestic, crow-sized Pileated woodpeckers, with their fire-red blazing tufts, are in our backyard and at the suet feeders on our deck daily. I have never seen them so close. Together with the Eastern bluebirds, which are successfully raising their first of the summer batch of fledglings in our side yard, they make for an extraordinary spring. An abundance of flowers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Goldfinch, song and Carolina sparrows, cardinals, house, winter, and Carolina wrens, indigo buntings and warblers of various sorts, combine with warm breezes to give us a hint of the glory that awaits us for all eternity when we, having been baptized with song, will forever free-form dance in the tenacious tender affectionate embrace of Abba’s Love.
Cinco de Mayo
Jesus said: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (Luke 9:22-25 NRSV)
“We all have our cross to bear.” Religious people often rephrase the proverb as: “God gives everyone a cross to bear.” I hear that, or something similar, regularly, and I know what the speaker means. She is invariably referring to the struggles of being human – aches, pains, sickness, financial worries, internal battles with anxiety, depression or addiction, relationship issues, vocational struggles, and the like.
But, when Jesus said to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him, he was not referring to the struggles to common broken humans living in a broken world. No non-masochistic sane person chooses rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s dementia, poverty, or clinical depression. Nor does a loving, omnibenevolent, Abba Father inflict people with cancer, AIDS, or agoraphobia.
The cross to which Jesus was referring is clearly something we choose voluntarily to take up. God doesn’t make crosses. People make crosses. Jesus’ literal cross was a Roman gibbet, fashioned by humans for the purpose of extraordinarily humiliating, agonizing torture. God didn’t make that cross – the Romans did. From a theological perspective, I helped make it because Jesus died for me.
The cross we are called to bear, like the one Jesus bore, is inflicted by self or others. It takes many forms – persecution, martyrdom, rejection, backlash, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia and injustice are inflicted by others; blaming yourself for being abused, embracing the lie that you are worthless, and pursuing the emptiness of consumerism are examples of self-inflicted crosses.
Too often, those who say, “Everyone has a cross to bear,” imply that we are simply to put up with it as best we can. Our daily crosses are seen as inevitable sufferings about which we can do little other than endure. But endurance in love leads to transformation.
Jesus endured the cross, even though he despised the shame, by embracing the joy that was set before him. That joy was not simply returning to the bliss of heaven; it was the joy of welcoming us, broken humans, into fellowship with the living God. His endurance of the crucifixion brought salvation, hope, shalom.
We are to endure our crosses as he did – with agapé love. We respond to the hatred, persecution and injustice of enemies with loving nonviolence. We face our own fears, inadequacies, and internal lies, by loving ourselves as God loves us.
By responding to evil with love, we defeat it. We advance the Kingdom of God and push back the kingdom of evil.
Sin, and the evil it causes, is destined to self-destruct because it is contrary to and an assault on the natural order God created. In Ezekiel 28:1-19 (the story of the king of Tyre and the fall of Lucifer/the satan), the destructive fire comes from within, like the decay caused by eremacausis. We see it exemplified on the cross. Evil caused the crucifixion of our Lord, and in so doing destroyed itself. Evil exhausted all its energy on Jesus on the cross, spent itself out. What the satan thought was his ultimate victory, turned out to be his total defeat.
When we take up our crosses, we participate in God’s work.
The cross we are called to bear is first of all the willingness to die for Christ. It is the extreme commitment of love – the irrational, other-centered, self-sacrificial state of mind that would literally take a bullet for the loved one.
Many times after my son Elliott committed suicide, I cried with King David, “My son, my son, would that I had died instead of you.” And, I meant it. If I could have died in his stead, I would have. I love my kids intensely. I would, if I could, take any suffering or sorrow they experience into myself.
When I gaze into the beatific, grace-saturated, eyes of Christ, my love for him swells an order of magnitude beyond even the love for child.
“Looking unto Jesus…” “We all behold him with open face…”
When I get a taste of grace, when I look into the eyes of Jesus, when I hear his voice, I am overwhelmed, immersed, inundated with love for God. Dying for him would be a joy.
But, taking up our crosses is more than a willingness to die for Christ. It is a commitment to follow him. It is a determination to, with the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, respond to evil with goodness, turn the other cheek, go the second mile, become the servant of all, bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, love our enemies – in short, to be like Christ, to imitate him, to bear his image to the world.