Why God calls us to take up our cross

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As I sat back down in the pew last Wednesday, my forehead marked with a cross of ash, I noticed the little girl, two or three years old, in the front pew, her forehead beneath her fine blond hair also marked with the sign of the cross. Her mother, too, many months pregnant, bore the sign of the cross. In the pew in front of me sat an older man, and a woman in her late nineties, also marked. We are all together here, all level—men and women, infants and elderly, all dust, and all loved.

This year was the first time I remember someone commenting not only on the ash with which we are marked, but on the oil in which the ash is mixed. We are not only dust, but honored and anointed, dust shaped in the image of God and crowned with the honor of living that glorious image in the world.

A few days later, I sit again, this time with my legs stretched out on a couch in the basement office of the home where I’ve been a guest these past few days. The gas fireplace is warm behind me. I look out on a maple tree with every branch and twig weighted with snow. It’s the end of my three day retreat. It has been just what I needed, but not what I planned.

I haven’t been able to control the retreat at all. I couldn’t spend as many hours alone with God as I usually do when I come here. I haven’t spent as many hours soaking in Scripture as I had planned. I haven’t lingered over the reading from my soulcare group meeting, nor discerned God’s specific invitation for me during this Lenten period. But I have come to God as I was and I have been welcomed and rested in the ways that I needed. There has been much needed sleep, and walks in fresh snow, and the restful beauty of trees and water and mountains. There was even the gift of a power outage which encouraged an extra hour or two in bed since it was too cold and dark to get up at my usual hour. There was a roast beef dinner, and fresh scones, and hot soup, and fruit salad with papaya, and a perfect balance of time alone with God and time with people who know how to create safe and restful space. I have received and savored the many gifts God gave and the ways he wanted to meet me this time, and have had the lovely experience of being reminded yet again that my plans are often not best, and of surrendering to God’s gentle love which remembers that I am dust and cares for me physically as well as spiritually. I am leaving here feeling loved and much more rested than when I came.

Maybe, after all, God has led me into his Lenten invitation. Maybe I just didn’t recognize it at first because I was looking for a specific discipline and he was inviting me into something bigger and broader and, for me this year at least, more full of love and life.

There’s nothing wrong with giving up chocolate or taking on extra reading if it helps open me to God. Concrete disciplines can be helpful in training my body and soul to follow. But they can also become a way of avoiding surrender and asserting my own control. And in the end, isn’t the purpose of Lent a growing attentiveness to God and surrender to His way of doing things rather than an insistence on my own? Isn’t it about releasing my own plans and attempts to control life and opening a little further to God and his love?

There are always surprises along the way, and the surprise for me this time (though I’ve experienced it so many times before) is that God is immeasurably more kind and gentle with me than I am with myself, and he knows much better than I what I need, and delights to give it. He’s much more interested in love than in sacrifice, and he knows I can only love Him and others  as I settle deeply into his tender love for me. He calls me to take up my cross, to let my own self-determination die, not because he wants me to suffer (though for us self-centered people suffering seems an inevitable part of letting go) but because he wants me to live free in his love and in the abundant life that he offers, and he knows that no matter how hard I try, I can’t make that happen through my own disciplined attempts to control life.

“I’m after love that lasts, not more religion.

I want you to know God, not go to more prayer meetings.”

(Hosea 6:6, The Message)

Looking down to look up: the gift of Lent

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Sometimes you can only look down. But even that can help you see up.

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On Wednesday, someone will smile into my eyes as they touch the cross-shaped ash onto my forehead, one creature handing another the truth that sets free. “From dust you have come; to dust you will return. Live in grace.”

I grew up in a tradition that didn’t practice Lent. We had other ways to remember Jesus’ death, week by week. But somewhere along my journey, I discovered that the discipline of Lent extends to me the great grace of being a creature. His creature.

During this forty day journey, we don’t look down to stay there, floundering in the quick-sand of our clay beginnings with all their heavy frailty. We look down to look up, notice our weakness to love His strength, see our sinfulness to revel in His forgiveness. We let ourselves feel our dustiness to turn and live more deeply in grace.

This year, Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine’s Day. I love that. It points me once again to the truth that the crowning reality of life is love. Love, not my frailty or failure, has the last word. And Lent’s purpose is to help us pause, to provide space to notice our frailty and failure so that we can then, with more dependence and delight, look up and see and savor and settle more deeply into that life-giving love.

It’s not painless to become aware of our creatureliness. When we slow enough to pay attention, most of us know the ache of emptiness in one way or another: empty arms, deep places where longing carves great caverns, bodies emptied once more of strength. We wrestle with our inability to rest, feel failure at returning again to the same struggles. But right in this place there is gift, for we can discover once more that weakness is not sin. Nor is the need to be held and loved and strengthened again and again. On the contrary, dissatisfaction with being a dependent creature lies at the root of all sin. And, where we do sin, there is grace great enough to swallow that sin, trading it for his all-sufficient love and righteousness.

And so I turn back, free to be small, and ask my Creator to return to me the joy of being His creature. (It’s a big weight off not to try to be God!)

Isaiah helps, offering many grace-gifts to us creatures. (Just have a look at chapter 40, or 41, or 42.) He frames the first seven verses of chapter 43 with the twice-spoken reminder that we are created, formed, made. The verses between offer joy-gifts of living as creatures of our loving Creator:

  • We forever belong  (“You are mine.” v. 1)
  • We are known (“I have called you by name.” v.1)
  • We are accompanied (“I will be with you.” v. 2)
  • We are protected by His presence  (We don’t get to skip the troubles; we’re sheltered in them.  v.2)
  • We are treasured (“since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you. . .”  v.4)
  • We are being made whole, all the parts gathered together, healed and restored in loving relationship with Him (v. 5-6)

It’s here, small and safely held, willing to be fully human rather than trying to be our own God, that we’re finally able to offer our bodies—these fragile, treasured, vulnerable bits of clay—back to the One who asks us to rest in His hands.

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My Creator, at the start of this day—Your loving gift—I offer my body to you again. All its strength, and all its weakness.

May I not draw back from its weakness but allow the full force of its weight to press me into your hand.

May I not withdraw from its strength but let each breath, each word, each step become a gift of love to You.

Teach me how to live the rest of surrender to being held while I pray, play, and do the work given me.

Help me learn that the way to take up my cross and follow is to let myself be taken up and carried.

An edited repost from the archives.

Related posts:

The real call in Ash Wednesday

The God who blesses

This morning, just this truth, written over and over into the story right from the first few lines: God is a God who blesses. He is good and he intends good to his creatures.

“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion . . .“See, I have given you . . . everything . . .

So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. . .

When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them “Humankind” when they were created. . .

God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “. . . I give you everything. . . . I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you. . .”

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 1:27-29; 2:3; 9:1,3,9: 12:1-3 NRSV)

We only glimpse a tiny, unfinished corner of the grand work of art that the Creator is shaping. But no matter how messy or dark or unfinished that corner may seem, this truth remains: God is a blessing God, and he can be trusted.

“For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” (Psalm 100:5)

“Surely goodness and mercy shall [pursue with the intent of overtaking] me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long. (Psalm 23:6)

So, friends, we can enter this day, this week, confident that, whatever we may see or not see at the moment, our good and kind Father, fully intent on blessing us, is shaping our days.

‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)

“What then shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32)

 

What to do in the tough times

One of the beautiful gifts of being part of Christ’s body bound together over time and space is that we don’t always need to find the right words ourselves for a particular moment or situation. Sometimes the body of Christ is his hands and feet to us, and sometimes God’s words come through the mouths of others too.

These last couple of months as I’ve been sorting and packing and trying to listen for my new address, a printed copy of Octavius Winslow’s poem has been moved back and forth from my bedside table to my kitchen table, slowly settling more deeply into my heart. I heard it first when a friend gave me the poem as I was returning for my final stint in Afghanistan, exhausted and overwhelmed, and the words remain a treasure to me still.

There are, of course, many reasons for the burdens we carry. We live in a fallen world and much happens directly or indirectly because of our own sinful choosing and the fallenness of the world around us. But God is a guard around us, and nothing can touch us without his permission (Job 1:12, 2:6; 1 Cor 10:13). In that sense at least, God weighs and shapes the burdens that he allows us to carry. And while not everything that happens to us, or that we choose, is God’s desire for us, what he does always desire is that those burdens which we carry press us deeper into his love as we learn to lean in and let him carry them with us and for us.

Child of My love, lean hard

And let Me feel the pressure of thy care;

I know thy burden, child, I shaped it;

Poised it in Mine own hand, made no proportion

In its weight to thine unaided strength;

For even as I laid it on, I said,

I shall be near, and while [s]he leans on Me,

This burden shall be Mine, not his [hers];

So shall I keep My child within the circling arms

Of My own love. Here lay it down, nor fear

To impose it on a shoulder which upholds

The government of worlds. Yet closer come;

Thou art not near enough; I would embrace thy care

So I might feel My child reposing on My breast.

Thou lovest Me? I knew it. Doubt not then;

But, loving Me, lean hard.

(Octavius Winslow, 1808 – 1878)

 

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Jesus’ 21st century hands

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I walk past the billboard declaring, “Mental health affects everyone. On January 31st, let’s talk about it.” When my brain finally makes the connection, I find it mildly ironic that January 31st is the day my lease ends, one factor in the saga of the past few months that has tipped me into a depression for which I’m having to take antidepressant medication for the first time in my life.

The timing has not been convenient. (Is a disruption like that ever convenient?) Almost everything about moving requires making a series of decisions: choosing where to move, what to pack and what to sell or give away, trying to sort out what I’ll need for the next three months and what can be tucked away in the boxes that aren’t to be opened until after I almost certainly need to move again in three months’ time. (To where? That will be another matter for discernment and decision.) All these decisions are a problem for someone in the midst of a depression where even the simplest daily decisions seem almost impossible.

I’ve needed my friends: one to look at possible apartments with me, another to help me see how to fit my few remaining pieces of furniture into my temporary new room to make a little corner that can feel like home, and to pack some things and suggest a few concrete next steps for me to take. One to bring a meal and pray and sit with me for a few hours when I could no longer bear to be alone with my thoughts. A friend from my spiritual director course will help move furniture and boxes on moving day, and another from Regent days will help clean. Most have done several of those things and I have been so touched by their sacrificial love. I want to love like that.

I still find it hard to need help.

I find it harder to need help for mental health limitations than for physical health ones. (Why is that, I wonder?)

I’ve thought my resistance to needing help is because I care about the needs of others and don’t want to bother them with mine. I suspect the deeper reason is pride, an extension of the lie in the garden that it’s possible to be like God, limitless and without needs.

Once again I’m learning what I’ve experienced so many times before: it’s only in the places of weakness and vulnerability and opening ourselves to receive that we learn how loved we are. Grace is not a concept; it’s a person and an action, embodied once in first century Palestine and continually enfleshed as His body lives on in 21st century Vancouver and around the world. I receive grace not just in letting Jesus lift my sins, not just in baptism and bread and wine, but in boxes packed and sinks scrubbed and hands laid on my shoulders to pray in moments when presence and touch matters more than words. As often as not, it’s through Jesus’ 21st century hands that I experience God’s unfailing kindness.

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Two days before I was diagnosed and started on meds, a friend took me for the first time to a new soul care group. New groups are often a struggle for me, but this group of six people felt like a gift from the moment they opened the door and welcomed me into an evening of colour in a long stretch of darkness. We ate delicious tortilla soup and kale salad and walnut bread, and by the time we lingered together over prayer and communion, the couplet in the prayer we were praying had settled deep in me:

Let me not run from the love that you offer,

But hold me safe from the forces of evil.

Someone read it again, aloud, this time in plural: “Let us not run from the love that you offer, but hold us safe. . .”

Safely held. Those two words have lingered with me through the almost two weeks since that meeting, through the diagnosis and the new meds and the receiving of help and the still not knowing which address I’ll be travelling from when I meet with that group three or four months down the road. Part of our safely held is Jesus’ 21st century body, and being in this together. Safely held in the hands that hold the universe, yes, and, when I don’t run, in each set of hands through which our present and active God chooses to offer himself to me, packing, scrubbing, praying, hugging, and feeding me with his unfailing kindness as he also, in his kindness, continues to give me small ways to pass his love along to others.

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