Checkers and the Gospel
June 20, 2004
If you know the rules for the game of checkers, they will help you follow Jesus’ command in today’s gospel. The command is clear. We are to take up our cross daily and follow him. If we are to be a disciple of Christ, we must follow in his footsteps. Moreover, as Luke makes explicit in today’s gospel, we must follow daily. But how do we do that? In what does following Jesus consist? What kind of decisions do we need to make? What kind of patterns do we need to establish so that on a daily basis we can follow the master? Here is where checkers can help.
A group of young Jewish seminary students were supposed to be studying the Torah, God’s law. But instead they were playing checkers. The rabbi came into the room unexpectedly. The embarrassed boys put the game away and went back to their books. The rabbi, however, saw an opportunity for a lesson. “Students,” he said, “there is no part of God’s creation that cannot reveal to us the ways of righteousness. There is nothing which God has created that cannot point to us how we are to follow God’s ways. So it is with the three rules of checkers. The first rule is that you cannot make two moves at once. The second rule is that you must always move forward not backward. The third rule is that once you reach the last row, you can move in whatever direction you wish.” With that the rabbi left the room. Now the students were at first confused over their master’s words. Soon, however, they realized that he had taught that if they were to follow God’s will, they should live each day with focus, forgiveness, and compassion.
We who are called to be disciples of Jesus, would do well to imitate those same three qualities in our desire to follow him. We should try to live each day with focus. Instead of making many moves in many directions, we should determine which one move is most important and make it. There are so many opportunities in life, so many possibilities, so many desires, so many dreams. The secret to happiness is to discover which of these many possibilities is the most important, and then each day take a step towards it. Our relationships, our family, our integrity are too important to become lost in a confusion of conflicting directions. We must determine one move, the most important one, and then implement it. Our lives must have focus if we are to follow Christ.
We must also practice forgiveness. None of us are perfect. We all fail in many ways. Yet the challenge of life is to move forward. The only way to move forward is to regularly forgive ourselves and forgive others, to let go of the mistakes so that we can move on. We are called to move forward rather than look backwards over what might have been. Guilt and regret do not contribute to a healthy life. They only hold us back. It is only by regular forgiveness that we can move forward and thereby follow Christ.
Finally, those who wish to follow Christ must be people of compassion. We must realize that life is not only about ourselves and our own needs. Disciples of Jesus identify with the feeling of others and extend themselves to the needs of others. It is only when we reach the last row and place the needs of others before our own that we will find satisfaction. To follow Christ we must be men and women of compassion, willing to be comfortable in the last row. Finding that last row will give us the ultimate freedom to move however we wish in the service of others.
Make one move at a time. Always move forward. Find the freedom that comes from taking the last row. These three rules of checkers reveal a pattern by which we can follow God’s ways, a guide by which we can carry our cross after Jesus. Now to be sure, there are other qualities of discipleship and other traits that we should instill in our lives, but these three qualities are an essential starting point. If we could live each day with focus, with forgiveness, and with compassion, not only would we be following the master, we would be winning the game, saving our soul, and attaining true happiness both here and in life hereafter.
The Cross and Joy
June 19, 2016
Here we go again! “Take up your cross and follow me.” We know that this is a central command of Jesus. It occurs several times in the scriptures. But what a bitter and discouraging command it seems. Is following Jesus about suffering? Is the Christian life about carrying burdens? If this is the case, it is no wonder that some people see religious faith as negative and hurtful. If the gospel is good news, it must be about more than pain. Following the Christian life must flow from something that is positive. So if we are to carry our cross, how can we find joy?
There are two ways that joy is connected to the cross. There is a joy that comes after the cross, and there is a joy that comes while carrying it. The joy that comes after the cross is the one with which we are more familiar. That joy is a promise. If we faithfully carry the evils in our life that we cannot avoid, God will be faithful to us and in time bring us to life and joy. The model for this kind of joy is Jesus’ own life. First there was Good Friday and then Easter Sunday. First there was the Passion and then the Resurrection. This joy is important because there are times in our life where the evil we face is senseless and devastating. When we lose a son or daughter in a traffic accident, when we are diagnosed with a serious illness, when there is a rupture in our family that neither our patience nor our efforts can heal, we must take up the cross in darkness and carry it with hope. We hope that a time will come in this life or the next when God will bring us joy.
But there is another kind of joy that is connected to the cross. This is not a joy that comes after the cross, but one that happens as we carry it. This joy flows from the gifts we have received. All of us are gifted, blessed with certain talents and abilities. We are proud of our talents. They bring us joy. But at the same time they often bring us pain.
We might be a person of compassion. We feel with others. Our compassion is a real gift to others but it is also a cross to us. When others feel pain, we feel pain. When others suffer, our hearts are broken. There may even be times where we wish that we were less connected, more independent. But that is not who we are. We feel with others. It is a joy. It is also a cross. We might be good at our job. We can organize, communicate, and get things done. The work that we do is valuable and a blessing to others. But the work we do can, at the same time, give us less time for the people we love. The job that we achieve can limit the time that we have with our family and friends. We are proud of our work. It brings us joy. But it is also a cross.
There is then a cross that flows from our gifts, a cross that we must carry even as we receive joy from who we are and what we can accomplish. Jesus speaks of that cross in today’s gospel when he tells us to take up our cross daily and follow him. He asks us on a daily basis to carry the cross that comes with our gifts, even as they bring us joy.
There are then two kinds of crosses: The cross that we carry in the night, waiting for the joy that is to come, and the cross that we carry because every gift is both a joy and a burden. Jesus tells us today to take up our cross. We should follow him. But we should always see the joy that is part of the cross. It may be a joy that will someday come because of God’s love. It may be a joy we embrace from the gifts that we have received, even though at times we must carry them as a burden.