Practicing the Cross
September 5, 2004
“Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” These are the words of Jesus and we are called to obey them. But, what is most difficult in Jesus’ command is not simply carrying our cross, but remaining open to life as we do so. The greatest challenge for a disciple is not picking up the cross, but carrying it and still being a joyful and positive person.
We do not have a choice whether we are going to carry our crosses or not. They just come to us. We turn a corner in our life and suddenly we realize, “I’m going to have to deal with sickness, or divorce, or rejection, or unemployment.” All of us would rather avoid these troubles, but they come to us and we have no choice but to take them up and carry them. But, what we can choose is how we carry them. We can choose to let our crosses absorb all of our energy and joy, or carry them and at the same time remain open to life.
Betty was a remarkable woman that I came to know while serving in a previous parish. She was in her forties with two boys in grade school and a loving husband. Betty had the worst arthritis of any person I had ever seen. Her hands were like gnarled fists. She could, only with the greatest difficulty, hold anything. The arthritis certainly caused her considerable pain, but she never complained. She remained involved in our parish life and whenever she would come to a parish meeting she always greeted everyone with a broad and sincere smile.
One day I questioned her about her positive attitude. “Betty,” I said, “how can you be so happy with your arthritis?” She smiled at me and she said, “It’s the only way I can be happy. I don’t have the choice of being happy without my arthritis. The doctors tell me it is here to stay. Therefore, my only choice is to be happy with the arthritis or to be depressed with the arthritis. Several years ago, I decided to try for happiness.”
“It can’t be easy,” I said. “No, it’s not easy at all,” she replied. “But I try to see it as a kind of discipline, as a kind of practice.” “Discipline? Practice? What do you mean?” “Well, I look at it this way, Father,” she said, “This arthritis causes me pain, but it is not fatal. God willing, I still have many years to live. And there is a lot of good in my life. I have a loving husband. I have great children, good friends, satisfying hobbies, a parish that I care for. So, I decided to practice the discipline of focusing on what is good in my life rather than what is wrong.
“Every morning that I get up, the first thing that I feel is the pain in my hands. It cries out to me for all of my attention, all of my energy. I try to establish the discipline of refusing to feed it. Instead of thinking of my pain, I try to get up from my bed and go to the window and appreciate the sunshine in my back yard. As I wake up my boys, I choose to tell them that I love them and to appreciate how beautiful they are. As I look forward to my day, I try to anticipate the enjoyable moments that are to come. I try to look forward to a lunch with a friend or a walk in the park. I try to develop the discipline of asking myself ‘Who needs me today?’ and then to call a friend who is struggling or to consciously speak a kind word to my husband as he comes home from a difficult day.
“What I find is that when I develop this discipline, when I choose to appreciate, to listen, to give, I put goodness in the center of my life. And that goodness gives me joy, even with the pain that is still in my hands.”
Betty continued, “this discipline is wonderful practice, because I know that there are greater burdens to come. I know that one day I am going to grieve the loss of someone I love deeply or have to face a sickness that will lead to my own death. When those greater burdens come, I believe that I will be able to deal with them better because I have practiced being joyful with my arthritis.”
Betty remains for me one of the greatest examples of what it means to take up your cross and follow after Jesus. We can follow her example. We can use the troubles of today to practice for the bigger troubles that are likely to come. There is nothing wrong with taking our present frustrations, disappointments, and burdens and use them to build the discipline of choosing life. There is an advantage in using those disappointments to develop the skill of focusing in on what is good. This is how we can carry our cross without letting it crush us. This is how we can bear our pain and at the same time embrace the joy of living.
Our Weakness; God’s Strength
September 9, 2007
Holiness is not being perfect. Holiness is claiming our weakness in the presence of God’s strength. All too frequently you and I place ourselves in the center of the gospel. We imagine that our successes and our failures determine what our relationship with God will be. Therefore, on a day when we are feeling particularly generous or patient or just, we feel good; we feel holy. We feel that because of our successful our efforts our relationship with God works.
Today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom explodes such an understanding. The Book of Wisdom says, “Who can discern what God wills? The reasoning of mortals is worthless. Our designs will often fail.” The Book of Wisdom is saying that we are not at the center of the gospel, God is. It is not our actions, but God’s action that make our relationship with God possible. We have a relationship to God because God has freely chosen us, chosen us as sons and daughters. God’s free choice took place prior to any of our successes and despite all of our failings. Are we called to do good and avoid evil? Yes we are. Are we called to work for justice and to love others with patience? Absolutely. But it is not these efforts on our part which establish our relationship with God. God does that by God’s free choice to make us sons and daughters. Therefore, we can be disciples not only when we are successful, but even when we fail. We can be holy not only when we feel God’s presence, but even in those times when we feel that God has abandoned us.
Recently the private diaries of Mother Teresa of Calcutta were made public. To the surprise of almost everyone who has read them, these diaries make clear that this woman, who many think was the greatest saint of the twentieth century, who many point to as the clearest example of what it means to be a follower of Christ, struggled with her faith on a daily basis. At times, her doubts about faith were so severe that she even questioned the existence of God. She revealed to a priest confidant, “Inside my soul there is only darkness. I feel myself totally cut off from God’s love.” Now this is not the robust faith that we imagine would be present in the heart of a saint. But Mother Teresa was a saint. She continued to do her work with the poor even though she doubted so profoundly and so regularly. She was a saint because Mother Teresa knew that it was not her faith or lack of faith that determined her relationship with Christ. She was willing to claim her weakness in the presence of God’s strength.
Our journey of faith is not some self-achievement effort. It does not proceed because of our successes in living the Christian life. Even though we are always called to strive towards the good, when we fail to reach that good, it does not exclude us from God’s Kingdom. Is it a blessing if we have a strong marriage and our family is secure in love for one another? Absolutely. But even when we have to face the pain of divorce and people who we love reject us, even when our family fails, we can still be holy people. Are we being followers of Christ when we work for justice, when we love one another, when we forgive with all of our heart? Of course we are. But even at those times when we give in to selfishness, when we act out of prejudice, when we find we are unable to love, God is still with us, God has not forgotten us. Is it a joy when we can pray easily, when it’s easy to hope about the future? Of course it is. But even in those times when our prayers are empty, when our hope evaporates, and when we feel that God has abandoned us, even in those times, Christ still walks with us.
Our relationship with God does not depend on how successful we can be. It depends only on God’s love, and God has chosen us. God does not make mistakes. If Mother Teresa can be a modern saint even though she struggled regularly with doubt and darkness, then there is more than enough room for our doubt and failures and shortcomings. Holiness is not being perfect. Holiness is claiming our weakness in the presence of God’s strength.
The Freedom to Let Go
September 8, 2013
Jesus places some extreme demands on us in today’s gospel. Does he really expect us to hate our father and mother? Does he expect us to renounce all of our possessions? How can we live without healthy human relationships? How can we survive without a house for shelter, a car for travel, and some money in the bank to deal with unexpected crises? Why is Jesus so insistent that we renounce our relationships and our possessions?
Perhaps a story might help. A man was travelling through a desert, and he ran out of water. He realized in short order that unless he could find some, he would die. In the middle of nowhere he came across a shed. When he entered it, he found a jug of water, a pump, and a note. The note said, “Take the jug of water, pour it into the shaft of the pump to prime it, then move the lever, and you will have all the water that you need.” The man faced a decision. Should he do what the note said, pouring the water into the pump in hope of abundance of water? Or should he drink the water in the jug because he was dying of thirst? After all, he was certain that he had the water in the jug, but there was no guarantee that the pump would work. He thought for a long while and then took the jug of water and poured it into the pump. He moved the lever. Nothing. He moved the lever again. A small gurgle. He moved the lever a third time, and water began to flow. He drank all that he needed, filled his water bottles, and refilled the jug for the next traveler who might pass by.
All of this happened because the man found the freedom to give up the water that was in the jug. This story is about finding the freedom to let go. And so are Jesus’ words in today’s gospel. For Jesus understands that unless we find the freedom to let go of some of the good things in our lives, we will never be living the lives that are best for us.
Children are good. But every parent who sends off a son or daughter to college must find the freedom of letting go of the proximity of their relationship so that their child might grow. Popularity is good. But there are times when we have to let go of what our friends think of us in order to do what is right. Marriage is good. But when divorce becomes inevitable, we must find the freedom of letting go of that relationship so that our life can continue. Health is good. But when we contract a disease without a cure or begin to experience the disability of growing older, we must find the freedom to let go of our health as we once had it and to choose a new way in which to live. It is hard to let go of good things in our lives, but there are times where it is essential to do so. In those times, if we try to hold on to our children, to our marriage, to our popularity, or to our health, it will not bless us but only harm us.
That is why we must find the freedom to let go. Our faith can help us here. Jesus tells us that when we find the freedom to let go of those things of which we must put behind us, God will not forget us. God will act and lead us to a new and perhaps deeper good. That promise of Jesus is something that we must hold on to, because at times letting go of the good things in our lives seems like taking the last bit of water we have and pouring it down a dry pump. But Jesus tells us that if we let go of the good things that we must, we can become his disciples. That is good news, indeed. When we are in the presence of Christ, there is not only water but wine, not only survival but the fullness of life.
Not Knowing God
September 25, 2016
Those of us who believe, seek to know God. But we cannot. At least we cannot know God according to the common way of knowing. God is too different from us. God is almighty, and we are limited in so many ways. God is eternal, and we are mortal. God is a pure spirit who we cannot see or touch. Even our ability to speak about God strains human language. The only way we can talk about God is to take some human reality we know and apply it to God. So, we can say, “God is good. God is powerful.” But what we are really saying is that God is like human goodness. God is like human power. And the comparison limps. It limps greatly. Theologians would tell us that whenever we say something true about God, the true thing we say is more unlike God than like God. When we say that God’s goodness is like human goodness, it is really more unlike human goodness. When we say that God’s power is like human power, it is more unlike human power. God is so different from us that we can barely say true things about God.
This is what the author of the Book of Wisdom is driving at in today’s first reading. He says, “Who can conceive what God intends? . . . We barely guess at the things of earth, so when it comes to the things of heaven, who can search them out?” Why is this important? Why is it important to realize how little we know about God? It is important because when we try to explain God’s ways, we often get it wrong. And it is better for us to admit that we do not know than to accept explanations that are misleading and harmful.
When bad things happen to us, when we lose our job or are diagnosed with cancer, we could explain God’s ways by saying, “God is punishing me.” But that explanation does not describe God. It is better for us to say that I do not understand what is happening than for us to believe that God is getting even with us because of our sins. When tragedy strikes, when a young person is killed in an automobile accident, we could try to understand by saying, “This is really a blessing in disguise.” But that does not describe what God is about. It is better for us to say I do not understand why this happened than to pretend that an evil event is somehow good. When our life falls apart, when we experience divorce, failure, or the loss of someone we love, we can conclude that God does not care. But that does not describe who God is. It is better for us to say I don’t know why God is absent than to conclude that God has forgotten us.
God and God’s ways are so different from us that we can barely comprehend them. That is why faith is more important than understanding. And our faith is clear. In Jesus, God has revealed love for us and the intention to save us. It is important for us to believe in that love and in God’s salvation. We may never understand why bad things happen, why we struggle as much as we do, why we have to carry a particular cross. But it is better to admit our ignorance than try to explain things in ways that make them worse. Understanding is not always possible, but faith is close at hand. That is why when tragedy strikes, we should first admit what we don’t know, claim God’s love, and then take up our cross to follow Jesus.
What to Do with a Cross
Sept. 8, 2019
Luke 14: 25-33
All of us have crosses in our lives. Crosses occur when our happiness and our hope are threatened in ways we cannot avoid. For some of us, our crosses are relatively small. For others, they are overwhelming. Sickness can be a cross. So can disharmony in our family or an important relationship. A cross can be a burden of low self-esteem or depression. It can be a habit of jealousy eating at us or the fear of growing old. Whatever our crosses are, they are with us. When we wake up every morning, they face us. We may for a while forget about them, but soon they reappear at our side, claiming our attention. If we are able to dispel or escape our crosses, we certainly should. But most crosses are not easy to shake off.
Jesus’ words in today’s gospel about crosses seem harsh and demanding. “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” At first, it seems like Jesus is giving us a cross to test us, to see if we can carry it. If we cannot do so, we are unable to follow him. But this understanding is certainly false. God does not give us crosses. God is the source of goodness, not the source of evil. Crosses come to us because of our imperfection and the imperfection of our world. God does not send us crosses. They come to us because we are human and weak.
So, what is Jesus trying to say when he talks about the cross? He is offering us a way of dealing with crosses in our lives. The important word in Jesus admonition is the word “carry”—whoever does not carry his own cross. What Jesus is trying to tell us is that it is only by carrying our cross, by taking it up, that we will be free. Now you and I usually do anything other than carry our cross. We deny the cross, pretending it’s not there. We try to go on with life as usual. But the denial only pushes down our fear and our anger within us. It eventually boils up and explodes, and our life is in shambles. We stare at the cross, saying over and over, “How can this be happening to me?” But our staring only paralyzes us and robs us of life. We try to drag the cross behind us, pushing ahead, saying “This is not going to stop me!” But in time, the cross wears us out, and we collapse in exhaustion.
The only effective way to deal with the cross is to carry the cross, to consent to it. We must lift the cross to our shoulders and say, “Yes, this is my cross, and since I cannot avoid it, I will accept it.” Once we put the cross on our shoulders, we are free to move forward into life. Yes, at times the cross is heavy. It is a burden. But it need not prevent us from love and hope. And Christ, who carried his own cross, will be with us. You see, as long as we deny the cross, or stare at the cross, or drag the cross, Jesus can do nothing. But once we take up the cross, and begin to carry it, Jesus is immediately at our side, supporting us, and saying, “Courage. Let’s take this one step at a time. Follow me into glory.”