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The Cross: Speaking with Authority
Yesterday I wrote the first of three posts about the two-dimensionality of the cross, wherein I addressed the "horizontal" aspect of deliberately staying connected with ones community. Today I want to talk about the "vertical" dimension, sometimes called the transcendental aspect, of the cross. This aspect of the cross represents ones individual relationship with God, illustrated in the imagery of a vertical line going up from earth to heaven.
Jesus instructed his followers that, "when you pray, enter into your closet and lock your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret." That "closet" he spoke of signifies a quiet sanctuary away from the noise and distractions of the world. It signifies cultivating an active sense of peace, communing with the Father. That quiet time doesn't necessarily have to take place at home, alone, at a prescribed and regimented time of day, necessarily. It can happen right in the middle of a loud situation - and I'll give an example of that in a moment. But even though it can take place amid the fast-paced hustle and bustle of the world, the hard truth is that it probably won't take place there unless you first take a lot of time out of your scheulde at home, alone, to commune with God, in preparation.
Christianity is simple, but it is not superficial. I confess that I struggle with this self-discipline that I'm writing about. But I can see what great value there is in disciplining myself to reserve time out of my day to sit quietly and pray. There is Biblical authority behind it. St. Paul taught to "pray without ceasing." St. Peter was miraculously released from prison after his church members had "prayed without ceasing" on his behalf. And there are many instances where Jesus retreated from the crowds into the wilderness, or to a mountaintop (he liked mountains), to be alone and to pray. For all the time that Jesus spent among the people, he also spent remarkable amounts of time alone, silently communing with God.
But as promised, here's an example of a person entering that "prayer closet" right in the midst of a screamingly loud situation. The following is an excerpt from an article in the Christian Science Sentinel.
As I was walking to my bus stop, I heard shouting break through the pre-dawn stillness. I then saw a fellow commuter yelling at the bus driver at the top of his lungs. This bus had not showed up on time the day before, and its absence had evidently caused this man to be late for his job. Both he and I boarded the bus, where he continued loudly to berate the driver and the entire bus system, much to the shock of the other passengers. My first response was compassion for the driver, who had not even been on duty the day before. Then I felt compassion for the commuter, who I happened to know was a professional engineer and was facing family stresses at home.
In reaching out to God for inspiration that would reveal His peace for everyone, I was led to say a few calming words to the commuter. The next few moments were filled with a profound silence. The man's face relaxed, he leaned back into his seat, and the tension on the bus disappeared. Some minutes later, I heard this man quietly utter the same words I had said. He left the bus offering a polite comment to the driver, who in turn replied pleasantly.
Stories like that inspire me. I'm not sure I would have handled the situation as well as he did! But the first question that always comes to mind when I read stories like that is: how did he do that? And how can I do that? I don't believe it's merely a matter of finding the magic words to say; it's something deeper than that. What that article doesn't touch on is all the hours of daily mental preparation, daily prayer, that came before this story ever happened. That part of the story is seldom included by the time articles go to print, but that part of the story is what really counts.
I work in I.T. And as a result, I get to field a lot of I.T.-related questions, both on and off the job. Oftentimes I'm faced with familiar problems, variations on problems I've dealt with before, and so when I'm asked those kind of questions, I already know exactly how to respond. I can speak with authority in those situations. Other times, I am presented with problems I've never seen or thought of before, so I search Google for answers - and pretty reliably, I find them! As I'm searching, I can kind of feign a sense of authority in my voice, which transforms into a true sense of authority when I do find the solution. But once in awhile, I encounter a problem with no apparent solution in sight. When that happens, I have to hunker down and use my knowledge and deductive skills to try and find the answer myself. And any feigned sense of authority has to drop away to the honest admission, "I don't know, but I'm going to try to figure it out."
When Jesus spoke to disease, he spoke with authority. When his disciples similarly spoke (while they were still learning), they often were a bit more reserved, as if they were doing Google searches for the answers and hoping for the best. Jesus expected that they would eventually do the same works he did, and apprenticed them by having them attempt the same kinds of works he was doing. But early on, they sometimes fell flat. The best example of this is from the ninth chapter of Mark, when Jesus healed the epileptic boy. The father of this epileptic child had asked the disciples if they would heal his son, and they tried! But despite their best efforts, they failed. So then this desperate father turned to Jesus, hoping that Jesus would have the answer, which of course he did. Afterwards the disciples asked Jesus why they weren't able to do it, and Jesus explained the situation to them, speaking as though he knew exactly what the problem was that the disciples weren't yet able to perceive. Jesus' knowledge of what was really going on beneath the surface allowed him to cut through the disease and get right down to healing the young boy, while the disciples were simply doing their best to Google for answers, in a sense, and this was a case where there weren't any easy answers to be found.
People crave real solutions. When the father of the epileptic boy saw that the disciples weren't able to answer his cry for help, he went to their boss, who immediately spoke to him with authority. People crave that kind of authority, which is able to command the situation rather than scrambling for answers without any certainty of success. Jesus promised that his followers would be able to do all the things he could do, and indeed handle other situations that he hadn't faced, when he said, "greater works than these shall [you] do; because I go unto my Father." We also need to "go unto our Father" if we want expect to follow in his footsteps, meaning we need to make room for God in our lives. That means setting aside chunks of time during the day for silent prayer, going to church regularly, and setting aside time (outside of prayer time!) to study the Scriptures. Quiet and consistent preparation is key to being able to handle the challenges that come up in our daily lives - both expected and unexpected. In today's caffeinated, multi-tasking, constantly distracted world, it can be difficult to maintain the discipline to consistently make God a priority. Belive me, I know!
That is the vertical dimension of the cross, and it is requisite for Christian discipleship. Without that dimension, there is no authority behind what we say. We end up speaking either in clichéd platitudes, or in vague and empty promises. It is the quiet time spent alone with God where we really learn how to speak with authority, and how to bring an active sense of peace to situations. Without that genuine committment, we end up throwing darts at a board, smattering people with our uninformed best efforts, while we Google for answers. To truly follow Christ, we need to "leave all for Christ." And that starts gradually, by "leaving some for Christ" - giving at least part of our day to honest prayer.