Posts tagged with "The Cross"
This is the last post in my three-part mini-series on the cross. In my first post I talked about how it is necessary to express the "horizontal" aspect of the cross by staying connected with the people around you. Then in my last post I talked about how it is equally necessary to express the "vertical" aspect of the cross by spending alone time with God each and every day, cultivating a deeper sense of spirituality. Today I want to talk about how it is important to keep these two dimensions in balance with each other.
What does an out of balance cross look like? On the one hand, someone who has neglected the horizontal aspect will probably look like a bit of a recluse, whether they acknowledge that or not. They might cultivate two different identities: the face they can put on around church friends, and the face they can put on around everyone else. I feel like this has described me on more than one occassion! So I don't mean to point fingers by writing this, but I do mean to stimulate a healthy sense of self-examination.
Jesus did not cultivate his own deeper sense of spirituality and oneness with the Father only to hide it behind closed doors and keep it to himself. Nor did St. Paul wait until he had all of his ducks lined up in a row before he started boldly preaching the gospel and healing others. Christianity exists to be a positive influence in the world, to make waves in an ocean of suffering and selfishness. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of my church, once wrote, "sea captains on shore are of no use." Too much focus on the transcendental without the balance of the human side of things can breed self-righteousness and hypocrisy, or it can just be a mask to hide our own fears of actually living the things we like to talk about.
Stepping out of ones comfort zone is never easy. Jesus said, "Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world." The newborn child that he speaks of there is a great metaphor for your own life purpose. The downward tendencies of the world would try to miscarry your life purpose. But we each have to rouse ourselves from the sleepy or frightened tendencies to hide away from the world. We need to get out there and shine. Just this morning a friend asked me, "are you being an influence in the world, or are you letting the world influence you?" This is a question we should all be asking ourselves every day. And in order to be an influence for others, you actually have to talk to them.
On the flip side, the cross might also be out of balance if someone has neglected the vertical. That kind of individual goes with the flow and is more interested in "keeping the peace" than making waves that might offend somebody (unless those waves try to justify a pet sin). Jesus gave two great commandments: to love God supremely, and to love others as we love ourselves. But the order of those two commandments matters! We need to put God first, before people. When we're more interested in pleasing others (or ourselves) than we are pleasing God, this also diminishes our own life purpose - or confuses it. That could include idolizing someone as a source of happiness, like a lover for instance. Or it could mean idolizing someone as a source of unhappiness, like a hated politician.
A neglect of the "divinity" aspect of the cross also tends to shut down our natural, childlike willingness to be corrected. It shuts off healthy self-examination and stifles our spiritual progress, defending this stagnation in the name of "compassion." Mary Baker Eddy also wrote, "One thing all must do - watch, and if anything looks like leaning away from God, drop it instantly." How willing are we to let go, instantly, of anything that would hinder our own progress, whether that's a questionable relationship, or another drink, or even long-cherished patterns of thinking? I realize that's a tall order. But at the end of the day, are those things really drawing us closer to God? Do they really leave us feeling more fulfilled?
Here are some questions to consider together as we enter this new year and try to find a more balanced sense of the cross:
- Do I have two identities, or one? Do I hide one of them from society?
- Am I afraid of bringing God into the conversation? Why?
- When's the last time I influenced someone in a conversation in a meaningful way?
- What is my life purpose? Does that purpose serve God more than it serves me?
- Who or what am I making gods out of? Who am I making devils out of?
- How much time do I honestly spend in prayer each day? Are my prayers effective?
- Have I actually read the Bible? Do I actually know what it is I claim to believe in?
I challenge you to take each of these questions as they apply to yourself, not as a tool for correcting others. It's not our province to work out someone else's salvation, only our own.
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.
This post will be the first of a three-part mini-series on the Cross as a symbol of faith. Ever since I first heard a talk about it this summer at the Midwest Bible Conference, I've been stewing over this idea of the symbol of the cross expressed in our lives. By that I am referring to the fact that the cross has both a "vertical" dimension and a "horizontal" dimension to it. The vertical is sometimes called the transcendental, and represents our individual relationship to God. The horizontal, or human dimension, represents our relationship with our community, and indeed with all of humanity. Both dimensions need to be deliberate and need to be in balance with each other, and there is no promise that will always be easy or comfortable.
In this post I want to focus specifically on the horizontal dimension of staying connected with others. Why is it important for us to connect with others? Others can be discouraging and sometimes outright mean. And often there seem to be invisible social barriers that prevent us from truly fitting in with certain social groups. No matter how we try, it seems like there just isn't room for us. So why try at all? Why not just hide away and cultivate a sense of peace for ourselves?
These are questions I've had on my mind for awhile. I confess that, as an introverted person by nature, it's quite easy to just want to squirrel away and insulate myself from the world. But I've been learning, sometimes slowly, of the necessity of family, of community, and of fellowship and communion with others. Jesus said, "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." He never promised that the spirit of Christ would be witnessed alone in a vacuum. The operative words there are "two" and "three," signifying community.
Just last night, upon arriving home from work, I had a lot I wanted to get done. I know how to keep myself busy; I make checklists of tasks that I need to accomplish. But then I remembered a Christmas hymn sing taking place downtown, at another church I don't belong to, but that I was invited to attend. This presented a dilemma, because taking the time to drive all the way downtown would mean I wouldn't be getting my individual task list done that night. So I had a mini-debate in my mind whether I should go.
"I could get so much accomplished if I stayed home."
"I can accomplish those same things this weekend."
"Will I really accomplish those things this weekend?"
"Friendship is important."
I went back and forth for a little while. But then I started to analyze how much my "Marthan" task list was really just an excuse to avoid being social. And I realized, it was! And as I was already thinking about this topic of the cross, I eventually acknowledged how important it was that I go, even if that meant none of my task list would be accomplished last night.
I'm sure glad I did go. The hymn sing was gorgeous. I am not a very strong singer myself, but just being in the presence of so many voices coming together in unison has a power behind it. There were many in that room that I would have disagreements with, if I really got down to nitty gritty details of theology. But none of that matters when you come together to worship and praise. Human arguments disappear, at least temporarily, into the peace and goosebump-inducing calm of singing together in a church.
Earlier this summer I was struck by a comment made to a friend of mine. She is someone who is a very hard-working and committed person by nature, someone who is a "giver." She is so often giving to others, and especially to her church, that I worry that sometimes things have felt out of balance for her, like she hasn't been able to receive as much as she's given out. The comment that I overheard made to her, that so struck me was this: "You can let church be a support for you, you know." This resonates with me because so many people often take the approach that it is their own personal responsibility to support their family, their church, and the whole world. And when they inevitably fall short of being able to do that, people sometimes retreat into fear and solitude.
I came across a beautiful article awhile ago, titled Lessons on the dance floor, where this exact sort of thing happened to a young man while at a holiday camp. He felt many compounded fears of rejection and experienced a great deal of discouragement. But even after he retreated, he heard a "still, small voice" calling him back. Perhaps the most beautiful part of the piece is the message this young man heard as an answer to his prayer, a gentle nudging from God telling him, "It's time to dance. Go, go..."
There is much discord in this world that tries to separate us and have us to throw up our hands in defeat. The sting of discouragement impels us to hide away in a hole. And when we're really honest, we realize that sometimes we ourselves have been guilty of isolating or even ostracizing others. But love does not thrive in a vacuum, and I agree that the horizontal dimension of the cross must be deliberate. We need to stay connected with each other if we want to see the spirit of Christ manifest. That sometimes involves overcoming our own fears and excuses to join in the hymn sing or on the dance floor. Other times, that involves being patient and understanding with others lest we become guilty of isolating them. I've found it helpful to remember, particularly when a person seems fixated on something we may not agree with, Jesus' admonition that "he that is not against us is on our part."
At the end of the day, you matter, and others matter too. God loved you enough to create you, and he continues to love you enough to sustain you. And what's true for you is true for others as well. This line, from a poem written by Mary Baker Eddy, sums it up well, I think:
Love wipes your tears all away,
And will lift the shade of gloom,
And for you make radiant room
Midst the glories of one endless day.