When I was in my first year of seminary, it was ours to translate these powerful, oh-so-familiar words from Greek to English. Indeed, by now these words from Mark’s Gospel have been part of me for so long it is hard sometimes to find anything new to say about what it is to take up one’s cross and follow after Jesus. And yet, in the end, it seems there is always some new way to enter into even what is most familiar. At least I have found this to be true once more.
For this is what has captured my imagination in recent weeks, so much so that I have spent my free hours working through a little book recounting the local history of the underground railroad.
- I am appreciating it for the unrelated details which paint a fascinating picture of a time long past.
- I am grateful for the author, Nancy M .Beasley’s tireless effort to comb through all kinds of original source materials (church meeting minutes and correspondence and subscription lists and on and on) and to tell a story which had not been told before about The Underground Railroad in DeKalb County, Illinois.
- I am especially fascinated by what she shares about the role of local congregations in what was a heroic effort to change the world. For this was so. While in some parts of the country ‘abolition’ was a political rallying cry, here in Northern Illinois it primarily found its roots in the faiths of (mostly) farmers who first cleared and ‘settled’ this land. Methodists and Presbyterians and Unitarians especially:
- Men and women who built their homes with hidden rooms and underground passageways, and who constructed haystacks with hollow cores and wagons with false bottoms all for the purpose of providing temporary shelter for those who had risked everything for a chance at freedom.
- Indeed, who risked their lives and their livelihoods to do the right thing in getting those in whose faces they saw reflected the Face of God one step closer to Chicago and Lake Michigan and safe passage to Canada.
- Who yes, it seems to me, heard Jesus’ call to ‘pick up their cross’ to follow Jesus as a call resulting in ways of living which were substantially different had they never heard his invitation echoing in their own hearts.
It is a marvelous story, this one I am only learning now, and one that stirs my imagination as I know myself to be walking the same ground, traveling the same paths turned to paved roads and highways, where these men and women risked so much so long ago. And oh, it is important and helpful, I believe, to continue to look for and to share such concrete examples of what Jesus calls us to, in our own histories and in our own back yards and around the world. For these do give us courage as we seek to do the same.
And yet, I know this, too, that the heroes I am reading about now were unaware, or unwilling to be aware, of the certain truth that while their faith called them to this important work, they were only able to do so in the forced absence of those Native Americans who had inhabited this rich land not so very long before. Indeed, countless other human beings had been massacred or driven west so that the heroes in the underground railroad in this county could then lay claim to and clear and cultivate the very earth which still supports those who call these communities home today.
Heroes, yes. But flawed ones. Imperfect ones. Like all of us, faithful in some ways and on some days and not in others or on other days, to be sure. And oh, isn’t it so that my predecessors on this land are much like you and me? We may show flashes of faithful heroism, but at the same time we are bound up by sin which at times is marked by our own privilege which can certainly call into question the legitimacy of whatever good we are able to do.
For it goes without saying, of course, that not one of our human examples will ever fully emulate the fullness of what we are called to now. We may do good today, but that is stained by the good we did not do yesterday. We may lift our crosses to our shoulders now, all the while our very ability to do so is predicated on the truth that we are only able to do so at the expense of others. This certain truth could lead us to respond in a number of ways, of course.
For we might just give up:
- We might say we are so far along in this and haven’t bothered or thought to or have simply failed in our attempt to follow Jesus as we ought by now so how can we possibly begin now?
- Or we might recognize that our lived witness is so flawed, so incomplete that our efforts will be so clouded by this that it won’t really matter.
Or we might just say that we know all this and even so, it is never too late to lift the cross to our shoulders and take the first step or the next step in being and doing as Jesus did. We might hear this as a call to follow not just once, but more as it is spoken in Luke 9:23 where Jesus calls those within hearing to take up our cross not once and for all, but daily.
I, for one, prefer the last option.
For just like those who sheltered runaway slaves in haystacks and hidden rooms and who helped ensure their safe passage to freedom right here in my community, my own history of picking up my cross and following after Jesus is spotty. I am embroiled in sin and brokenness of my own making and in sin and brokenness I have inherited. That will not change. But to let that stop me, stop us, from attempting to do it differently today is to give in to the brokenness. And that is giving in to powers of death and destruction and evil. And that would be a repudiation of all that Jesus was and did and all that he calls us to be and do as well.
We will never do it perfectly. But that must not, cannot, stop us from doing it at all as we attempt to follow the One did: who picked up his cross and suffered and died for us all.
So while I recognize their flaws, still I am lifted up by the heroic witness of my own neighbors from 150 years past: those who risked everything to help others gain the same freedom they took for granted. Because they saw the face of God in their faces. And I am wondering now what it means for me to do the same. Today.
- What do you hear when you listen to Jesus’ call to deny ourselves and to pick up our crosses and follow him? Is this a one time response or is it something we do day after day after day?
- What examples would you offer of others having done so — in your life, in your community, in the history of your community, or elsewhere? How do such stories help (or hinder) our understanding of Jesus’ invitation today?
- I am suggesting that the fact that we cannot or failed to do it ‘perfectly’ may discourage us from doing so at all. Do you find this to be true? Why or why not?