I’m afraid that I come to this today with more questions than answers.
Indeed, it seems I have been grappling with these particular words of Jesus my whole life long — or at least since the first time I sat down with a Greek New Testament and word by word, phrase by phrase, the invitation which Jesus extends took shape on the page before me. At times I believe I have some clarity as to its meaning and call for me and I am able to move forward with some measure of confidence. At others, like now, I am more muddled. Please bear with me as I sort this out once more.
For I have always wondered at this. You’ve heard it said as often as I have. One person or another will be lamenting (and no doubt understandably so) the circumstances of their life and the phrase will be uttered: “This is my cross to bear.” It may be a physical ailment, a wayward child, the illness and/or death of a loved one, a faltering relationship. Most of my life I have reacted to this, wanting to push back, although never out loud. (I certainly know by now that such occasions call for deep listening rather than theological debate.) For it seems to me that the cross that Jesus invites us to pick up and take after him with is one that is received and responded to with some intention. It is not some accidental happening or circumstance. And, as with the cross of Jesus, it is carried not only for ourselves but for others. Always for others. Right?
And yet, of late, I have started to wonder (in no particular order):
- If we do not, in fact, allow ourselves to go deep into the very real pain which seems to fall to us all, what good are we then to anyone else? If we do not grapple with those ‘crosses,’ those points of suffering in our own lives or those all too frequently experienced moments of recognizing our own mortality in the midst of it? Well then, truly, what good are we? How can we possibly step into the suffering of others if we have not felt and faced our own? Indeed, perhaps when people say “this is my cross to bear” their acknowledgement of this is a first important step in experiencing healing so that they might actually become agents of healing to others…
- And I have thought of this as well. One’s ‘cross’ is always intensely personal. It is individual. But there is this. In Jesus’ case, another was enlisted to carry his cross for a time in the person of Simon of Cyrene. And maybe from time to time we are also called to do the same? And perhaps from time to time, someone comes along and picks ours up and carries it for a stretch as well?
- And also this. While the act of dying was for Jesus his to do alone as it is for all of us, there were those who bore witness, who did not leave the foot of that cross.Who stood there with eyes and hearts uplifted, lamenting — no doubt praying the whole while. It was those same ones who were along as they carried his body to his temporary grave and who returned a few days later to tend the body in a way they could not on the eve of the Sabbath. Alone, yes. But not…
So we carry our crosses alone, yes. And we experience the suffering and the dying (in small ways and large) on them alone as well. But we are powerfully blessed, it seems to me, by those who accompany us, witnessing our struggle, our pain, who simply refuse to leave no matter how much their staying forces them to face their own suffering.
And isn’t this a time for such picking up our crosses and following after Jesus? Isn’t this a time when we are called to bear witness to the suffering of others, all the while recognizing that with each ‘picking up,’ each ‘following after,’ for someone else, we go deeper into our own? For somehow it all becomes circular: never only for the sake of another, although sometimes mostly, yes. But always taking us back into our own struggles before returning again for the sake of another or others.
For this is not a one time thing, of course it’s not. This responding to the call of Jesus before us now is a journey we take every day, day after day, all of our lives.
I think, for instance, of the multiple times I have been called upon to sit with a family in the ‘quiet room’ in the emergency room at our local hospital. Oh, there have been other times, I know, but the three that come to mind now were particularly tragic. In all of these times I was rendered mostly speechless, for there were no words to break through the heartbreak then. I could only sit and pray and hope that God would do what I certainly could not: press upon these suffering ones the promise of comfort and peace and presence of the Holy which was there whether they could yet sense it or not. I could stay. I did stay. I bore witness and in doing so, I hope, validated the pain and lifted up their suffering.
- The first that comes to mind today was in the wake of a campus shooting. I had gone to the hospital to help where needed and was asked to sit with a family while they waited for the coroner.
- The second was in the wake of an accidental overdose which took the life of a father, brother, a spouse, a son. This one was one of ours and I was called upon simply to stay.
- The third was following a terrible car accident where the one who was killed was also taken far too young. In that case circumstances were such that I stuck close to her family far into the night.
Every time I am ushered back into the ‘quiet room,’ the echoes of all those other heartbreaks are there. Every time I go it is as though I carry all those others with me. And every time I am called to go deeper and deeper still.
I offer these three now as a way in which I have come to think about ‘picking up one’s cross.’ It is to walk into suffering yes, and it is to do so in behalf of others, absolutely. It is, at times, to walk back into the same physical space again and again — but every time you do it? The faces and particularity of the suffering both change and are somehow exactly the same at the same time. And you recognize that every time you do it, you are not the same either. For every time you find yourself going deeper into your own humanity, your own suffering, your own too many losses. And, oh, if you are fortunate, even as you are bearing witness to the suffering of others, someone will be there to stay with you through your own.
So it is these days I am thinking especially of church workers — clergy in particular for you I know best.
And I am thinking now of two pieces which brought me up short in these last days:
One was the reporting of a study of clergy which found that 25% of us have contemplated retirement or resignation because of the stress of this time. I, for one, am surprised the number is not higher:
- given all that this time has called into question for so many,
- given how many of us do not feel at all prepared to pastor in this time,
- given the ways in which the stress of this time has uncovered unhealed wounds in us and those we are called to serve, has revealed fissures beneath the surface in ourselves and in our communities of faith which do threaten to open up and swallow us all. (Is that too extreme? I’m not sure.)
And this, entirely anecdotal, but so disturbing still: the number of clergy who have contemplated suicide due to the stresses named above. (You can access the particular article which articulates this here: Too Many Pastors Are Falling on Their Swords.) I don’t know about suicidal, but I have seen and heard the stress on the faces and in the voices of colleagues and friends alike. This is a hard time. This is a very hard time. And yes, I expect this is a time when the call of Jesus to pick up our crosses seems more real than ever before.
- Indeed, this is a time when it seems important for us all to find safe ways and places to go into our own struggle, to pay attention to our ‘own crosses’ in a new way, else I don’t know how we can be of any good whatsoever to those people and communities where our voices are still so needed.
- And this is a time when we need to bear witness to one another’s pain like never before as the women did at the foot of the cross, and as Simon of Cyrene did in picking up the cross of Jesus and carrying it for a stretch on the way.
- Indeed, surely this is a time when we need to be for others and to let others be for us.
Perhaps this is one of the terrible and yet life-giving gifts of this time, this opportunity to return to our own suffering so that we can once more step into the pain others bear. Maybe you, like I, find yourself returning to the same place again and again and again — as I do to the quiet room at our hospital’s emergency room — witnessing the anguish old and new, yes, but going a little deeper every time. Whatever else is true though, we dare not do this alone, it seems to me. Not as long as God has given us one another to at least walk alongside, to validate the truth of this struggling time, to lift us up in prayer, even as we do the same for one another.
Oh yes, the cross we are called to pick up is carried alone, I know. But even Jesus had Simon of Cyrene for a little while.
And yes, our suffering and dying — in even the small ways we do so on many days — is done essentially ‘alone,’ but even Jesus had the women and a handful of other disciples there to watch and wait to weep and to pray.
And if even this was so for Jesus, wouldn’t at least the same be true for you and for me? And might there be healing and hope for us then?
I’ll tell you what, I’m counting on it these days. I really am.
- How do you hear Jesus’ call to pick up your cross and follow him?
- How important has it been for you to tend to your own suffering, grieving, ‘dying?’ How has doing so (or not) hindered you in your call to pick up your cross in behalf of others?
- Like the women at the cross, who has been there to bear witness to and for you? Where and when and how are you called to simply bear witness to and for others?
- And especially for pastors and other church workers, how are you hearing this call these days? How can we be especially intentional in behalf of colleagues and friends to do what Simon of Cyrene did, to be who the women at the cross were? And what do we need to do to be open to this from one another?