I don’t have a story this week. What I share now is a moment, a memory, a light-bulb turning on realization I’ve never forgotten and that continues to inform my every day.
It was more than 15 years ago that I found myself caught up short. We were then still keeping vigil with my dad. The days had been long with one running into another and with each passing hour it became more and more apparent what the outcome would be. All that time while we tried to hang on to hope we knew ever more surely that it would need to be a larger hope which would carry us now.
I can remember the experience of suffering and loss like it was yesterday. I can remember thinking as I walked down the brightly lit hospital corridor — I can remember thinking I wished I could shield my sisters from it somehow… not wanting them to have to feel what I was feeling as we experienced the loss of one who had loved us our whole lives long. And as I said, I can remember the moment I caught myself up short standing still in a new realization, for two things occurred to me in almost the same instant.
One was this: I could not protect them from it. They were in this, too, of course, and the loss inevitably would be every bit as much theirs to experience as it was mine. Nothing could change that.
And two, even if somehow I could shield them from the heart-ache, I knew that would not be fair. For I was already discovering that with the pain came enormous gifts: Strength building, faith strengthening, community celebrating gifts. Even in the midst of it, I found I was so grateful for those and more and I knew, somehow, that they would not be mine to embrace in the same way had I not traveled the particular path that that had been ours to share in those last weeks. Even if I could protect them from the struggle, I knew I would not want to deprive them of the gifts and the two seemed inseparable.
The words Jesus offers today are ones we know by heart. “If any want to become my followers, let them take up their cross and follow me…,” he says. To be sure those words have been misunderstood and misinterpreted, for suffering is not always redemptive. And those words are ones we can only find our own way into and through for the calls God places upon us, the crosses we are called to take up, can be as unique as our DNA. We can’t say for someone else what their cross will be. What our crosses have in common is the simple fact of their existence. Not one of us will get through without struggle. And there is this: Often, we will find the struggle, the suffering, does bring unexpected gifts. Especially as we do as Jesus did as we take up our crosses and follow him — not for our own sakes, but for the sake of others, for the sake of the world.
And so it is that I look back to that time fifteen years ago and I expect some of my impulse to protect those I loved was selfless. I was the big sister, and to see them hurt, hurt me, too. Ah yes, there was that. It occurs to me now that perhaps my instinct to take their pain away was not only for their sakes. It was also for me.
It’s not uncommon, of course. I have experienced this in the well-meaning words and actions of others, to be sure — in the quick assurance that all will be well, in the blithe promise of prayer, in words urging me to do what I needed to do to heal and move on. And I have done this to others, too, I know. At the same time I am ever so grateful to be able to say that I have also been blessed with the presence of others my whole life long who have simply stood with me in the silence, in the struggle, and resisted the urge to fix it — allowing me to take up my cross — whatever it is — and to experience it with all of its struggle and all of its joy.
It is hard, of course, to look into the face of pain and not walk away. It is difficult to stand still and not offer advice or platitudes. It is challenging to only listen. For the pain of others hooks our own, especially if we are particularly close to the one who is suffering. It reminds us of where we have been, or where we haven’t been and have always been afraid we might just be. It calls to mind, perhaps, the crosses we once carried and then abandoned for it just finally seemed too hard. Or it offers us a window into what we will, one day, perhaps experience ourselves. It takes every ounce of will that I have some days just to stand still and receive it. To not give advice or to fill the silence with my own stories of struggle. To not flinch, or judge, or sometimes even to pray too soon — especially if my praying offers me an easy or quick exit from the room. (Pastors, I expect you know of what I speak here.) Indeed, this is one way I take up my cross and follow Jesus. I seek to allow others to carry theirs. To not leave them alone in it, perhaps — but also to simply let them experience the struggle so that they might also receive the gifts which will almost inevitably be theirs.
Now this is not always true, of course. Sometimes taking up our crosses means doing all we can to shield others from unnecessary pain —- especially the vulnerable among us. More often than not though, most of the time, I have found that for me it means getting myself out of the way and quietly standing with others as they walk the path put before them, taking up the cross that is theirs. Many days it’s the hardest thing I do.
- What does it mean to you to ‘take up your cross’ and follow Jesus?
- What unexpected gifts have your received when you have ‘taken up your cross’ and followed Jesus?
- Are you ever tempted to deny others the ‘cross’ that is theirs to take up? Why or why not?