My grandfather was a Deacon in the Southern Baptist Church. When we would go to visit my grandparents, we went to church with them on Sunday morning, which meant that we got a fairly regular dose of Baptist worship growing up. One of the classic Baptist hymns was “The Old Rugged Cross.” I grew to love that hymn, and I still enjoy singing it because it it reminds me of my grandparents, my childhood spent visiting them, and all those Baptists singing that song like it was their own personal anthem.
(Image courtesy of jonlotc.blogspot.com)
The more life I live, the more I am convinced of the lyric “O that old rugged cross, so despised by the world, has a wondrous attraction for me.” The cross, a classic symbol of Christianity, has more than its fair share of detractors, those that do not just dislike, they hate the Gospel, the Church, and all for which the cross stands. Some feel persecuted, others convicted, but I often find the cross to be the focus of their anger, their rage. If I wear a cross, I can be the one to feel their wrath and bear the brunt of their animosity. Despite all those interactions, it’s not the same as actually carrying the cross for Jesus. Except today, I literally carried the cross.
My church has an upcoming Vacation Bible School program and we needed a life sized cross. My church has a giant outdoor cross, but it would not work, so I called around and found a fellow United Methodist Church that had one to let us borrow. (Being a connectional church is great!) My friend and I went to pick it up and it was perfect; maybe just a fraction smaller than the cross Christ would have had, but big enough for me. We got it into the back of my SUV and brought it back to the church. As we carried it up the steps and into the Social Hall, I felt the strain in my back, the ache in my wrists and arms, the digging of the weight into my body. This cross was wearing me down and I’m not out of shape or being forced to carry it up the hill top. We got it up against the wall and I came back to my office. I started thinking about the scripture:
“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24 NRS).
We think of this passage and downplay the physical burden. My cross has been my impatience. It causes me to become frustrated and lash out. It makes me look at other people as problems rather than human beings of sacred worth. No, rather I let it make me into a sinner. Does impatience have a physical aspect? Yes, I can feel my body becoming stressed. My blood pressure rises, my heart beat speeds up, and my jaw clenches. Do it long enough and you’ll find that it impacts your body, mind, and spirit. For some, their cross is much more physical, especially concerning sexual sins. Christ told his disciples to deny themselves. We do not get to have everything we want. Sometimes I want nothing more than to get impatient and let people know what I’m thinking and why they are being such a burden to others, but that’s not my place. I have to deny myself the satisfaction of giving someone a verbal lashing. I try to imagine my whole body crying out, demanding gratification, and myself wrestling with the dichotomy between what I know I must do versus what I want to do. Imagine my body working against me. I wonder if there is a parallel with the burden of carrying that big, heavy cross and the stress of doing it. It had impact upon me physically, but I also began to wonder if I could make it all the way to the end. Would I need to put the cross down, take a break? What if I over estimated my ability and capacity to do this task?
I found the inner strength I need to carry that cross of wood in the same place I find to carry my cross of impatience. I find strength in God. I’m not doing this Christian thing for my glory; I do all things for God’s glory. I was in the position of carrying that heavy, wooden cross because I was trying to provide the children with a cross for their Vacation Bible School because I’m their pastor and I work for Jesus. I wrestle with my impatience because it is an impediment against my work in ministry and causes me to sin, separating me from God. When we think of our personal crosses to bear, do we remember who gives us the strength to bear them? Who renews us so that we can continue to carry them? I feel empowered because I choose to take up those crosses, but I have no agency. It is God’s unfailing Grace that lets me even consider taking up the cross. When I succeed, it is because God enabled me to do so. When I fail, it is because I was unwilling to take that cross all the way to the end knowing what scars it would leave upon me. Some scars are internal and hidden, emotional, mental. Others are external, physical, and bodily. No cross is any easier than another. To the person who must bear their cross, it is leaden and unyielding. It is a constant source of struggle and a battle which could be lost at the first sign of weariness, but Christ calls us to bear these crosses, just as he bore the cross of our sinfulness to the top of that hill. So while I cling to my cross, and you to yours, remember that the heaviest cross of all has never touched our shoulders and, thanks to Jesus the Christ, it never will.