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Archive for February, 2012

Taking Up Our Cross

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  Mark 8:34b-35 (NRSV)

What  does “taking up our cross” mean, anyway?  So often I hear someone say, “It’s my cross to bear” meaning that it is an unwanted burden that has been thrust on them, and they have no choice in the matter.  This kind of thinking seems to indicate that we have no choice about our crosses, and it also seems to be a rather negative approach to following Jesus.

I think it’s helpful to look at Jesus’ cross bearing.  Was it unwilling?  I suppose we could say that he certainly didn’t want to carry the cross or die if we look at his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asked God to remove the cup of death from him.  And in Jesus’ day, anyone who carried a cross was headed for death, so it wasn’t exactly a feel-good idea to say that those who follow Jesus were supposed to take up their cross and follow him.

So, what is Mark talking about here?  I think one key section of this passage follows in verse 56:  “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”  Eugene Peterson writes it this way:  “What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you?  What could you ever trade your soul for?”  Things, possessions, money, people, prestige, power, money, and so forth are things that can have a great hold on our lives and become more important than anything else, especially God.  Things get in the way of being in a whole, healthy relationship with God as well as each other.

This morning I heard a news article on the radio as I was driving to work that said people who become richer become more self-centered.  They are more likely to cheat, lie, be unethical, and “take candy from a child” than others who are not very wealthy.  Of course, this isn’t true of everyone who has a lot of money because we have a lot of caring, philanthropic people who use their money to help others.  The point is that what we have in material goods can become a burden if we make it more important than our relationship with God and others, and it can turn us a different direction from “taking up our cross.”

Jesus took up the cross willingly, not because he was looking forward to what came with it, but because he loved us.  His love was greater than anything we could ever imagine – strong enough to lay down his life for us.  The cross we are called to take up isn’t one that it dumped on us whether we like it or not.  The cross we are called to take up is walking with Jesus through life.  When we take up a cross, though, we have to let go of those things that we can no longer carry.  We are the only ones who can name those things in our lives that become such a burden we drag them around and don’t have room for God in our lives.

Taking up our cross means we follow Jesus, the Christ with joy!  It isn’t a burden, but a privilege.  We have the privilege of caring about others, of setting an example for others, of making the choice to offer care, compassion, grace, forgiveness, and love where the world would cling to its “things,” its ideas of what is important.  As Charles Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol when the ghost Marley was talking to Ebenezer Scrooge, “[Humankind] is our business.”  Following Jesus means being in relationship because God is all about relationships.  It may seem hard for some people, yet it’s what we have been created to do as God’s children.

In Matthew 11:28-30, we read, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  (NRSV)  Jesus reminds us that we are not on the journey alone.  When we take up the cross, our burden is easy, it’s light.  When we take up the cross, we are given a way to follow and companions on the journey.  When we take up the cross, we do so knowing that we aren’t alone on the journey, and it is a journey of joy.  As we continue through Lent, let us clean out the “junk” of our lives and lay it down so we can carry the cross of faith, hope, and love with joy!

Tempted

“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”  Mark 1:12-13

     Somehow it’s reassuring to me that Jesus was tempted.  I mean, I’m tempted all the time with food that I know I shouldn’t eat.  Of course, there are other temptations that I face, too, but food seems to be the biggest roadblock that I encounter throughout the day, especially in the afternoons when I take a break and want to snack.  The snacks that appeal to me are rarely the healthiest.  I don’t reach for carrots and celery sticks or yogurt and fruit or a low carb protein drink (who can feel filled up with a liquid meal?).

What I have realized for decades is that I’m an emotional and habitual eater, so my goals actually have changed over the years as I try to shift my listening to my stomach to hear when it is actually hungry, and then I try to be sure I have the snack or meal in mind that I’m going to eat when the time comes.  That doesn’t preclude me from thinking about it often throughout the three to five hours in between eating, but at least I’m reaching a better point of self-control.

In this passage from Mark, we don’t find any specifics about what kinds of temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness, only that he was tempted.  It’s interesting to also read the end of verse 13 where Mark writes “the angels waited on him.”  Jesus wasn’t alone in his temptation-facing.  He had angels there to care for him.  His time of temptation was a time for strengthening his mission and ministry, and through the struggles of resisting temptation, he would have had a better understanding of his calling, his identity, and his readiness to be someone who questioned the status quo of his society and the Jewish authorities.

Our times of temptations provide us with a “yes” or “no” answer.  We either give in or we don’t.  Through both, we learn about ourselves and about our ability to do what is right.  We aren’t alone in our journey, either, even when it may seem as if we are.  Jesus has set the example for us, and while we can never measure up to his abilities, we can take on the mind of Christ and draw closer to him as we learn from him and grow in faith.

The wilderness is a lonely and often frightening place full of doubts and fear, and yet, we still aren’t alone.  I read somewhere that when it feels like we have no faith, we just keep acting as if we do and we will find it again.  Maybe Jesus went into the wilderness and experienced temptations so that  he could relate to us.  He was both human and divine, and we believe he was the incarnation of God.  Jesus was God’s way of identifying with us, walking with us, understanding the struggles of human life.

There is something reassuring about God understanding.  Somehow maybe it will help us to be a little more forgiving of ourselves and others because we know God understands and forgives us.  Have a blessed Lenten journey!

Listening

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  Mark 9:7b

     Listening – ah yes, that activity that can be so elusive!  When I think about Jesus, I believe that he really knew how to listen.  In the scripture passage from Mark 9:2-9 we find the story of the Transfiguration.  Jesus didn’t have to prove anything to the disciples; rather, they needed to learn something.  It seems almost as if the voice from heaven is giving them the vision to move forward, after all, they were the ones who would be carrying on Jesus’ ministry.  Wouldn’t listening to him and observing him be the most important activity in which they could participate?

But listening can be so hard.  In our Bible study group, we discussed what our listening styles are like, and most of us agreed that it is difficult to concentrate and keep focused for a long period of time.  I once had someone who was counseling me, and inevitably, she would look as if she had zeroed out and was on the verge of a nap.  Her eyelids would droop, and I could almost see that her brain had dozed off.  I never said anything, but it didn’t give me a lot of confidence in her ability to help me until I moved the counseling sessions to a later time of day away from right after lunch.  Apparently, she needed a nap after her lunch hour.

On the other hand, I had a seminary professor who taught me a lot about good listening.  She would focus totally on the person with whom she was speaking to the point of blocking everyone and everything else out.  I always felt as if she was connected with what I was saying and giving me her full attention.  Her eyes were directly on me, and they didn’t wander to other things.  It’s a model I have tried to use – sometimes successfully and sometimes not.  It’s a goal I have, and I know I need to continue to work at it.

When I imagine Jesus talking with anyone, I think he really listened.  I think he was able to totally focus on the person in front of him and still know what was going on around him, but his attention was given to the person at hand.  At least that is what I like to think.  God’s affirmation of Jesus’ identity reminds us that, even though we could never be on the same level as Jesus, we are also God’s beloved children.  So, does that mean that God would want others to listen to us?  I think that’s the idea.

If we are called to carry on the work of Jesus in the world, then we are also called to be connected with God by listening for God’s direction in our lives, and then listening to those around us to support and encourage them.  We also need people to listen to us, and listening is vital to relationships and communication.  So if others listen to us, what will they hear?  Will it be something that builds others up?  Will it be wisdom that comes from our life experience and more importantly from God’s guidance and presence in our lives?  Will it be something worth hearing?  Questions to ponder . . .

Being the Whole Church

“For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another.”  Romans 12:4-5

In the United Methodist Hymnal (c) 1989, there is a song called, “We Are the Church.”  The song reminds us that we are the church together with all our history, all our gifts, all our abilities, and most of all with our common calling to follow and serve Jesus Christ in the world, as well as share the Good News of God’s love with others.  The passage from Romans 12, partly quoted above, reminds us that a body has many parts and each has a function to make the body work as a whole.  It’s the same in the church.

A church is whole when people participate in what goes on from week to week, especially worship, Sunday school, Bible studies, nurturing each other, and reaching out into the community and world to bring the love of God to others.  Now days it seems like church has been “dissed” so much that many new people don’t even want to attend.  Someone has a really bad experience in a church, is hurt or put down, and they leave the church vowing never to set foot in a church again, thus judging all churches by their experience in one.

Other people are frustrated because they don’t feel their ideas are heard or accepted or they want to be in charge of everything and won’t accept someone else’s input.  Still other people find Sundays just too busy to take time out to go to church.  Whenever someone stops attending a church or doesn’t participate in any way, they are missing out on the richness of what others have to offer.  Sure there are some difficult people in the church; it is, after all, made up of imperfect human beings who make mistakes.  There is NO perfect church anywhere.

And the church doesn’t depend solely on who is the pastor because pastors come and go, so the people who join or attend a church because of the pastor are most likely to leave when that pastor does.  A pastor is the spiritual leader and helps to set the tone for the church, but it is the lay people who carry on the ministry.  The laity pitch in and help wherever help is needed:  setting up for worship, teaching Sunday school, being on committees, singing in the choir, being part of visiting the sick or home bound, taking meals to those who have lost loved ones or who are grieving, reaching out to neighbors, co-workers, family members, or others to invite them to experience the presence of Christ in new ways.

St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the gospel [Good News] to all the world, and use words if necessary.”  Our actions DO speak louder than our words, although there are times we need words, too!  So what do our actions say when we skip church on a regular basis – it clearly isn’t important.  We say “we are spiritual but not religious.”  Okay, that’s fine, but does that mean that we can’t find God at church?  Does that mean that our attitude is one of “you and me, God?”  If so, we are missing out on the many gifts of the people who come to church every Sunday who want to be in relationship, to grow in their faith in the context of the community of faith, and who are enriched by our presence there.

I remember reading a devotional years ago about a woman who thought maybe she would just skip church that day since she was kind of grumpy feeling and out of sorts.  Finally, she decided to go, and when she arrived, a friend saw her and rushed up to her, hugging her and saying, “I’m so glad to see you.  I was thinking about you all morning and was hoping to sit with you today.  You always make me smile.”  We are important to others, and we can be lifted up and supported by our friends at church.  As we work together to share God’s love in the world, our “training ground” is in the church, and others really do feel uplifted when we are there to connect with them.

It takes ALL the parts to make the WHOLE body!  Come to church next Sunday!

Healed to Serve

“[Jesus] came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.  Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”  Mark 1:31

The healed woman was Peter’s mother-in-law.  My initial reaction years ago to this passage was, “Sure, Jesus heals the woman so she can get up and wait on them and cook for them, and do all her domestic duties.  Gradually, as I have studied the culture in which Jesus lived as well as this passage, I have come to a slightly different understanding of it.  Even though I am not aiming to preach on this part of the passage for this week (and that can change depending on where the Spirit guides me), I would like to reflect on it here, maybe because I have been sick for about three weeks, first with a cold and now with pneumonia.

In Jesus’ day, having a fever was often seen as the presence of an evil spirit, and often, if left untreated, the fever would lead to death.  The life expectancy for men and women in those days was very low, and for women to live into their forties meant they were considered elderly.  We don’t know how old this woman was, but clearly she had a daughter old enough to be married, and most likely she was a grandmother.  Peter has probably provided a home for her which might indicate that her husband is dead, and Peter has become the head of the household.

Women were expected to take care of the household duties, raise the children (and keep them quiet when the men were around!), and care for others.  Their influence was powerful especially if they “had the ear” of their husband.  This woman was probably loved and respected by Peter’s family, since, verse 30b says, “They told him about her at once.”  The goal doesn’t seem to be “hurry up and heal her so she can wait on us” as much as “heal her because we don’t want her to die.”  Jesus honors her by touching her:  something that a Jewish rabbi would not have wanted to do in case he might catch it as well, but also because it made him unclean to have touched a sick person.

Now, if Jesus came to visit me, I would be honored, and if he would heal me of my nagging cough, my fatigue, my lack of energy, and the heaviness in my chest, I would be most grateful!  I would at least make some tea for him and offer him something to eat with it.  So, I think I understand that this woman was so grateful that she was able to resume her position in the household, that she got up and became busy with the meal preparations and caring for their guests.  In the verse above, it ends with “she began to serve them.”   Service is putting ourselves aside and caring for others, using the gifts we have been given.  Maybe this woman was a great cook, baker, hostess – we don’t know.

Her healing was an indication that God cared even for women, not so Jesus and the disciples could get a meal, but so she could feel whole and restored.  Isn’t that a goal for all of us?  We all want to find wholeness and be restored to a right relationship with God and each other.  Through Jesus, we have that restoration of our connection with God, and we have opportunities every day to restore and build healthy relationships with others.  Sometimes the latter takes a lot of work, and sometimes those relationships are never truly restored.  However, Jesus sets the example for us and calls us to bring renewal and wholeness through the way we live our faith and connect with others.  It’s a challenge.

Our healing through our faith in Christ frees us to serve God in this world.  It’s not about us; it’s about sharing the love of God in Christ Jesus with others.  May it be our greatest desire and delight!

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