Deeper Hope:

An Abiding Virtue

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Entries in The Cross (5)

Blinded by Beauty

Once there was a man who could not see beyond his wife’s great beauty. And beautiful she was: deep-set eyes, high cheekbones, porcelain skin, rich red hair, and the picture of health. Yet she was more than this. She was kind and gentle, strong and determined, insightful and wise, but these qualities he did not see. Her manner of life was more beautiful still. She moved with grace between the roles of woman, wife, mother, and friend. What’s more, she possessed the rare ability to teach and encourage others in all these skills. But he was blind.

“I’m the luckiest man in the world,” her husband said, and even though he was indeed correct, he saw a mere fraction of his good fortune. Blinded by her beauty, he was insensible to the thousand other values she possessed.

Eventually he grew old and died: happy and ignorant of his true wealth.

What if we are that man? What if we live in the company of beauty—and grace, and wisdom, and strength, and vision enough for a lifetime and beyond, but we receive only a portion of our good fortune? What if, in Christ, we are partakers in the divine nature but we stop at the beauty of the cross?

We love the cross because it is the place forgiveness. We love the cross because Jesus paid a debt he did not owe, and paid a horrid price we could never ourselves pay. Because of the cross we live forgiven and free, our sin is washed away. What if we are blinded by its beauty?

The work of the cross is complete. Through its divine exchange we will live with the Father forever.

But Jesus was more than the cross. He did more than die. His manner of life was beautiful as well. He is kind and gentle, strong and determined, insightful and wise. What’s more, he has the rare ability to teach us all these skills. Jesus is more than the cross. His life is a gift to us as well.

If we see the cross as the ultimate expression of the Lord’s purpose we limit his mission to forgiveness. If we see ourselves as only recipients of his ministry, we stop at the cross. His mission, his aim, his gospel began before the cross, and extended beyond. What a blessed span are the days between Good Friday and Easter, yet it took Jesus more than a weekend to accomplish his work. The cross is a great gift, yet it is more, it is a portal—an entry-point into a new world, a new kind of life.

To become a child of God everyone must come to the cross. There is no other path. But there is beauty beyond the cross; the new life it offers is only the beginning. Can we see more?

Meditation: Why the Cross is Not Enough

Christianity without the cross is a sham, but the cross is not enough. You heard me: the cross is not enough. Before the cross came incarnation, and after the cross came resurrection: Jesus modeled all three, and so should we.

I’ve watched recently as an increasing number of teachers and leaders encourage us to follow Jesus’ example by going to the cross. Our Lord is a model—the model, actually—of self sacrifice and humility. This much is true: he is our example, and he went willingly to the cross. He didn’t miscalculate, he wasn’t blindsided by people or events beyond his control. No one took his life from him: he laid it down freely, and so should we.

Before the cross, however, all of heaven gasped in wonder at the miracle of Incarnation. The Creator become part of creation. He did not stand afar off and offer advice, he became present in his world. He arrived in the usual way for a man, and the most unusual way for God. Nor did he simply drop in for a weekend redemption spree. He lived life to the full and left a record of how we should live. This part of his example required humility and sacrifice as well.

The Apostle Paul tells us the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. The cross, he says, is a scandal to the religiously minded and ridiculous to the wisdom of this age. The world does not value humility and sacrifice, but they are the calling cards of another realm. Still, Paul did not leave Jesus in the grave, nor did the Father. To win by losing is an oxymoron. But Jesus didn’t win by losing. He won by winning, and the winning came by the resurrection.

Jesus’ example did not end with the agonizing beauty of his tortured death. His final words on the cross were not his final words. He had much more to say, and plenty for us to do. His work beyond the cross required the Father’s intervention in his life, and our work should require no less. Have you ever considered the humility and faith Jesus displayed by placing his future in the Father’s hands? Jesus died in faith, trusting in the Father’s promise of resurrection, but he had no guarantee beyond the love and trust he exhibited that night in Gethsemane. In this, too, we can follow his example. The Spirit of God is hovering and poised to infuse our lives with resurrection empowerment even now.

No witness is complete without these three vital elements: incarnation, sacrifice, and resurrection. Our attempts at ministry are incomplete without the three. We cannot stand far off and offer advice. We cannot follow Jesus without bearing the cross, and we cannot carry on his work without the Father’s intervention. Our tendency, though, is to prefer one of these above the rest. This week’s mediation asks of us: which is our default position, and how can we make room for the other two aspects Jesus modeled?

Monday's Meditation: Grenade!

Nearly every World War II war movie ever made contains the sacrificial scene: in the middle of a firefight a hand grenade bounces into the foxhole. Some expendable character in the movie dives atop the thing before it explodes. The hero of the movie sees the valour and sacrifice of his buddy and leads the good guys to victory.
My warped sense of humor wonders about the timing device on the grenade. What if--after covering the grenade with his body--there was a moment’s delay before the explosion? “Dang!” thinks the guy lying on the ground. “I probably had time to pick this thing up and BOOM!” Too late.
I see a connection between cheesy WWII movies and these words of Jesus: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9: 23) Death on the installment plan is much more difficult than dying in a single moment.
Under the right circumstances anyone could give their life once. To give it up  daily is something else altogether. The call of discipleship begins with “come and follow.” We follow Jesus in his devotion to the Father. We follow him in his ministry to the masses. And we discover as the first disciples did, we follow him to the cross. The cross of Christ was unique because the perfect Son of God paid what no one on earth could afford. The cross of each disciple is unique because the life of Jesus waits to flow through each one to the waiting world. The cross is the pathway to the resurrection kind of life.
Once you’ve been to the cross, everything changes. Stumbling blocks and foolishness turn into power and wisdom. The Cross changes everything. If something’s pursuing us, then perhaps the event that will change everything is the Cross. If nothing is changing, maybe we haven’t been to the Cross. We cannot carry the same world-changing cross Jesus took up the hill, but we can carry a cross capable of changing our world. It’s smaller, it fits us, and it waits for us each day.
This week’s meditation isn’t morbid or self-loathing. It merely asks whether we have given our lives to the Lord only once or whether we make the same choice each new morning. It looks to imitate the Lord himself with the same hope of reward. Am I willing to die each day, again and again? If so, the resurrection kind of life can become a daily fact of life.

Monday's Meditation: Considering the Cross

Have you ever planned to think about something? To set the direction of your thoughts, so whenever they are free and looking for something constructive to do, the direction is already determined?  Some topics are too big to be merely Monday’s Meditation. They deserve more time: to marinate, to allow the flavor to saturate every part of the meal.

(Now I’m getting hungry--but isn’t that the point of focused meditation as well?)
There’s no better topic for sustained meditation than the words of Jesus, because his words broke forth from of old and will continue on forever. His words established the earth; his words will create a new heaven and new earth. So this week I’m giving myself to his simple statement, “"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9: 23)
Some meditation starts best with questions. What would it mean to “take up his cross daily?” How is self-denial connected to our ability to lay hold of the cross? Perhaps I can suggest three appetizers for the disciple who would feast on the Lord’s words:
Taking up our cross is an intentional act. The cross doesn’t happen to us. We take it each day by the choices we make. These choices can small and private, they needn’t prove anything to anyone. Jack Hayford, a wonderful pastor and example of a disciple, once said he reads the scripture each morning at his bedside--on his knees. He does so to signal to God and remind himself of his willingness to submit to God’s will. 
The Apostle Paul warned us that religious people will consider the cross something shameful and intellectual people will consider it foolish. Am I willing to embrace shameful foolishness in order to follow Jesus?
Taking up our cross contains the promise of resurrection. Which do we want: a life filled with our own efforts, our own strength and our own results, or a life filled with supernatural power? The cross changed everything. It was a death sentence in its day, now it’s the path to life.
The Father is not trying to kill us, but he calls us to come and die. There’s a big difference. Why would he ask this of us?

Ignoring the Cross

This is embarrassing, for reals. Every once in a while the Twitterverse delivers a thunderbolt, and I was struck this past weekend.
One of my regular readers--a person whom I don’t think I’ve ever met--sent me this direct message on twitter: “I could not find an entry on your blog about ‘carrying our cross daily.’ I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Had some confusion lately.”
Immediately I thought, “That can’t be right.” I checked the labels at my site and sure enough, the word “cross” doesn’t even appear. About twenty minutes later I received another direct message: “I did find a few entries with a closer look.“ My Twitter correspondent was being generous: the tally came to three sentences about the cross. How could this be? How could I blog for two years, more than 200 posts, and never address the role of the cross in the life of a disciple?
Jesus was pretty clear on this subject. All three of the synoptic gospels. Smack dab in the middle of Mark, so you can’t miss it:
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?  Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8: 34-38)
Luke’s gospel (chapter 9) adds the word “daily” to the passage, and Matthew’s gospel (chapter 16) introduces “reward” to the mix. Clearly, this is an important part of following Jesus. The epistles contain 13 overt references to the cross and who knows how many implied references. Here at Students of Jesus? Three. In two years, 228 posts, Eleventy gazillion words.
After the two-message twitter conversation my immediate thought was, “no problem: I’ll just write something up and post it.” The Holy Spirit was kind enough to suggest that if I hadn’t considered the cross of Christ in two years, what insight could I gain in four days?
So here is what I have learned in four days: I have ignored the cross of Christ. I’ve embraced the image of taking the yoke (check the URL and the tag-line at the top),
perhaps because by taking the yoke I can remain alive, but embracing the cross means learning how to die. Daily.
I’ve come too far with Jesus to fall into the trap of beating myself up. Instead, the Father graciously nudged another one of his kids to send me 140 characters via social networking to call my attention to what is still lacking in my life as a disciple. I immediately dug in and began to attend to the cross.
In these first few days I’ve imagined possible responses to the words of Jesus, and I’d like to share my first pass at that. What are the possible responses? Maybe we can start with these four:
  • Reject the cross: In which I understand the call, count the cost, and fold before I must pay the price. Better to indulge in religious activities--perhaps even do some good--but remain the master of my fate: build my ministry, increase my readership, secure my future. I don’t think that’s me, but I can imagine pastors, evangelists, and various religious professionals taking this. Then again, when is the last time I fasted? Jesus probably isn’t amused by my standard line, “the only thing I ever got from fasting is skinny.”
  • Mortify myself in an attempt to take up the cross: I’m no church historian, but there are plenty of examples of those who believed that by literary imitating the suffering of Jesus they were somehow following his example. It’s true that no one took his life from him: Jesus gave himself to the cross, but I don’t think he intended us to inflicted controlled pain in order to find affinity with him. (But then, after only four days’ reflection, what do I really know?)
  • Ignore the cross: I think this is where I’ve been living. Love Jesus? You bet. Worship and Adore? I’m in. Serve him? I’d like to think that’s what I’ve been doing. But with respect to the call to embrace the cross--it’s imagery and reality--I’ve been a no-show. Like the disciples in Ephesus who had never heard of the Holy Spirit, I’m the disciple who’s never seen the cross. And honestly: how could I miss it? The cross is the primary sign of Evangelical Christianity. Who’s ever heard of a church without a cross? (Answer: mine)
  • Embrace the cross: Now, I’m just four days into this but it seems to me that Jesus loved the Father, saw what he was doing, and partnered with him. Jesus demonstrated a life of purity and obedience. A life so vivid and compelling that some people followed him and some killed him. A life so loving he was willing to be lifted up in shame in order to rescue those who neither loved him nor understood him. I’d like to learn to live that kind of life.
There. That’s the first pass. It won’t be the last, and it shouldn’t be a monologue. There are probably plenty of you who have thought and lived deeply toward the cross. Here’s your chance to teach, encourage and, if you must, chastize. I eagerly welcome your instruction. Why not leave a comment, point me toward your blog post that deals with the cross, or set me straight in general. I need it, and my friend on Twitter is still waiting for an answer.

EDITOR'S NOTE: It's Saturday,and in turning my attention to the cross I came across a Good Friday post from 2009: Still, it's not enough for a discipleship blog. And, gentle readers, I'm still looking for your comments.