What does it mean to “take up your cross”?

Last night in small group, we were talking about Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23-26, where he says:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.

What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? 

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

And the question that followed was:

What does it actually mean to “take up your cross”?

On Sunday at our East Side parish, Matthew made the really good point that “taking up one’s cross” has, in many cases, particularly in the West, become stripped of its impact and significance. People tend to use a phrase like “That’s just my cross to bear” for any inconvenience, irritation, hardship, or suffering, when that’s not what Jesus means. As Matthew said (and you can listen to the whole sermon here: “Jesus: A Disciple’s Identity”):

Jesus’ cross was a sign of resistance to established authority and an instrument of shame as one hung naked and pitiful for all to see. And the temptation is for all of us to say that any area of challenge in our lives, “Well, that’s just my cross to bear,” and in so doing … we actually cheapen the cross. … Being stuck in traffic is not a cross. A hard business statistics class is not a cross. A difficult roommate, even, is not a cross to bear. Our crosses are those places where following Jesus actually costs us something quite precious.

This reference here in Luke 9 is actually the first time that Jesus mentions the cross, the first time he mentions that he’s going to die. Here, for the disciples, there’s no notion of triumph through death; there’s only death. That’s what Jesus is saying: “If you’re going to follow me, you’re going to have to deny your own desires and take up the means by which you yourselves will die.”

And he says that they are to do it daily. So he isn’t talking about a literal, physical death — though many of the disciples would see their faithfulness to the gospel and to their Master end that way. As one of the guys in my group said last night, “He’s talking about love. Love is the way of denying yourself and seeking the good of the other. That’s the reality that Jesus was talking about and living out.”

Every moment and every day, Jesus was denying himself so that he might obey the will of the Father and seek the good of everyone he encountered. That challenges my notions of daily quiet time. Instead of my usual fallback, “Thank you, God, for this day. Please be with me. Amen”, maybe I should be acknowledging:

God, my life is not my own; my time is not my own; my body is not my own. All of them are yours. Please help me deny myself so that your kingdom might come and your will might be done in my life and through my life on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus gives us the answer in the first part of his sentence: to take up my cross is to deny myself, to deny my own selfish desires, to seek to love and put others first at home and at work, in my friendships and in my marriage, in conversations I have and in my thought patterns. Every. Single. Day.

To take up my cross is to bite my tongue when I want to prove myself right or to justify myself, because that is love.

To take up my cross is to give of my time and my energy and my money — even and especially when I don’t feel like it — when someone is in need, because that is love.

To take up my cross is to train myself in the ways of love and self-sacrifice, to practice the characteristics of love that Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians 13: being patient and kind; not envying or boasting or being arrogant or rude; not insisting on my own way; not being irritable or resentful; not rejoicing in wrongdoing but rejoicing rather in the truth; bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, and enduring all things.

That’s what I think it means to deny myself and to take up my cross every day.

Eugene Peterson paraphrases Psalm 5:3 this way:

Every morning

I lay out the pieces of my life

on your altar

and watch for fire to descend.

I think that’s my new daily prayer.

Résumés and obituaries

[Excerpted from Sunday’s message: “Jesus = More Life.” Listen to the sermon here.]

Jesus = More Life

Forty-seven years ago, in February 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered what would be his last sermon. It was called “The Drum Major Instinct.” If you haven’t read it or heard it in full, I’d encourage you to—it’s a challenging, inspiring word. As he gets to the end of this sermon, Dr. King begins to imagine his own funeral, and he says this:

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.

I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

I heard it said recently that people nowadays tend to think more and more about their résumés and less and less about their obituaries. In other words, people seem more concerned with padding their lives with experiences or with things that will impress others rather than thinking about how they would want to be remembered, and not just in terms of the impression they leave on others—as if it were all just about the façade—but, more substantively, thinking about who they are becoming, about what kind of person they are growing into, about how their character is being cultivated.

How would you want to be remembered?

What kind of person are you becoming, by the choices you’re making, by the relationships you’re investing in, by the values you’re prioritizing?

What kind of world will you leave behind?

How will you respond to the opportunities God gives you every single day, every single moment?

Fasting for Lent

Ash WednesdayLent begins tomorrow (Ash Wednesday), a season for focusing on Jesus as we prepare to celebrate the climax of his life and his mission—his death and resurrection—and also for remembering Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness before he began his public ministry. It lasts for 40 days (excluding Sundays), and ends on Easter Sunday (April 5 this year).

One of the traditional Lenten practices is to fast. You may have already seen posts on social media announcing that your friends will be off Facebook until Easter; others give up chocolate or caffeine or alcohol; still others fast from meat or candy. In the Bible, though, fasting is understood narrowly as abstaining from food for spiritual purposes.

Interestingly, there are no laws or commandments in the Bible about fasting. You don’t have to do it, though it may be helpful. Moses certainly found it to be (Ex 34), as did David (2 Sam 12), Jehoshaphat (2 Chr 20), Elijah (1 Kgs 19), Esther, Ezra, Daniel, Anna the Prophetess (Luke 2), Paul and early church (Acts 13, 14).

Jesus did it too, but there’s no sense that he did it regularly—he had a reputation as “a glutton and a drunkard,” partly because he didn’t make a big deal out of fasting and he didn’t command his disciples to fast (Matt 9). Presumably, as a devout Jew, he followed the traditional practice of fasting on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:27); and there are instances recorded of when he fasted, most notably in the wilderness, preparing for public ministry. But he never commanded it.

What he did say about fasting comes from Matt 6:16-18:

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Here, Jesus assumes that it happens; he doesn’t command it. (And we should always be careful of making assumptions into commandments!)

In the context of the passage, Jesus is talking about doing religious things for selfish reasons. Fasting is meant to be done as part of a life devoted to pursuing God, together with praying and simplicity and seeking justice (see Isaiah 58).

The point of fasting is to draw near to God, to help us focus on God by denying ourselves. We might also fast in order to become more like Jesus, understanding that we do not “live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). As I wrote last year:

The point of fasting can be to give up luxuries, to remind us that we don’t need the things that the world tells us we can’t do without; it can also about giving up some so-called necessities, to remind us that we don’t need the things we tell ourselves we can’t do without. But ultimately, the point of fasting is to remind us that there is only one thing we can’t do without—and that’s God.

As I mentioned earlier, fasting has become more broadly practiced—it no longer only applies to food. Some of the guys in my small group are challenging each other over the next six and a half weeks of Lent to fast something or to pick up a habit that we’ll encourage each other in and be accountable to one another.

See, traditionally, people fast but we also need to remember to fill that space with something positive. You can give up food or social media or coffee, but if you don’t fill it with some sort of positive engagement with God, it’s kind of missing the point.

So it can be helpful to think of this in two ways:

  1. What you want to give up and then what you want to fill that space with.
  2. What rhythms or habits you want to add to your life and then how to make room for it.

The goal is not to focus on the habit but to focus on Christ and how we are becoming more like him in the process.

We took time to brainstorm some ideas, through the lens of:

  • Work, friendships, romantic relationships, money, time, habits;
  • The District Church’s core values: worship (connecting with God), community (connecting with each other), justice (connecting with the needs of the world);
  • Fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Here are some ideas that we came up with, in case you need help brainstorming:

  • Fast
    • Unplug: no electronics 2 hours pre-bedtime until after time with God in the morning
    • Snooze button
    • Eating out
    • Buying anything new (not including necessities, e.g. food)—fasting from consumer culture
    • Swearing
    • Gossiping
    • People (not all the time, obviously, but rather in order to practice solitude)—Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Let the person who cannot be alone beware of community.”
    • Social media (learning to focus)
  • Pick up
    • Exercise to care for the body
    • 30 mins of reading to cultivate stillness
    • Pray for the same thing or the same person every day to cultivate perseverance
    • Listing 10 things we’re grateful for
    • Sending an email to someone catching up
    • Setting aside time to reflect on the cross
    • Reading the Bible
    • Pray for a few minutes

Remember, if you decide to do anything this season, your Lenten practice is not about legalism or drudgery. It’s not about turning disciplines into laws. It’s not about feeling like a failure if you miss a day.

It’s about freedom from self-interest and fear. It’s about joy. And most importantly, it’s about learning how to walk more closely with God, learning how to listen more carefully to God, and learning how to be more like Jesus.

Drinking like dogs (or, How God works)

I learned something new this week, a detail that blew up something I had been sure of since I first learned it, 20 years ago. [This may not be a big deal to you, but it was to me.]

There’s a story in the Old Testament book of Judges, about a man named Gideon. He lived at the dawn of the Iron Age, around 1200BC, in northern Israel–this was after the time of Moses but before the time of King David. At the time, the people of Israel were being subjected to constant raids by the Midianites, a tribe of Bedouin nomads, so much so that the people of Israel were driven to find shelter in the mountains.

God calls Gideon to free the Israelites from the oppressive grip of Midian, and so Gideon calls the people to arms–32,000 of them respond.

Maybe you’ve heard this part before: God says, “That’s too many. If you win with that many, you’ll think it was your effort and your strength that saved you.” So he directs Gideon to send home those who are afraid, and 22,000 leave.

Okay, that’s less than we thought, but that decision makes sense, right? We don’t want the scaredy-cats, the ones who might turn tail in battle; we want the fearless, the ferocious.

But God says, “That’s still too many. Let’s take them to the water and I’ll help you make this crew a little smaller.”

And here’s where my mind was blown.

See, the lesson I was taught in Sunday school many decades ago was that Gideon picked the ones who were alert, the ones who didn’t put their faces in the water. That’s what we find in the NIV:

“Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.” Three hundred of them drank from cupped hands, lapping like dogs. All the rest got down on their knees to drink.  (Judges 7:5-7, NIV)

Logistically, though, everyone has to get down on the knees to drink from the river, whether you use your hands or not, right? And to me, this is the image I have of dogs drinking:

511px-Catahoula-tan-coat

The image I have of someone who laps the water like a dog is one who’s on his hands and knees, maybe even on his belly, scooping water to his mouth as fast as he can, maybe even dunking his head in from time to time because he can’t get it quickly enough.

So maybe those who lapped the water actually weren’t the more alert ones but the less alert ones, the ones less conscious of their surroundings, the ones who were simply concerned with getting a drink. This is reflected in another translation:

“All those who lap the water with their tongues, as a dog laps, you shall put to one side; all those who kneel down to drink, putting their hands to their mouths, you shall put to the other side.”  The number of those that lapped was three hundred; but all the rest of the troops knelt down to drink water. (Judges 7:5-6, NRSV)

 One commentary puts it this way:

The original distinction must have been between those who knelt and drank from their hands, and those (the 300) who put their faces to the water and lapped like dogs. Thus, it was probably the most unlikely who were chosen, to make it even clearer that the victory was no human achievement. (IVP New Bible Commentary)

I had been taught that God had chosen the fearless and the alert, that God chooses the fearless and the alert. But actually, God may have chosen the 300 least likely to defeat the Midianites. That fits with his MO, doesn’t it?

Remember God’s reason for culling the army in 7:2? “Israel would only take the credit away from me, saying, ‘My own hand has delivered me.'” So God cuts the army from 32,000 to 300. That’s 0.9% of the original fighting force, against the might of Midian, whose number is “like locusts.” (And this is not the 300 Spartans we’re talking about. Not even close.)

It might be instructive also to look at the story of Gideon’s call in chapter 6, or at least Gideon’s response to being called. He said,

“Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” (Judges 6:15)

But doesn’t that sound like God? Doesn’t that sound like the way God works? Doesn’t that sound like the stories that we find over and over in the Bible?

Choosing the weak to shame the strong, choosing the foolish to shame the wise, choosing the things that are not to overturn the things that are.

Siding with the poor and the oppressed and the weeping and the hungry and the outcasts.

Moses the exiled standing up to Pharaoh and the might of Egypt and leading the people of Israel out of slavery.

Achieving victory with an uncertain Gideon and the fearful and underresourced 300.

Defeating a ferocious giant with David the shepherd boy and one smooth stone.

God becoming a human baby born into poverty, living as a carpenter in obscurity for most of his life, then dying a bandit’s death on a Roman cross … so that sin and death might be defeated.

I don’t know why I’m still surprised. But God has a way of doing that, especially by shaking up things I thought I knew.

I’m reminded of the apostle Paul’s words:

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)

What is the gospel?

[Excerpt from yesterday’s message at The District Church: “You Are Not Your Mistakes.”]

“There is not one square inch of the entire creation over which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!'” – Abraham Kuyper

Gospel (letterbox)

This is the gospel:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and everything that is in them. He made human beings to be his image-bearers, commissioned us to rule over the earth as his ambassadors, his representatives. And he declared all things good.

But we chose to do things our own way, separating ourselves from God and from his good, life-giving purposes for us. This is what we call sin. Our sinful decisions—because they separate us from God, who is the source of life—lead to death.

In the Old Testament, to atone for the sin—to pay or make up for the wrong that had been done—a sacrifice had to be made. The sinner would have to bring to the temple an animal without blemish—no bruises, no cuts, no scars. In one episode of This American Life, a Jewish professor said we lose some of the impact nowadays of how sacrifice was such an important part of worship because we tend to give either impersonal things like money or intangible things like time. In those days, you would bring something personal—an animal you had raised and cared for and protected from harm—and then you would make the sacrifice yourself. You couldn’t avoid the mess of sacrifice or the cost of sacrifice because you can’t avoid the mess of sin or the cost of sin. And sin leads to death; sin always leads to death: the death of a friendship, the death of a marriage, the death of innocence, the death of a healthy sexual identity and expression, the death of justice and equality, the death of trust, and in those days, the death of an animal.

But God knew that animals could never make up for the wrong that we did, that all the animals in the world could never make up for the hurt we caused each other and ourselves, that it was like trying to stanch a gaping wound with a Band-Aid or to hold back a river with a brick. And so, we are told, God demonstrated his love for us by sending his Son Jesus to live the life he created us to live, the life we could not live on our own, a life full of love for him and for each other.

On the cross, God took the cost of sin on himself; God himself experienced the mess of sacrifice; God himself experienced death so that we might have life. God in Jesus paid the price for us—the word that the Bible uses for this is one that was commonly used in economic transactions: redemption.

Jesus knew what was coming; he knew what he had come for; he knew the mission on which he had been sent.

To proclaim good news to the poor and release for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

To let the world know that God was making all things new, that God was taking the things that the world had twisted upside down and turning them back the way they were supposed to be.

To sing of a God who welcomes sinners and forgives sins, who restores broken lives and broken bodies, who saves those who think they’re too far gone and humbles those who think they’ve got it all figured out.

To invite us back to the ancient, cosmic calling to be God’s image-bearers on earth, to live as God would in us in a world broken by sin, to proclaim with our words and our deeds the renewing of all things.

This is the gospel: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Renewal.

WashFeetThis is the gospel Jesus spoke of; this is the gospel Jesus lived out. This is the gospel that the woman who lived a sinful life (in Luke 7:36-50) saw and heard. That’s the good news that changed her life, that lifted the weight of sin and death from her soul, that caused her to demonstrate her gratitude by showing love to her Lord. It was a sacrifice that she made, subjecting herself to judgment and ridicule, violating social norms, being vulnerable in the way that she was. An ancient writer said, “Worship without sacrifice is just words.” But this was a different kind of sacrifice.

See, people used to make sacrifices in order to receive forgiveness. This woman was making a sacrifice because she had already been forgiven.

You see the difference? I’ve used this analogy before but it’s like this: in my marriage, I don’t do things for Carolyn so that she will love me; I do them because she loves me and because I want her to know that I appreciate that.

And so with us and God: in Jesus, God is reconciling all things to himself, extending an invitation of forgiveness to every sinner, an invitation to be made new, to come home, to be part of the greatest adventure ever written—life with God for eternity, starting right now and right here on earth.

What does the gospel have to do with your life? Absolutely everything.

CreationFrom Creation, we learn that every human being is made in the image of God.

That means every person you encounter—at home, at work, at play; the people you love and the people you hate; the people you walk past on the street or gossip about behind their backs—every person is made in the image of God.

That means that your calling, the thing you were made for, the thing that—if you were to do it—would make you as fully human as you have ever been, is to be like God in this world, to live as Jesus would live if he were in your place, with love and mercy and grace and forgiveness and justice.

FallFrom the Fall, we learn that there is a thing called sin, which separates us from God and leads to death.

That’s why we aren’t surprised at the brokenness and death and suffering in the world; that’s why we don’t just accept the injustice and we don’t just complain about it; and that’s why we always look at ourselves to see how sin is impacting us and clouding our judgment or making us hypocrites.

That’s why we always walk humbly with our God and with one another, because we know we screw up too.

That’s why we live in community—so we can help each other along the way, by encouraging one another and holding one another accountable.

RedemptionFrom Redemption, we learn that—praise God!—sin and death do not have the final word, that the Creator of the universe loves us so much that he didn’t want to be without us, that he was willing to get involved in the mess and to pay the cost of our sin.

That means that there is no mistake too big for God to overcome, no addiction too strong for God to pry you loose, no pit too deep for God to come down and break the chains of whatever is keeping you there and bring you out into the light.

RenewalAnd from Renewal, we learn that we who have been redeemed have a purpose, and it is to carry out that calling that God gave us from the beginning—to be his image bearers, to be heralds of this upside down kingdom, this reality in which God is in charge and things are not as they seem.

That means that God is not done with us, that he is continually forming us to be his people, sent out on his mission into whatever workplace or whatever situation we may find ourselves:

  • on the frontlines in Afghanistan or the frontlines in underresourced neighborhoods,
  • in the arenas of policy or activism or healthcare,
  • as we take photographs and tell stories,
  • as we fill out TPS reports and stare at Excel documents,
  • as we raise our kids and get to know our next door neighbors,
  • as we go out with our friends and as we go out to serve the poor—and maybe one day those two things will be the same,
  • as we spend our money and we give it away,
  • as we walk with our friends struggling with addiction and illness, and as we ourselves struggle with addiction and illness.

In it all, we are called to be a people—you are called to be a person—of outrageous, unconditional, exceptional, upside down love.

[All Gospel designs by Chantal Rogers]