Glenda Simpkins Hoffman
In the past week, so many leaves have fallen covering cars, sidewalks, and lawns. We are quick to rake our leaves to remove them from our grass. But in a forest, decaying leaves add to the richness, health, and vitality of the soil. This is important and necessary for future growth.
Every fall I think of the words Jesus spoke to his disciples soon after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:23-25).
Jesus uses this reality of nature (in the world that he created, I might add) to point to what he is about to experience in his death and resurrection. I grew up in a liturgical tradition that weekly recited what we call the paschal mystery: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” This is the center of our faith.
In each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus gives three predictions of his death on the cross. Remember the first time, Peter objected. He and the other disciples believe Jesus is the Messiah. They have his identity correct, but they are still confused about his mission. They expected him to fight a great battle to free Israel from the oppression of Rome and once again establishing them as a nation-state. But Jesus keeps telling them his mission is to suffer and die for the sins of the world and to be raised again to life.
But Jesus doesn’t just clarify his mission, he makes clear theirs and ours as well: “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 will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25).
This week in the women’s Bible studies we looked at the third prediction of Jesus’ death (Matthew 20:17-19). The disciples still don’t get it. They still expect Jesus to be enthroned as the Son of David, as the true King of Israel in a political sense. The mother of James and John asks Jesus to let her sons sit on his left and right side. Her request reveals the lack of understanding all the disciples have about what is about to happen.
The world is often filled with people wanting power, position, and prestige. Jesus makes clear that following him requires a total commitment of life. The image of a cross would have been a familiar sight in the Roman empire as a terrible means of execution to those who were a threat to Rome. Jesus understands that his mission involves death on a cross. Anyone who follows Jesus is also called to be ready to lay down one’s life as Jesus did. It’s something we are called to do continually as we yield our life to the lordship of Christ.
What does this look like? To deny ourselves is to turn away from a life focused on ourselves to turn to and trust Jesus for who he is and what he will do. This is not a one-time decision. It’s a moment-by-moment surrender to Jesus. And to take up our cross is not about dealing with minor annoyances, as the phrase is sometimes used. Remember, the cross is the instrument of our crucifixion. It is dying to ourselves so that the life of Christ might live more fully in us, and it often involves suffering.
I love David Benner’s book Desiring God’s Will, particularly the chapter on “Choosing the Cross”. And this week I went back to find one of my favorite passages: “The Way of the cross is not marked so much by the intensity of our suffering as by our willing choice of God’s way over our way—no matter what distress we are experiencing; what hardship we are facing. God’s way will always present us with choice points where we must decide between self-preservation and self-renunciation. Choosing self-renunciation is taking up our cross because it always involves loss and will often occur within the context of suffering.”
Taking up my cross is accepting whatever affliction I experience—no matter how great or small—and inviting Christ to walk alongside me as I carry it. It is meeting the suffering Savior in the midst of my suffering and allowing myself to be touched by his grace. Taking up my cross is accepting self-denial and sacrifice as a part of my daily life as I follow Christ. Walking this sacred Way of the Cross allows me, therefore, to participate in Christ’s suffering. But more, it puts my suffering in perspective and gives it meaning, because at the end of the Way of the Cross is the resurrection.”
A few months ago I said to a friend, “There are many crosses in the year ahead.” I was thinking of all we continue to deal with regarding COVID-19 including on-line education, what the result of the national election might bring (regardless of who won), all the changes in the church that will come with a pastoral transition, and all the tasks involved in helping our oldest son graduate from high school and embark on the path of college. I didn’t know then my husband would face a serious medical crisis that would add to the list.
This is life. Transitions and trials come to us all. Many of them we do not choose. As I write this, I am so aware of others in our congregation facing serious issues that are also difficult and painful. Jesus’ invitation is to see our struggles not as something to merely get over or get through but as opportunities to take up our cross. It requires a choice to allow Christ to be a part of whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.
I confess that by temperament I have been prone to spiral down into anxiety, bitterness, even resentment and anger for the bad things that happen. But during our present circumstances, we know our only and best option is to choose to take up our cross and follow our faithful Savior acknowledging his sovereignty, love, and care for us. I am grateful that Stuart and I are at an age and stage in our journeys of faith that we have been practicing this for decades. It doesn’t mean it isn’t hard or stressful, but we choose to follow Jesus.
Even in so much uncertainty, Stuart and I are filled with thanks for God’s goodness and ongoing presence, peace, and power at work through doctors, nurses, therapists, family, friends, and a community of faith who are supporting us in countless ways. As we turn from our own will and way to trust Jesus, we make the wonderful discovery that the cross leads from death to resurrection life.
There is still a lot of uncertainty, rehab, and treatments ahead for us. And there is a lot of uncertainty ahead for all of us with a new pastor for our church, a new administration for our country, an ongoing pandemic in the world, along with all the personal ups and downs. But as we let go and let God, we find he is carrying us in ways far better than we could imagine. He is always faithful.
If you want to receive updates on Stuart’s medical condition, go to Stuart’s Caring Bridge site.