Cross Bearing

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                              A Lent 2                          Feb 25, 2018

Mark 8:34-37


There are certain lakes in the Canadian Shield where boaters easily get turned around. I have a pretty good sense of direction in the wilderness, at least on sunny days, so I wasn’t too worried until we paddled into one of those lakes. Sure enough, I, too, found myself disoriented. I thought I knew where north was until I pulled out my compass. Oops! It’s always a good idea to take a compass bearing every now and then, even when you think you know where you’re going.

Our Lenten compass is the cross. Even when we think we know where we’re headed, we need to reflect on our direction through taking a periodic cross-bearing. Sometimes, we are surprised when our cross compass reveals that we’ve gone off course a wee bit. Lent is a great time to refocus, to redirect our energies, to consider if our actions line up with our priorities.

In our lectionary reading from the gospel, Jesus told the crowd that if anyone wanted to follow him, they must be willing to take up their cross. They must be willing to lose their lives for the sake of the gospel. These were pretty harsh words, as they knew that Jesus was referring to the most cruel and humiliating type of execution of his time. Most didn’t have any idea why he was saying this.

Two thousand years later, we are still trying to figure this out. For Christians in some parts of the world, their faith is a death sentence, but for most of us, our Christian faith does not warrant suffering, let alone death. So if we are not to give up our lives literally for the gospel, what are we to give up?

Some see Lent as a dieting opportunity. I’ll give up chocolate or sweets or drinking for Lent. While this may be good for the body, it’s not what Jesus was talking about. He wasn’t asking us to give up things for ourselves. Rather, he was asking us to be prepared to self-sacrifice for the sake of the gospel. And what is the gospel? According to Jesus’ own statement of purpose for his ministry in Luke 4, the gospel is good news for the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, the oppressed. The gospel is about levelling the playing field so that all will have an opportunity for abundant life.

The playing field of life in Canada isn’t as level as we’d like to think. If you are a child born into poverty, you start off with a few strokes against you. If you are also Indigenous, you then have a few strokes of racism that multiply, not just add, to the uphill challenges. If you happen to live on a reserve, you may have lack of adequate housing or safe drinking water. It is difficult for them to find hope in the midst of all of the daily challenges. When I was speaking with a school teacher at Cross Lake last year, she said that she was exhausted just trying address the relentless number of youth suicides. It’s no wonder that many turn to mind-numbing drugs and alcohol.

We know all of this. But this past week, we’ve had a few cross-bearing wake-up calls that are saying, “Enough!” Enough of juries that screen out Indigenous people. Enough of people taking the law into their own gun-wielding hands. Enough of a system that fails young Indigenous girls who are murdered in a violent, drug-laden sub-culture. We have a broken system of justice and child services that denies too many of the abundant life most of us Canadians have.

So what is our response? What does the gospel call us to do? I’ve often felt paralyzed and overwhelmed. What difference could we possibly make? And then I listened to impassioned youth in the United States who are daring to challenge the untouchable. They just might be the tipping point in changing an entrenched gun culture. They give me hope in the face of our hopelessness.

These murder trials have helped me take a cross-bearing. They have certainly shown that our society is a bit off course. How can we, as a church and as Christian individuals, shine Christ’s light as a beacon to draw all of us back on track? I have learned that when I’m overwhelmed or confused, I need not to act, but to listen deeply for the bright Morning Star of Wisdom. I need to listen to the Indigenous elders, who have much to teach all of us about respect and the circle of life. I need to listen to those in government, to those in social services, to those whose own families have been deeply impacted. I need to listen with an open heart and a mind that resists making judgements until I have fully listened. It is here—in the circle of deep listening—that we find the Spirit of Wisdom.

Shortly, our own congregation will be considering holding a Circle of Reconciliation, where 5 Indigenous people sit with 5 non-Indigneous people for 10 sessions simply to listen and to learn. Now is the time to listen. We must remember that as we listen to those on the margins of society, we will be listening to Christ.

By taking up the cross, it means that we must be willing to give up something so that others may more fully have life. We often understand our ministries as “add-ons”. If we have time, we can sit with someone and listen—we can join a Circle of Reconciliation, we can phone someone lonely, we can listen patiently to a repetitive conversation with someone who has dementia. But the cross suggests that we might need to subtract, instead of add. We might need to give up something so that we DO have more time to minister to others. It may be more a question of “how” than of “if”.

The same logic concerns ownership. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest, whose daily emailed devotionals consistently challenge me. As a novice, he was encouraged to write the Latin words, “sine proprio” on all of his possessions. This phrase literally means, “without anything of one’s own”. This practice went back to St. Francis of Assisi, who believed that ownership is ultimately an illusion that chains us to buying, remodelling and protecting our property. Eventually, our possessions possess us. Buddhists teach something very similar and urge us to detach ourselves from all that catches us, triggers us, owns us. Indigenous elders teach us that the land and all that it has to offer is of the Creator for us to share, not to own.

For some, Jesus’ teachings have inspired them to literally sell all that they have and join monastic communities. For us, we may want to consider simply holding all that we have a little more lightly and loosely. In some cultures, you have to be careful not to admire things in someone else’s house or they will give them to you. In these cultures, communal wellbeing is more important than personal ownership. They have a more fluid sense of ownership, where they are pleased to give up something of theirs that will bring happiness to another.

We try to teach our children to share, but in this culture one of their first words is “Mine.” We teach sharing, but we practice “mining” and children learn very well.

To take up our cross is a test of allegiance. Are we willing to sacrifice even a little of our time or our possessions or of our money, that we may offer a part of ourselves for the welfare of others? What can we give up so that we have more time to listen? Are we willing not to buy the cheapest, but to pay a bit more for fair trade products that better support the labourers and the earth? If we understand ourselves as part of the whole global ecosystem, we can’t separate our welfare from the welfare of others or of the earth. Eknath Easwaran, a follower of Gandhi and a teacher of meditation, writes,

“To live simply is to live gently, keeping in mind always the needs of the planet, other creatures, and the generations to come. In doing this we lose nothing, because the interests of the whole naturally include our own…In claiming nothing for [ourselves, we] have everything, for everything is [ours] to enjoy as part of the whole.”[1]

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, when we receive the mark of the cross on our foreheads. It’s not a popular service, especially when it falls on Valentine’s Day, because we don’t like being reminded of our fragility. But I find it a relief to be reminded that I am just one little speck of dust that momentarily passes by on this earth. It helps me not to take myself so seriously. When you live a little lighter on this earth, it is easier to take things more lightly and to value relationships above ownership. Wearing the mark of the cross reminds us to take a God-bearing of our lives and bring ourselves back on course.

Three years ago, A Lutheran pastor received a message on Ash Wednesday to come to the maternity ward of the hospital to administer ashes. The pastor was a bit alarmed, wondering if this request was because of a difficult birth. But when she arrived at the ward, everything seemed to be fine, and regular contractions had begun. “Why did you want to receive ashes at this time?” the pastor asked, puzzled. “Because it’s Ash Wednesday,” the mother replied. “I just wanted to start things off right for this baby!”[2]


Wearing the mark of the cross reminds us to push the restart button. When we take a cross-bearing of our lives, how does it call each of us back on course?

[1] Eknath Easwaran, Original Goodness: On the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount (Nilgiri Press: 1996), 93, 94.

[2] Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt,