Under the Cross

There’s a well-known Rembrandt sketch I sometimes ponder during the Lenten season. Rembrandt’s “Three Crosses” (see it here) portrays a crowded and chaotic crucifixion scene. Blending into the crowd under the crosses on the hill is a Renaissance-looking man, purported to be either the artist himself or the patron of the painting (often done in religious art of that era). This figure seems completely oblivious to the drama playing out a few feet from him.  As we approach Good Friday, it’s always worth reflecting: If I were there, literally under the cross, where would I be, and what would I be doing?

As followers of Jesus, of course, we are all called to live ‘under the cross.’  I’ve been thinking about that ever since an encounter we had in El Salvador. We were meeting with a group of pastors and other local church leaders and some of their spouses. The topic was World Vision’s work through a wonderful initiative called Channels of Hope, to help the church credibly live out the Gospel they proclaim.

Channels of Hope is a training method for faith leaders and was being used here to sensitize clergy and their spouses in child protection and “gender” issues (demeaning and mistreating girls and women). The training helps participants explore their own upbringing and cultural blind-spots… what we “bring” with us to the Bible when we try to understand and teach it.

After we’d heard a bit from the pastors, the question was asked about what impact has resulted. Eventually Pastor Juan announced with a quiet urgency that he wanted to say something.  First, he asked one of our visitors who was sitting next to him if she could move so that Juan’s wife–his “First Lady”–could sit by him. He invited his esposa to be the first to speak: “We’ve been trained on gender equality,” she began. “This has helped us a lot, even as a couple: My husband and I have been working to make adjustments in our own relationship. We understand each other better. We spend more time together and more with our children. We are doing what we can with the families in church, but we ourselves have improved as well.”

Then Juan added that in the church they dedicate one Sunday of every month to family issues and have instituted an annual retreat to talk about family concerns using the training they’ve received. There was clearly more to their personal story than they spelled out, but in a machismo culture, the sad details are not difficult to imagine.

Later, I thanked Pastor Juan for his comments, then pointed out that his family life was being transformed long after his Christian conversion, that the act of opening ourselves to God in Christ is an invitation to remain continually open to God’s conviction and to “say yes” in obedience whenever we hear his voice. “You humbly opened yourself to new teaching and other ways of thinking, and when you heard God’s voice in that, you were obedient to it.”

This feels very important to me.  Living “under the cross” must call us to continual transformation, not a one-time event and then a lifetime of intransigence.  There hasn’t been another time when I have changed as much in my Christian life as I have the past 5-10 years. I’m no longer afraid of discovering new areas where I’ve been wrong. Nowadays I simply assume that in many areas I was “born blind,” and I can’t wait to recruit the help of others—provocative authors, diverse cultures, historical figures—to help me navigate past my own blind spots in order to get a better understanding of Jesus than any single culture or upbringing could give me, my own included.

Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t enjoy feeling convicted or discovering areas where I’ve been a judge rather than a light, where my viewpoint has been only a view from one point, without considering the views of others. But I now have a different goal which drives me: to be continually transformed more and more into the image of Christ, as quickly as I can. And this means letting go of my preconceptions and admitting quickly when I just might not be as right as I thought I was. If it’s true that only together we form Christ’s Body, then I desperately need all those other parts of the Body to help me navigate, if we are to make any progress at all in the work we are together called to do.

Pastor Juan sat there without humiliation, having let go and repented of some his culture’s shortcomings, having been transformed on this issue. Not afraid to be convicted. Not afraid to say that his eyes had been opened, that he was wrong, that all the Scripture verses he had used to justify his previous stern actions and attitudes toward his children and wife were surpassed by other biblical principles which until recently he had simply ignored as not being relevant to his situation.

Today, as a result, he is leading the way for his entire congregation on that same journey past this cultural blind spot, and leading his fellow pastors in what it means to “confess our sins to one another,” bearing each other’s burdens “and so fulfill the law of Christ.”  What would it mean to seriously embrace our need to confront our blind spots and confess our flaws as the only means by which we can actually “fulfill the law of Christ” together?

It might mean staying in that place of continual transformation, of living under the cross.


March 2014

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