I was almost done writing my reflection on this Sunday’s scriptures when it happened again. God had other plans. This time, it was the birthday card that my former mother-in-law gave to me. (Side question – what am I supposed to call her now that she’s my “ex” mother-in-law if I still think she is the best mother-in-law ever?)
“Know what happens when you eat health foods, take lots of vitamins, exercise regularly, and quit drinking?” it read on the outside.
“Right. You die anyway. Enjoy some birthday fun while you can.”
Well timed, ex-mother-in-law. Well timed.
You see, this weekend I wrote about how just because we choose to follow Christ doesn’t mean our life will get “better.” On the contrary, as soon as Jesus was acknowledged by Peter as the Messiah, He went on to talk about betrayal, death, and resurrection. This is not what Peter wanted to hear. What Peter (and a lot of his contemporaries) wanted to hear was that hope and change had come, that the new world order was about to begin, that imperialist Rome would be toppled, that the Hebrew nation would be given its rightful glory in the eyes of the world. Peter had every reason to expect it. The miracles and healings and power were undeniable. It could mean only one thing. Life was about to get better. So why all the talk of death?
I shared last week about my aversion to doctors and my related aversion to Jesus. Don’t mistake this aversion for a lack of faith. It’s not that I disbelieve that Jesus will heal me of the dis-ease that plagues me. It’s that I know He will, and I’ve gotten comfortable with my “ailments.” I’m afraid the prescription might be worse than the sickness; I’ve read enough biographies of saints to know that salvation doesn’t put an end to the pain that accompanies life. If anything, walking closer to God has meant that I experience the fullness of being alive even more intensely, both the pleasant and the unpleasant.
Jesus doesn’t promise that a life of following Him will be easy. Nor does He promise it will be “better.” Whenever I use the word “better” I’m thinking not as God does but as human beings do. For me, “better” means “more comfortable.” In this election season, politicians are asking, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Pundits lament that for the first time in generations, people no longer believe their children will be “better off” in the future than they are today. We are urged to vote for the incumbent so that he can have more time to make things “better,” and we are urged to vote for the new guy on promises that anything must be “better” than what we have now. The more I reflect on it, the more I realize that our entire society – red, blue, and purple – is geared toward making life more comfortable.
Jesus doesn’t promise comfortable. He promises a cross. St. Mark reports that, “He spoke this openly.” Is it any wonder, then, that I gravitate toward a faith without works, a faith without too much personal sacrifice, a faith that is comfortable? It is true that I cannot “earn” my salvation through works. I cannot save my own life; trust me, I’ve tried, and all it got me was more miserable. Still, my imperfect works have taught me that I have to depend on God. I don’t just have to rely on God, I get to rely on God. The more I work and fail, the more I am humbled, and the more I must have faith that God’s grace is indeed sufficient. I don’t always fail, either. Sometimes, my works are quite lovely. Occasionally, I am a stunning success, and my life is a beautiful expression of God’s unconditional love, an expression that might never have existed if I hadn’t risked falling short.
Jesus doesn’t say that the life of the cross will be easy, better or comfortable. He says that it will be worth it: “Whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” He promises that our pain will have a purpose, that we will only lose our life in our craving for comfort.
Poet Kahlil Gibran wrote these words about comfort in his great work, The Prophet:
“. . . have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host and then a master? Ay, and it becomes a tamer, and with hook and scourge makes puppets of your larger desires. Though its hands are silken, its heart is of iron. It lulls you to sleep only to stand by your bed and jeer at the dignity of the flesh. It makes mock of your sound senses, and lays them in thistledown like fragile vessels. Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral.”
These words are about as easy to swallow as Jesus’ words about picking up my cross, not because I doubt them, but because I know they are true. Most of us spend our whole lives avoiding the passion of the spiritual path because we know it’s true. “If I do right, I’m going to die anyway, so I may as well have fun,” we reason. Hence the fact that Hallmark put it on a greeting card.
The cross isn’t for everyone. It’s for those whose “fun” isn’t fun anymore. It’s for those whose quest for comfort has left them slaves to their own insecurity and inadequacy. The cross is for those of us who’ve long since given up on “better” and are willing to be transformed into something new that we can’t even imagine, trusting that in the end, it will be worth it.