Death by Cross

Jesus set up the cross we must bear if we follow him. Our cross is not just one thing, but many—some physical defect, fear of heights, family tragedy, aging husband, wayward son, or failing heart. Those things certainly feel like crosses, but that’s not Jesus’ point. Jesus was teaching about the temptation to drop our cross, give up on those we are meant to serve. Watch out for those things that take us off course.

Image by zenitmkt

My grandmother bore all her crosses

By John Pearring
(reprint from February 9, 2016)
Song of Songs 3:1-4
John 20::1-2, 18-20

I can’t remember who first used that term when I was a child. “It’s my cross to bear,” she said, followed by a long, drawn-out sigh. It might have been my mother or one of my grandmothers. I can’t remember who because I’m pretty sure all I could think of is which cross I’d have to bear. All three of these women said it at least once. I’ll tell you about my Grandma Annie, and her cross to bear.

She was a smoker with a quiet husband, Ralph, and collected ceramic figurines of frogs. I cleaned her woodwork a couple of early springtimes when I was a teenager, wiping down wood trim, doors, mantel, shelving, and wainscoting. I usually finished off with the dining table and chairs. I think she made me use Old English oil. I was handed rags torn up from grandpa’s old shirts and underwear. After that, I took down all the window screens and washed them outside with the hose. That job wasn’t so bad. If that was a cross to bear, it didn’t last long. Grandma played the radio while we worked. She liked the old tunes, and I learned to like them too.

She said Grandpa was her cross to bear. And her heart. She constantly complained about her heart. Another cross was her oldest son, a classic California alcoholic. I say classic due to his flamboyant, enticing lifestyle. Until in the end. He died in a run-down apartment surrounded by so many empty bottles that today you’d have thought he was a recycler. Grandma was not happy about Grandpa, her heart, or Ralph Junior. He was her first. Grandma collected frog figurines for her drinker son. His nickname was Toad. She loved that boy.

Grandpa and I would pee in the laundry room sink rather than go into the bathroom in the house. I’m not sure why that was important to him, but she’d yell at the both of us while we’d stand there and pee. “I can never use that sink for anything, now!” Peeing in the laundry sink went on for decades. My uncles and dads peed in that sink with Grandpa. Grandpa dutifully kept the water running and shook some innocuous cleaner—Borax, maybe—on our marked territory. That satisfied his understanding of reasonable follow-through. The sink was now appropriately ready for whatever Grandma wanted.

My loyalties to my grandparents were challenged. Do what Grandma says or Grandpa? That may have been the only time, though, that Grandpa stood his ground with Grandma, so to speak—that and his daily shot of whiskey in the morning and the evening or whenever anyone came over. Grandma blamed Grandpa Ralph for their alcoholic son, but everyone drank heavily in those days.

She was kind to me. I never had the notion that I was her cross to bear. My mother said that about me once, but she quickly apologized. Well, it was a couple of years later, but I knew she regretted it the moment she said it. Still, I often imagined being that very burden she had to carry. I did much to cause her grief.

In Luke, chapter 9, Jesus was not discussing this life’s burdens as the cross we must bear if we follow him. Our cross is not some physical defect, fear of heights, family tragedy, aging husband, wayward son, or failing heart. Those things certainly feel like crosses, but that’s not Jesus’ point. Jesus was teaching about his execution on a cross, the symbol of an excruciating criminal death.

“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?” (LK 9:22-25)*

First, he says we must deny ourselves. That is a crucial starting point. My Grandma wanted her woodwork properly oiled up, but behind her need to preserve her home, she wanted me to do something outside myself. The time spent with any of my grandparents, and even my parents, included a continual string of reminders to keep my focus on Jesus and not on myself.

The daily world of their lives centered on what they understood as a public humiliation—doing Catholic things. We went to Church, said the rosary, and got smacked in front of everyone if we swore out loud. Following Jesus in my youth meant being a Catholic and all that came with it. We were taught to deny ourselves during Lent, forgo meat on Fridays, go to confession, and get dressed in uncomfortable clothes for Church. Little things that spoke to us, young and old, that sacrifice was good for you.

I thought for a long time that the boy scout oath said it more precisely than the Baltimore Catechism. “On my honor, I will do my best. To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; To help other people at all times; To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”

While denying myself and doing my best takes a well-formed conscience, it’s the daily work of taking up our cross that seals the deal, says Jesus. Jesus was talking about cross-carrying in a physical way, too. We carry more than just a burden. We carry the very instrument of our execution. Our cross is the way of life God hands us, not the life we manufacture for ourselves.

Jesus wants us to walk toward death led by him. Following Jesus is integral to discipleship. What did the cross represent in Jesus’ time? Death by public humiliation and incomparable pain. We eagerly bear our cross if we are willing to follow Jesus. We give up our plans for what he has in mind because this life is temporary.

Both of my grandmas and my mother have passed away. They lost their lives painfully, struggling for months in their final days. Undoubtedly, each of them had other plans for their lives than what was handed them. Grandma Annie loved her boys and put up with her husband. She longed for something other than an auto mechanic. Something better than a house in an ever-changing neighborhood, one set of ethnic folks just passing through after another. She expected more from me, too—a grandson who came by more often.

And yet, because of the words in Deuteronomy, “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him.” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)

The strange logic of choosing life means we must accept death. Choosing life means that this existence, however much we value it, holds no future.

My wife and I visited Grandma Annie the night before she died. She was in a dank, dreary hospital room. The waiting room down the hall was full of her relatives. And yet, she was alone when we went in to see her. She had been reduced to an immovable stick of her former self, a cruel stroke that failed to finish her off. Her sore heart kept her alive, though, and the only movement was one eye that watched me as I stood fuming about the conditions of the place where she would eventually die.

I held her hand and told her she didn’t have to stay. That it was up to her. Her eye held me. She was bearing her cross, faithful to the end. There was a smile in that eye, though, not fear. A rare thing from Grandma.

Many of her sisters and brothers were gone. I think I said they were waiting for her or some similar statement that the better life she wanted waited for her to take. It was OK to let go. For several decades I apologized to my folks, aunts, and uncles for being so forward with Grandma. I heard from more than one that they whispered the same thing to her.

She died that night and slipped out of this world like a majestic one-eyed matriarch. She finally dismissed this life and followed Jesus into the promised land. She had faithfully heeded God’s voice and held fast to him.

Grandma is a constant reminder that though following Jesus is the right thing to do, life is fraught with peril to the very end. The promise, though, is clear. If we keep our hearts turned to Jesus and listen to him, we will not be led away to adore and serve other gods. We will have a long life to live on the land the Lord swore he would give us.

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