Friday, June 15, 2012

Clarence the Cross-Eyed Bear

I've used this title before in a post, but I couldn't help myself.  I'm not sure where the title comes from. There was a Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion character that was popular many years ago. Perhaps familiarity with this lion got conflated with the song "Gladly the Cross I'd Bear" to form Clarence, the sight impaired bear. Regardless, this apparent child's misconstruing of a Christian song has lots of company among adults who have distorted Jesus' words just as badly.

The term "my cross to bear" is a common one, even outside the Christian faith.  It has come to mean little more than some difficulty to endure.  The strange thing about this phrase, it least in my experience, is that it is most often used by people to speak of a difficult they have no control over. Be it some illness or chronic condition, ungrateful children, a crummy job, or countless other examples, these crosses are not something people picked up willingly. Bearing crosses has come to stand for patient endurance, but it seems to have nothing to do with self-denial.

The words of Jesus on bearing the cross are all about self-denial. When Peter objects vehemently to Jesus saying he is going to Jerusalem to die, Jesus reprimands him and then insists that following him requires a willingness to act contrary to self interest and take up a cross.

Now it occurs to me that there are plenty of Christians who willingly, in ways large and small, deny themselves in order to do what the think Jesus asks of them. It may simply be denying themselves some consumer item in order to give more money to the church or some ministry or cause. Or it may involve much larger sacrifices such as giving up a high paying career to run a non-profit that does the work of Jesus.

But while most congregations have shining examples of cross bearing, individuals who take on burdens they did not have to for the sake of Jesus and the new day he heralds, congregations themselves often have much more difficulty with cross bearing and self denial.

When congregations or their governing bodies discuss new ministries or new directions for the congregation, there is almost always an absolute assumption that no decision should endanger or injure the church in any way. In a parallel to most other institutions, congregations have a very strong survival instinct, and they almost always discuss what they should do or are called to do from that standpoint.  And so while individual members may embrace the call to deny self and take up their crosses, congregations seem less likely to do so.

Our denomination's Book of Order speaks of the Church's calling in its opening pages. "The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life." (F-1.0301) But in practice, the Church is very unwilling to lose its life. In its practice, the Church very often sounds much like Peter, who responds to Jesus' willingness to take up the cross by saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you." Clarence the Cross-Eyed Bear.

So... how does a sense of self-denial and a willingness to take up the cross, something many church members know well how to do, become a core part of who we are as congregations?

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