Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
I have come to understand more fully that ‘taking up my cross’ means genuinely living and dying each day. And the truth is that if I think of it otherwise I have already chosen to die. To not take up my cross is a death of true community, a death of truth itself, a death of meaning and the death of joy in all of its potential abundance.
I grew up on a farm in the 40’s and 50’s which was no doubt ‘prejudiced’ times, in today’s understanding, but I can’t recall racial hatred ever being a part of my parent’s attitudes or vocabulary. Each fall when it was time to harvest cotton, my Dad went into the nearby town to hire day laborers and haul them in our truck to our farm to work. They worked in the field all day, then he hauled them home at night. They were all African Americans. My Mom and I worked side by side with them picking cotton, and we got to know them personally. We learned from them and they learned from us. We prayed together over our sandwich meals and ate lunch together every day underneath a large tree in our back yard. When I was a preschooler I played with African American children, who lived not very far from our house, and I wondered when I went to school why I did not see them in school. And while it was true that my classmates in grade school were all white, which was before schools were integrated, I can’t recall any slurs being made by students or teachers against people of other races. Yet there was no question that black people in our community were treated as second class citizens.
I grew up in a congregation which was made up mostly of descendents of Northern Europe. I went to a private woman’s college and there were no African American students enrolled there either, and again I don’t remember students or teachers making slur remarks about other races. Yet African Americans were still treated as second class citizens. When I began teaching in college in the late 60’s, I had people of different races in my classes and some were African Americans. Today, I live in a racially diverse neighborhood and we have a friendly, caring neighborhood and all are treated the same. And even though our congregation has people of color in it, they are in the minority. So, I have had only a small amount of interaction with people whose skin color is different from my own and whose life experiences differ very much from my own, yet I never experienced the hatred that is being expressed in today’s treatment of people of color, or the peaceful demonstrations that turn into destructive acts that follow those events. I can’t identify with the hateful feelings and attitudes that bring violence against people of any color. So it is heartbreaking to see the hatred that is strangling communities of our nation today. Taking up the cross of understanding, loving and caring for others regardless of color, is what Jesus is all about.
Forgive me for taking you on my own personal journey of the pain we are experiencing today. And yet, for people of privilege, it is a journey we are all called to take. If you have experienced life as I have, perhaps you have also found yourself where I am. Even so, I am trying to understand what taking up this particular cross of caring and loving those who have historically been mistreated means for me. For now it seems I need to put myself intentionally in the presence of people whose lives look very different from my own, to listen and learn from them, to stand alongside and support them, and show up willing to be challenged to grow in new ways. If this means that part of me ‘dies’ in doing this then it will be worth it, but I expect there is a whole lot more dying that I must do.
- How do you hear Jesus’ invitation to ‘take up your cross and follow him’ in light of national and perhaps local racial tensions? What does it mean for you to carry your cross in racial matters today?
- If not related to the public or personal concerns of race, then how do Jesus’ words of taking up your cross speak to you today? How does Jesus’ invitation shape your living and your dying?
Sue is NLS Spiritual Director, since 2019 and is a retired Lutheran Pastor (ELCA). Active in VdC since 1995, she has served two terms on the Board of the Texas VdC Secretariat, and also on the Texas Gulf Coast VdC Board as Spiritual Director since its start-up in 2017.