The Cross Before Me
I enjoy reading Dr Ian Paul's blog, and this one caught my eye. It is a review of a book by Savvas Costi, a graduate from the London School of Theology who currently leads the Religion and Philosophy department at a secondary school in East Sussex.
It caught my eye because it pertains to one of the key issues for me growing up and thinking about faith: what's the point of following Jesus?
Born in 1971, and raised as a Catholic by my Irish mother, I accepted the practices of the faith and found prayer a natural and easy thing. I formed a real relationship with Jesus and this has always been part of my life. I always really enjoyed thinking and talking about religion and faith. In youth discussion groups, with priests and even with Jehovah's Witnesses or Latter Day Saints who knocked on the door of my family home.
Despite this, I found it difficult to connect the friend I had made in my prayer life with Mass and what we did "in" the Church. I don't really mean Mass here, although I do think the post- Vatican II liturgy was a bit confused and very sixties. What I really mean is - what being a Christian actually looked like and what it actually did. I couldn't see much difference from everyone else. I went to a Catholic School, but lots (most?) of the other kids didn't seem to believe at all, and if they did, it certainly didn't appear to have any effect on their behaviour.
The purpose of being a follower of Jesus only really struck me when I became a Father. I saw the importance of living within a moral framework and the gift that given my children solid moral boundaries would be. You can know the truth, you can find the answer, and that is very comforting and helps you know how you should behave and how you should treat people. This is a very simple example of the way that Christianity builds culture and society.
Later I figured out that I really needed to understand this better and so, with the encouragement of some friends, I formally studied Catholic Theology for five years. I entered this process fairly confident that I understood what being a Catholic meant, but I had all my illusions & cynicism totally stripped away and discovered a story I was totally unfamiliar with. In this story, Jesus confronts the dark mysterious evil that all humanity has given in to He announces that God's Kingdom has arrived and that is a Kingdom ruled by people who serve others, love the poor and even their enemies. I discovered that, in Jesus, God became human to be what we could never be for ourselves: He took the consequences of our evil into Himself and by His Resurrection, showed that His sacrificial love is more powerful than the evil we struggle with; the evil that chains us and enslaves us, the evil that is death to us.
At this point of my life, and in light of the experiences I have had thus far, I honestly can't imagine how anyone copes without Christ. I do see the consequences of that all around me, however. They are depression, selfishness, consumerism, sexual abuse, broken families, etc etc etc.
Expressed this way, one might wonder why anyone would choose something apart from Christianity. But following Jesus involves coming to terms with some thorny realities, like why God allows so many bad things to happen to good people, for example.
Such issues are far from insurmountable, and I have found the pursuit of truth in this regard extremely rewarding, but being Christian does require sacrifice because it is counter-cultural by its very nature, and that makes sense. If our culture is broken and fallen, following Jesus requires us to turn our back on that brokenness and discern God's plan for our lives.
However, this doesn't necessarily mean inflicting pain on yourself:
"... rather than being a form of self-inflicted injury, the way of the cross—or the cruciform life to use Wilbourne and Gregor’s language—is the necessary path to a life lived well. It certainly ‘turns our world upside down [and will] overturn our expectations. But in truth the cross actually turns the world right side up’. But how does this happen?"This is the key question surely? How exactly does the process work? Costi makes an important point about how we start: "In the quest for truth there is no room for neutrality. We’re unable to remain on the fence (at least not for the seriously thoughtful) for we have to be willing to follow our thoughts to the end and make a decision. Either Christianity is the real deal or it isn’t, it can’t be both". I think the essential point here is that there has to be some catalyst to engage your mind and cause you to evaluate life to the point where this is even a choice you might consider. You have to be introduced to Jesus: you have to hear the kerygma; the Gospel message preached to you. The Christian message is not one we can arrive at through introspection or meditation. It is something dynamic that requires community and participation. However, even when one engages in this process, there's more road to travel:
The way of the cross is not the way of instant gratification. There is no quick-fix or ‘life hack to ensure you will flourish … the cruciform life must be lived to be learned’ (p. 54). The book acknowledges the vital role that spiritual disciplines play, as a response to God’s grace, in the pursuit of personal transformation.When one hears the Good News and accepts it as a revelation of the truth about who and what we are we can accept: "a loving God has gone to great lengths to restore us to how we were meant to be, ‘to become our true selves’ (p. 75)" we have to commit to a plan of change. This is not our plan, it is God's plan and so it we have to recognise that it may feel a little counter intuitive even if we are able to recognise and are attracted to the obvious good we can see therein. "Chesterton is exactly right to say, ‘how much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it!’ And Oswald Chambers got it when he said ‘the gospel of God should be recognised as the abiding reality.’ As we fix our gaze upon this ‘larger story’ we’ll be empowered to live the cruciform life (Romans 1:16, Hebrews 12:2, 1 Cor. 15:1-3)."
The strange dichotomy of modern living seems to me to be that "our intuitions about what will make us happy are totally wrong, but this doesn’t stop us trying to reach it." Again and again we enslave ourselves to empty promises of happiness: wealth, power, prestige — and ignore the goodness God offers us. When we take the time to read and study Scripture, we recognise this as the story of the Old Testament, where God always gives us a choice and the people think they know what is right for them, yet always choose selfishness and self importance, reflecting the choice in the Garden to know good and evil.
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