With whom are you crucified today?

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.

Luke 9:23-24

There are a variety of calls to be “crucified with Christ,” “take up your cross daily,” and generally to let go of one’s selfishness and obsession with our own concerns throughout the Bible and many other religious traditions. I think, though, that the image of Christ in these particular cases adds a layer that is important but easy to miss: Jesus does not only stand for himself, but for all who are deprived, oppressed, and looked down upon. To be crucified with Christ is not a call to a self-help style letting go of day-to-day anxieties so we can retreat from the realities of society or get back to productive jobs. It is not simply a command to get rid of the negative parts of ourselves to become some abstractly better person. It is a challenge to stand (or fall) in solidarity with those who are cast out by others.

When we consider any statement about Christ to only be about the one person named Jesus in the gospel stories, we imagine a Jesus who would have failed to follow his own instructions. He makes this clear to us time and again, that he is any person among the “least of these.” Jesus is not one man, but all people who are poor and disempowered in the dominant structures of the world. He does not call us to take up our crosses to reach some personally rewarding higher level of consciousness or to take on a purer state that will grant us entry into an afterlife. Jesus instructs us to take up our crosses so we might find our place among and work alongside those already bearing the crosses which were forced upon them.

Furthermore, Jesus did not instruct people to take up their cross as a single action, but to do so daily. It’s an act that he knew we would all be tempted to carry out once in a while when it was suitable. When we put ourselves in a more vulnerable position or respond to the needs of marginalized people over our own once in a while, we feel noble and self-important. We’ve stooped down to the level of another for a moment, knowing full well that soon we can stand up straight again and carry our riches in our pockets rather than a wooden symbol of death upon our backs. We’re called to take up our cross daily because there are always those whose crosses cannot be put down, even when they feel they can’t bear it any longer.

We’re told to carry our own cross, but not where we will find it. This is not a command to wallow in our own self-pity or to sacrifice ourselves meaninglessly to alleviate guilt, but to find the cross which we are led to carry today by the Spirit. For many of us, that may require putting aside some of the comfort and safety we’ve been unfairly granted based on race, class, gender, or other unearned privileges. It means looking for where Christ is in the world today and standing alongside him, her, or them. It means being willing to give all we have to destroy the death-dealing social structures that send some along that path to Calvary so others can walk the road to Rome. Our cross is somewhere today, but the world has built up a myriad of structures to hide it from us. We need to take up our cross, and likely someone else is already carrying it.

Un-Deserving

For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

I find myself very often obsessing over the idea of deserving. Everything needs to be earned or owed, and I feel guilty or jealous when the balance doesn’t match my estimations. As a society, we fixate on who deserves what. Do poor people deserve food or luxuries? Do investors deserve returns on their investments? We allow ourselves to be consumed with this, in spite of knowing (whether we admit it or not) that almost none of what we receive or what is done to us has anything to do with what we deserve. I feel I deserve what I have because I worked for it. But does the person who worked twice as hard and got nothing deserve what I have, instead? We get anxious when these ideas of deserving what we have are challenged, as well. Much of what I have in life has more to do with whiteness and other forms of systemic privilege than my own efforts, and it’s been a painful process to recognize that. Whether at a personal or systemic level, even a very simple examination shows us that factors well outside our control determine much of what’s granted to people in the world, and yet we hang on to this metric that continues to fail us. But there is another way.

The beauty of divine love is that it is unconditional and unchanging, and has absolutely nothing at all to do with what we deserve. Nothing we do can reduce it or cancel it out. You can no more affect the amount of God’s love available to you than you can change the temperature outside your house on any given day. You can close all the windows and doors and blow hot or cold air through the house, or do any number of other things to hide from it, but the weather will still be out there the next time you open the door. Even in spite of all these efforts, that weather still has an impact on the indoor temperature. In the same way, we can shut ourselves off from that unconditional divine love and support. We practice ignoring it. We build up systems completely contrary to it in which we can find a measure of our worth over and against others. And we get very good at these things over time. But the doors are still there, even if it takes some struggle and handiwork to get them open again

This source of love is unmarred by any action we can take, and we can return to it no matter how many times we’ve turned away. Denying or hiding from divine love won’t put us forever outside of it or cause some wrathful storm of vengeance. It’s not about coercion or threats. So why should we seek it out? Why dwell in it if we can walk away and still come back?

God’s grace is not to relieve us from some threat if we don’t comply. It is victory over death of our own individual and collective making. It brings us freedom from the harmful habits, anxieties, and various deaths both big and small we fall prey to when we live outside that love. It tells us we are loved and will be cared for, no matter what we have done. Christ gained victory over death, and cleared the path for us to do the same. It’s not only for those who deserve freedom from death. We don’t earn grace like a wage or salary. By accepting the unlimited and unconditional love of God, we move away from the system which only grants us what we deserve, and teaches (and requires) us to afford that same grace to others.

Dwelling in God’s love provides us with a blueprint for a better world. Not only do we find individual freedom, but we can build a new world centered on grace, as well. When we know we all carry that love inside us and live out our lives from that place of love, we help to build the Kingdom of God. We built it here in this world, but not based on the rules of this world. All the blessings of that Kingdom are available to all of us, like God’s love. It doesn’t require us checking others’ time cards to see if they’ve met a quota. It doesn’t require us to determine if someone has the potential to pay back what has been given to them. No person needs to prove their worth, productivity, or ability to be a member of that Kingdom. We can each rest in the knowledge that the fruits of the Kingdom do not belong to us, nor to anyone but God. And that God, working through us, will provide them to all.

There’s a new creation being made, and nothing we can do will change that. The only question is whether we will take part in its work and open ourselves to its rewards, or spend our time arguing and fighting over what we deserve.

A Listening Heart

So give your servant a discerning heart…

1 Kings 3:9

One of the things I’ve found most moving in Quaker worship is the focus on listening. I sit, whether in Meeting for Worship or on my own, and listen for wisdom, comfort, challenges, or whatever may come. It’s not always an easy task. It takes time and effort to discern what’s meaningful and what’s my own wandering thoughts or what I wish I was hearing. It’s helped me personally in a number of ways, but for now I want to focus on listening.

Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian faith, I was often focused to obsessive levels on speaking to God. Begging for certainty that I was saved. Pleading that people I loved who weren’t Christians would be spared from Hell. Asking for God to end the violence that others directed at me or that I directed at myself. All that desperate petitioning naturally led me to worry whether God was listening to me. It didn’t lead me very often to ask if I was listening for God.

The phrase “a listening heart” is one of the translations of what Solomon asked for in the book of Kings, when he asks God for wisdom. When I chose my first name (transgender experiences will be another day’s topic!), I settled on Sofia in part because it means wisdom. I’ve always tried to view it as an aspiration rather than a destination I’ve reached, and I think the idea of a listening heart mirrors that aspiration. It’s wisdom in active form. It needs to be practiced consistently if it’s to be useful. It acknowledges that the source of wisdom is something we have access to, but not something we own.

Solomon was far from perfect at listening throughout his life, and that’s led me to overlook him most of the time. It’s easy for me to write off any given state authority figure as evil and corrupt without much further thought, but I want to hold on to Solomon’s original request as a reminder. Of course power and wealth disconnect us from other people and from God, and I’m not likely to have that problem on quite the same scale as Solomon. My prayers growing up were never for those things, and I’ve moved on from a lot of the beliefs and circumstances that led me to lie awake whole nights dreading and praying and trying to control those particular aspects of human experience. However, I still find myself quite often feeling panicked and desperate for control when things don’t go in the direction I’ve convinced myself is right. Quaker worship gives me a chance to remember that my role is to listen and then to follow the wisdom that’s spoken to me.

Statement of Faith

Below is a statement I wrote to share with other members of my Meeting, as we worked on structure and curriculum for religious education. I hope to use it as a reference and beginning point as I develop these and other ideas over time.

There is an inherent value in everyone and everything, which can never be diminished below or increased above the value of another. I find inspiration in the framing of this as “that of God in everyone.”[1] I’m also inspired by the idea of God or the soul as a community: that our soul and/or God only exists in us, and that we each have “a little piece of a great big soul.”[2] Whether this God/soul is a literal being or a metaphor doesn’t matter much to me. What matters to me is that I use it to inform my thoughts and actions.

We can find revelation & inspiration from sources accessible deep inside ourselves, but that those individual leadings must be guided and discerned through community & tradition. That tradition includes the Bible, which has inspiration from that same source. The source of that inspiration is the same across the years, but the context we live in leads us to interpret it differently.

This source guides us to do the work that’s needed to bring about a perfect existence here in the world we inhabit. Jesus called it “the Kingdom of God.” It’s more than a physical kingdom or a far-off realm, though, and it’s our duty to bring it about. It’s both a goal we aim to create permanently and something that we can bring into being for just a few moments of perfect adherence to its values.

The values that bring about the Kingdom of God are those which respect that of God in everyone/everything: peace, integrity, protection of the world we are a part of, and solidarity with each other in times of struggle or oppression. We best practice these by opening our hearts and ears to each other and to that source inside us (which some call God), and then by doing the work of peace-making and doing the work that source leads us to together.