For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. ~ Jesus
Former Poet Laureate Billy Collins is one of my favorite poets and he wrote a piece called “The Lanyard.” It is a series of verses that he wove together in gratitude for his mother as he described the experience of weaving together a lanyard at summer camp.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-clothes on my forehead,
and then led me out into the air light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
I love those verses because they show us that we probably owe more to our family than we, perhaps, are willing to admit. And yet Jesus has the nerve to insist that we love Him more than dear old mom.
This is a piercing paradox that is at the very heart of what it means to live as an apprentice of Jesus—to be a Christian.
Traditional and ancient cultures felt the sharp edge of this saying a lot different than we do today. In ancient culture, the family was everything to the individual. Some of the bite of this saying is softened in our culture of individualism. For some, when you read those ancient word think, “I don’t see what’s the big deal here. My family put the “fun” in dysFUNctional families. We are such a mess. I’m thinking about divorcing my family now!”
But Jesus is an equal opportunity offender, because we in the west and modern world prioritize not the family, but the self. Our whole lives revolve around finding ourselves. Maximizing ourselves. Self-Actualization. And Jesus says, “If you would like to taste the With-God life, you have to even lose yourself.
In other words, “You will not fit me into your agenda in life. I need to BE your agenda in life.”
Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. ~ Jesus
Jesus calls us into a journey of losing ourselves. Of identifying the entirety of our lives, (our past, present, and future) our goals, our allegiances, our hopes for ourselves—and locating all of that in Him. To do that we have to die a death to every other kind of loyalty, attachments, goals, and relationship that would otherwise be the very nerve-center of our lives.
In Jesus words, he calls us into a journey of taking up a cross. For us that is sort of a benign symbol. We adorn our churches with it. We wear it around our necks on gold chains. But the cross in the ancient world wasn’t a decorative symbol. It was an instrument of execution. It was a symbol of capital punishment. It would be like us adorning our church with a hangman’s noose in our baptistery. Or wearing a jewel-encrusted injection needle around your neck. Or hanging a gold plated replica of a waterboarding table up in your living room.
This is what Jesus is calling us to do. To undergo a death to every other ultimate attachment or loyalty that we have.
And this mark of death is actually the central image of the Christian family. This is why we celebrate crosses in our church. And when I anoint a sick person’s forehead with oil and pray for them, I anoint them with the motion of the cross.
Following Jesus is a journey into a life that is marked by a cross.
The famous theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred for his opposition to Hitler just before the end of WWII, wrote in his classic work The Cost of Discipleship:
The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.
For lots of people that statement sets their teeth on edge. Our inner dialogue goes something like this, “This seems so backward and belittling. I thought life was about finding myself and being a fulfilled human being.”
If that thought crossed your mind, I want you to notice something. Jesus knows that when we live mostly to find ourselves, maximize ourselves, and fulfill ourselves—we inevitably wind up losing ourselves.
David Brooks wrote a piece for the New York Times a few years ago about Alex Rodriguez as this incredible athlete, and arguably one of the most naturally talented baseball players of all time, was caught and suspended from Major League Baseball for using performance enhancing drugs.
One of the mysteries around Rodriguez is why the most supremely talented baseball player on the planet would risk his career to allegedly take performance-enhancing drugs?
My theory would be that self-preoccupied people have trouble seeing that their natural abilities come from outside themselves and can only be developed when directed toward something else outside themselves. Enclosed in self, they come to believe that their talents come from self, are the self. Locked in a cycle of insecurity and attempted self-validation, their talents are never enough, and they end up devouring what they have been given.
At every step along the way, Rodriguez chased self-maximization, which ended up leading to his self-destruction.
You see, a life enclosed in self, a life that exists for nothing else but self-maximization always winds up in self-destruction.
I believe that without in intervention from Heaven we all will turn in on ourselves and our souls will become recluse and calcified. Self-maximization will inevitably lead to self-destruction.
Jesus says that if we want to find a way out of that downward spiral, we find it by finding ourselves in Him. The only way to really find ourselves is on the other side of losing ourselves in following Jesus.
Here is the beauty of this: You can trust losing yourself to Jesus more than you can trust losing yourself to any other thing in this world. You can pick up the cross and follow Jesus and allow all the other allegiances of your life to die, because, in Jesus, the God of the Universe actually takes up a cross and dies a death for you.
Jesus was willing to lose Himself to find you—you can trust Him enough to lose yourself in Him.