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Lectionary Tales for the Pulpit
Series VI, Cycle B
While vacationing in Mexico sometime back, my wife and I attended worship in a church that is served by one of our Mexican minister friends. Following the service, we and too many others piled into a small vehicle to go to our friend's home for some refreshments. In the front passenger seat sat one very slender fellow and on his lap sat his not-so-slender wife. With a grin he turned back to us in the rear and said the Spanish equivalent of, "Look at me; I'm bearing my cross," and everyone chuckled. Except the wife, of course.

Most assuredly, a wife on a lap in a crowded car is not what Christ had in mind when he talked about taking up the cross. Nor did he mean the kind of thing of which people complain -- difficult working conditions, aging parents who are no longer able to function, recalcitrant teenagers who refuse to obey, or even giving up chocolate for Lent -- as "my cross to bear." The cross was an ugly thing, an instrument of death used for political criminals to maintain Pax Romana, an ancient equivalent of a hangman's noose, a gas chamber, an electric chair. To take up the cross was to be a dead man walking, suffering the ultimate indignity of having to transport the instrument of your own execution.

Part and parcel of taking up the cross is the willingness to "deny" yourself, to allow someone or something else to replace you as the center of your universe. For those of us in the twenty-first century, the quintessential self-denier in our experience was the late Mother Teresa who founded the Society of the Missionaries of Charity and for so many years ministered to the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. British writer, Malcolm Muggeridge, accompanied a film crew to India in order to narrate a documentary on Mother Teresa's life and work. He already knew she was a good woman, but when he met her he found someone so very compelling and endearing that he titled his effort, "Something Beautiful for God."

For years, Muggeridge had been an outspoken agnostic, but by the time he arrived in Calcutta he was in full spiritual-search mode. Beyond impressing him with her work and her holiness, she wrote a letter to him in 1970 that addressed his doubts. "Your longing for God is so deep and yet he keeps himself away from you," she wrote. "He must be forcing himself to do so -- because he loves you so much -- the personal love Christ has for you is infinite -- the small difficulty you have regarding his church is finite -- Overcome the finite with the infinite." Muggeridge apparently did and became a convert to Catholicism. When he remarked to Mother Teresa that she went to mass every single day at 4:30 a.m., she replied, "If I didn't meet my master every day, I'd be doing no more than social work."

But then, about ten years after this modern day saint's death, a book came out that was, to say the least, a shock. Titled innocuously enough, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday), it consists primarily of correspondence between Teresa and her confessors and superiors over a period of 66 years. The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church), reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever, or as the book's compiler and editor, the Reverend Brian Kolodiejchuk, writes, "Neither in her heart or in the eucharist," despite what she had said to Malcolm Muggeridge.

That sense of absence seems to have started at almost exactly the time she began tending the poor and dying in Calcutta, and almost never abated. Although perpetually cheery in public, the Mother Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep spiritual pain. In more than forty communications, she bemoaned the "dryness," "darkness," "loneliness," and "torture" that she was undergoing. She compared the experience to hell and at one point said it had driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God.

She was acutely aware of the discrepancy between her inner state and her outer demeanor. "The smile," she wrote, is "a mask" or "a cloak that covers everything." She wondered, too, about being blatantly deceptive. "I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God -- tender, personal love," she remarked to an adviser. "If you were [there], you would have said, 'What hypocrisy.' "

Come Be My Light's editor said, "I read one letter to the Sisters [of Teresa's Missionaries of Charity], and their mouths just dropped open. It will give a whole new dimension to the way people understand her." No doubt.

On December 11, 1979, Mother Teresa went to Oslo. Dressed in her familiar blue-bordered sari and wearing sandals despite Norway's below-zero temperatures, she received that ultimate accolade, the Nobel Peace Prize. In her acceptance speech, she delivered the kind of message the world had come to expect from her. "It is not enough for us to say, 'I love God, but I do not love my neighbor,' " she said, since in dying on the cross, God had "[made] himself the hungry one, the naked one, the homeless one." Jesus' hunger, she said, is what "you and I must find" and alleviate. Finally, she suggested that the upcoming Christmas holiday should remind the world "that radiating joy is real" because Christ is everywhere -- "Christ in our hearts, Christ in the poor we meet, Christ in the smile we give and in the smile that we receive." What a shame she was not able to see that for herself.

Is this a complete surprise? Not really. The church anticipates spiritually fallow periods. Indeed, the Spanish mystic, Saint John of the Cross, in the sixteenth century coined the term the "dark night" of the soul to describe a characteristic stage in the growth of some spiritual masters. Mother Teresa found ways, starting in the early 1960s, to live with her problem and abandoned neither her belief nor her work. The book was published, not in an attempt to smear her memory but rather as proof of the faith-filled perseverance that may well be her most spiritually heroic act. Self-denial writ large.

Jesus says, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (v. 34). This is a tough message because it suggests that nothing less than complete devotion will do. But the stakes are high, as Jesus reminds the crowd, and the consequences eternal: "If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels" (v. 38). Hmm.

Take up the cross. Not the pretty crosses, the ones made of gold or silver or brass or carved wood. Not the polished ones that adorn church walls or communion tables. Take up the instrument of execution -- be prepared for serious suffering, even death -- discipleship.

Will Willimon is a United Methodist bishop, but in his former life, he was dean of the chapel at Duke University where he recalled a campus visit from a representative from Teach America. Teach America tries to recruit this nation's most talented college graduates to go into some of the nation's worst public schools. This is Teach America's means of transforming our schools into something better. Will says,

This woman stood up in front of a large group of Duke students, a larger group than I would suppose would come out to this sort of thing, and said to them, "I can tell by looking at you that I have probably come to the wrong place. Somebody told me this was a BMW campus and I can believe it looking at you. Just looking at you, I can tell that all of you are a success. Why would you all be on this campus if you were not successful, if you were not going on to successful careers on Madison Avenue or Wall Street?

"And yet here I stand, hoping to talk one of you into giving away your life in the toughest job you will ever have. I am looking for people to go into the hollows of West Virginia, into the ghettos of south Los Angeles and teach in some of the most difficult schools in the world. Last year, two of our teachers were killed while on the job.

"And I can tell, just by looking at you, that none of you are interested in that. So go on to law school, or whatever successful thing you are planning on doing. But if by chance, some of you just happen to be interested, I've got these brochures here for you to tell about Teach America. Meeting's over." With that, the whole group stood up, pushed into the aisles, shoved each other aside, ran down to the front, and fought over those brochures.

Dr. Willimon says, "That evening I learned an important insight: People want something more out of life than even happiness. People want to be part of an adventure. People want to be part of a project greater than their lives."

"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."2


1. Will Willimon, "The Journey," Duke University Chapel, Durham, North Carolina, 9/14/97. http://www.chapel.duke.edu/worship.sunday/viewsermon.aspx?id40.

2. Ibid.
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