Mistaken understandings of the crucifixion have contributed to a Christianity that long denied the sanctity of the body, the planet, and life on earth. Oppressed people have been taught to accept their suffering as God’s will rather than to resist oppression. Given this history, does “living in the cross” still have meaning for Quakers today?
I first understood the significance of the crucifixion in my life when I was excluded from a wonderful opportunity after asking questions, speaking uncomfortable truths, and insisting on discernment that others felt unnecessary. Although imperfectly, I felt I had been faithful, so why had I been cast out? Two years later, while at a Franciscan retreat center, I still felt great pain about it.
“Something just doesn’t seem right about what happened!” I complained to Jesus. I was praying in a room near a large, colorful image of the crucifixion. A shocking response came back.
“Come join me on the cross,” Jesus seemed to say.
“No, thank you!”
Then I reconsidered. Finally I imagined becoming one with Jesus during his crucifixion. I remembered that being faithful does not necessarily lead to worldly success. Speaking truth and asking hard questions does not always meet with approval.
I felt Jesus welcoming my companionship on the cross. I sensed his love, compassion, and understanding. A sweet consolation filled me, wiping away my pain.
A few years later I became part of a team that carried out a big leading together, creating a new kind of Quaker learning program. The project consumed much energy, passion, and effort for three years. Each of us gave far more than we had anticipated, sacrificing many weekends and vacations. The task was so heavy that we staggered under the weight. We witnessed each other’s gifts and strengths, but also became painfully acquainted with each other’s fears, defenses, and limitations, as well as our own. We became targets of some harsh criticism, even from friends. We criticized each other. Although our self-esteem suffered heavy blows, we carried on even when we felt inadequate. We knew we had been put in the refiner’s fire.
Certainly we were imperfect in the way we carried out our leading. And yet when we had been stretched beyond our own limited capacities, there had been moments when a great spiritual power worked through us. Many experienced Christ among us in our gatherings. The program served others and furthered God’s work.
I became seriously ill afterwards and at moments it seemed that my physical life was in the balance. I wondered if this was all part of a spiritual “crucifixion,” a painful death of the limited selves we had been. Did it leave me and my companions more humble and more free to be the people God created us to be, better able to allow God to work through us?
Not only in following big leadings, but also in simple, daily ways I sense how I am asked to “live in the cross.” It happens every time I carry out some little task God has given me, including turning away from self-absorption and really giving my attention to another person. Even in caring for my body I’m asked to surrender to God’s will, by abstaining from junk food and products whose production or use harms the earth.
Steven Davison shared an example of a leading that was contrary to his personal preferences. In 1990 Buffalo Meeting asked the new Friends in Unity with Nature task group to create a program for the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Day. After he and a friend prayed about this, he received an opening that “would not go away.” He shared it with others, but it was not well received. Nonetheless, it continued to develop. He wrote:
And in a few weeks, the opening had become a leading to write a book about earth stewardship based on a radical reading of the Bible. Now I had spent the last several years persecuting Christians in my meeting and actively opposing teaching the Bible in First Day School. I hated the Bible. But once, I had loved the Bible. And I knew it really well. I had read the whole thing almost twice and memorized large sections. This leading was what Friends used to call a “cross to the will,” meaning that my own will would have to be crucified in order to be faithful. … The leading led me back to the Bible. I have been studying it lovingly ever since. The way I knew it was a leading from God was that it grew so organically, it was a cross to the will, and it bore such abundant fruit—and I could not not follow it.”
During the 2013 Swarthmore lecture given at Britain Yearly Meeting, “Journey Into Life: Inheriting the Story of Early Friends,” Friend Gerald Hewitson described the deeply negative messages about himself he had accepted in childhood from a
mean stepfather. Much later in his life, after many years of spiritual growth and inner purification, he experienced “going to the cross.” It led to the death of a false sense of self:
There was one final giant to slay in this healing life-journey. I had learned to relinquish fear, guilt, anger, and a sense of control: all anathema to the Peaceable Kingdom. They were nothing as to that of learning to relinquish my sense of self.
There came a point during, in what for me was a lengthy process, when I found myself completely rewriting … my internal life narrative, of who I was, and how I needed to respond to the world. … These understandings were not the work of a moment, but a long slow process of realisation, recognition, and fumbling attempts to live out a new reality. But they started with a blinding moment of recognition. This experience felt like being in a blast furnace, where the quite ordinary elements of stone and ore are transformed into steel in a furnace of white heat. It was intense, powerful, physical: it felt like excruciating agony.
When dealing with emotional pain the secular world is fond of bland phrases, with the force and energy removed from them: phrases like moving on, letting things go. We rarely get to words like laying down or relinquishing, let alone sacrifice. The first Quakers had the exact phrase for my experience: going to the cross. This is not a term the modern ear likes to hear. Yet it describes the experience of Quakers over many generations. We go to the cross when we sacrifice the person we think we might be, should be or would like to be for the person we are intended to be. It is a coming home to that person we truly are. …
We can remember that the crucifixion is not a story of extinction, but one of complete transformation; not death, but release into a state beyond the world’s comprehension. In this process we release those energies deep within ourselves, energies hidden from us in the habits of our usual daily existence. … This was all part of my internal reworking.
The examples so far have been about serving God’s larger, loving purposes, while sacrificing one’s personal will, comforts, addictions, emotional reactivity and, ultimately, one’s false sense of self. Does God ever lead Friends today into laying down their lives as well?
Tom Fox of Langley Hill Friends Meeting in Virginia showed that sometimes this is so. A former member of the Marine Band and an assistant manager at Whole Foods store, he was a beloved adult presence at Quaker youth gatherings. According to the 2006 Quaker Life article, “No Greater Love,” Fox believed that the way to take part in the creation of “the Peaceable Realm of God” is to “love God with all our heart, our mind and our strength and to love our neighbors and enemies as we love God and ourselves” (Edwards-Konic, 10-11). After the devastating events of September 11, 2001, Fox felt called to “find some way to pull us out of the darkness and move the world (even if it was the movement of one human being) towards the light”(10). In 2004 he joined the Christian Peacemaker Teams and their peace work in both Palestine and Iraq. He was one of four CPT members who were taken hostage in Iraq, the only U.S. citizen among them. Four months later, he was killed by his captors. His fellow hostages were later rescued, and they told of ways that Tom Fox had continued to love his neighbors and his enemies under the most extreme circumstances. Many saw his gentle service and his faithful sacrifice as evidence of how God’s love is active in the world.
Sometimes God leads people into service and ministry that will require the sacrifice of our health or our physical lives. However, it can be difficult to discern when God is calling us to such sacrifice, and when we are being wrongly influenced by social conditioning or faulty interpretations of religion. One Friend wrote, “I struggle a great deal [with] the way in which my inner “should” messages are so strong that I mix them up with God’s voice. I am convinced that, through thinking that I must push myself hard in order to be faithful to God, (and for many years doing so), I have diminished my resilience, perhaps contributing to [my illness]. Thinking about “the cross” is confusing because it reinforces that kind of self-driving tendency, which I formerly thought was obedience but now question.” After giving an example of a job in Quaker ministry whose set of responsibilities added up to more work than healthy for one person, she wrote, “So, faithfulness is not a settled matter for me, but I think that it means something very different than I have previously understood. Jesus spoke of bringing abundance, and that is more where I feel life.”
For early Quakers, as well as Friends today, a sense of Life, as well as of God’s love and power, have been important signs of the presence of God in a leading, as we shall explore in the next blog posts.
Living in the Cross: Has being faithful led you into an experience of suffering or sacrifice, or what early Friends spoke of as a “cross” to your own will? What happened? What did you learn from that? Has following your leadings and attempting daily faithfulness changed you or your sense of who you really are? Has spiritual joy or power been given you to help you be faithful?
* * * * * This post is part of a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey. The next post will describe Friends’ experiences of Living in God’s Love and Power.
c) 2013 Marcelle Martin