Cross-Shaped Life

By Amy Richter

I once heard the Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, senior minister emeritus of the Riverside Church in New York City, share the prayer he says every morning when he wakes up:

Holy Spirit, lead me, guide me
As I move throughout this day.
May your promptings deep inside me
Show me what to do and say.
In the power of your presence,
Strength and courage will increase.
In the wisdom of your guidance
Is the path that leads to peace.

The late Fred Craddock, also a wonderful preacher, said this prayer every morning: “God, thank you for a way of life and for work that are more important than how I happen to feel about them on any given day (see Craddock on the Craft of Preaching, edited by Lee Sparks and Kathryn Hayes Sparks [Chalice Press, 2011]).

I like to pray this from the Book of Common Prayer:

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day. Preserve me with your mighty power that I may not fall into sin nor be overcome by adversity and in all I do, direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

On some mornings, when waking up feels more like resurrection than simply getting out of bed, I can manage only a quotation from Ephesians 5:14: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you.”

On other mornings, my prayer on waking up is a simple action: making the sign of the cross on my forehead, where it was made when I was baptized and offered to God, and like you, made a minister, a servant of the Most High. For me, a daily offering of myself is an important habit, an act of daily remembrance that I belong to God and this day also belongs to God, is blessed by God, is intended by God as another gift, another opportunity in which to serve God and experience God’s joy. 

I’m thinking about morning routines because this time of year, Labor Day weekend, always feels like an opportunity to refresh and embrace routines, habits, and practices that are holy and life-giving. On Friday, my day off, I went to the grocery store. If a speedy shopping experience was my goal, my timing wasn’t good at all. The store was packed full of people doing their shopping before the Labor Day weekend and before back-to-school time. So when I finally made it to the checkout line, I saw people with carts brimming full of hot dogs and buns and cases of soda, as well as packs of No. 2 pencils and granola bars and fruit roll-ups.

“I’m getting it all done today,” the woman in front of me said. “Monday, everyone’s coming for a cookout, and Tuesday it’s back to school.” We talked about how fast the summer had gone, but how relieved we were, in a way, to get back to the regular routines that come after Labor Day. 

“Routines mean less decisions to make,” the person behind me said. “I know how the day will unfold, even if it’s full of surprises.” We laughed at the paradox of that true statement.

With a lens, with a way of looking at life, with an intention for our day, we know how the day will unfold, even if the day is full of surprises. 

When we pray, like Dr. Forbes, “In the power of your presence, / Strength and courage will increase,” we know God will give us the strength and courage to face the difficulties that come. God’s powerful presence is the constant, no matter the details of the day.

When we pray, like Dr. Craddock, “thank you for a way of life and for work that are more important than how I happen to feel about them on any given day,” we’re reminded of the consistent truth that following Jesus and carrying out the work he gives us to do are way more important than our own feelings about that, which may fluctuate. Making the decision to dedicate ourselves to God every morning, to follow Jesus in whatever details the day brings, means our day has a shape, a reason, a meaning, that can bring us peace and joy, no matter what surprises the day holds.

Jesus was trying to get his disciples to see this truth: that following him, living a cross-shaped life, a life dedicated to Jesus and following his example, would bring them abundant life. Peter’s problem was if he thought of Jesus at all, his morning meditation was, “I know what Jesus should do for me,” not a prayer: Jesus, what would you have me do for you? 

Jesus wants a daily commitment from us that leads to life for us. A commitment we live each day to not pursue our own self-interest, but to take up our cross and follow Jesus; to open ourselves each and every day to listen to Jesus, to take on what he wants us to take on and to let everything else go. We may hear him asking, “What are you living for? Are you working so hard on gaining the world that you are losing your real life? What would your life be like if you were willing to lose it and find it in God’s?” 

The answer is, the promise of Jesus is, if we follow him, if we seek his ways and will, if we take up our cross — our own opportunity to sacrifice and serve — we gain life that really is life. 

Our cross may be a large sacrifice, some great thing we do for God. It may be many small acts of service. St. Therese of Lisieux, who lived in the late 1800s, said to a sister in her order, “Your life is one that is humble and hidden, but remember that nothing is small in the eyes of God. Do all that you do with love.” She also wrote, “[Jesus] has shown me the only path which leads to the divine furnace of his love. It is the complete abandonment of a baby sleeping without fear in its father’s arms. … Jesus does not demand great deeds. All he wants is self-surrender and gratitude.” 

Sometimes we get caught up in thinking it’s all so complicated, how can we live as Jesus wants us to? God’s ways are so mysterious, how can we possibly know God’s will? But the reality is, sometimes it’s really clear.

St. Paul, in our reading from Romans for today, describes the cross-shaped life that each of us is urged by Jesus to take up for ourselves, the life that dies to self and lives to God, the life that never dies. Paul says it looks like this: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.”

The details of how each of us lives these instructions out will vary according to what each day brings. But the cross-shaped nature of a life lived rooted in the ground of God’s goodness and stretching up to the heavens in prayer and praise, while reaching out in love and compassion to others, for most of us takes a daily habit, daily commitment, the daily intention of dedicating ourselves to follow Christ, to asking how I can serve, not what’s in it for me, knowing that God in us can make us strong enough to do God’s will, strong enough to lift our cross, strong enough to get out of bed and follow.

The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.


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