Our thoughts and God’s thoughts

You are not thinking God’s thoughts, but human thoughts.

How many times in my life has Jesus wanted to say those words to me? I wonder. I’m going to hope, since I am not one of Christ’s companions in first century Palestine, that Jesus would leave off the first bit, get behind me…

But I wonder, how often has the problem been: “You are not thinking God’s thoughts, but human thoughts.”

Part of the struggle, for me, is the thinking. I’m a thinker. My brain sometimes wakes me up early of refuses to let me fall asleep, it’s too busy toying with a thought. I often will try and think my way out of all sorts of problems, which has made the pandemic particularly difficult.

Every once in awhile, I’ve been able to think my way through a limited problem. I do better when Om fully awake. Even better I’m not thinking alone, when I am part of a group. I’m really grateful to the team who helped think through the technology we needed to stream these services. Tyler is here today, I remember the first Sunday he showed up and started thinking with me about streaming, and cameras. We’re still thinking through the next iteration of online worship, and we’ve got Scott Ferguson thinking about camera optics, and John Kelly helping us think through angles. Thinking isn’t all bad. But we know that even if we get a pretty great looking broadcast service out, it’s not going to usher in world peace or herd immunity.

Unless you are a vaccine specialist, it is impossible think yourself all the way out of a global pandemic. My thinking mind doesn’t like it’s limitations. I’ve found myself at times going down the blind alley of “what if?” What if we limit the number of households and rotate folks through the church, so we can have Sunday worship? What if we installed a bank of hospital-style UV lights in our ceiling? What if we could find a way to get 80% of Holy Communion vaccinated, even if the county is lagging behind? I can spend hours playing the game of “what if?”

There is a Zen saying to which I often need to turn. A Zen master might tell a young monk: “Don’t push the river.” Don’t push the river. The image is delightful and troubling. There are times in life when we all realize we are flailing, when we are trying to speed up a flow over which we can really have so little impact. There are times when we each need a dose of humility, and an invitation to realize we are not in charge and to slow down, relax and rest.

This morning’s teaching from Jesus is important and also tough. I need to say humility and humiliation are entirely different animals. There is a terrible American colloquialism surrounding this particular saying of Jesus. “That’s just my cross to bear.” Have you heard it? Have you said it? “That’s just my cross to bear?”

I chose the word “terrible” for this colloquialism because it is a way of spiritualizing and supposedly justifying awful situations. We often hear that phrase attached to a painful diagnosis, or an intractable struggle with mental illness. “That’s my cross to bear.” I have to tell you, this is bad theology, because it comes with a sense that we carry this load all on our own. If you’re carrying it alone, quietly, it’s not the cross. Even Jesus didn’t carry his cross alone. Jesus didn’t suffer quietly. If you are suffering, quietly, the cross would ask you to lean on your community, to let them share your burden.

Most terribly I have heard the words “that’s my cross to bear” used to describe an ongoing situation of abuse from a spouse or parent. This is also bad theology. We need better theology. We need to offer the world a better vision. The cross isn’t about quiet suffering. Jesus asks no one to suffer alone. And Jesus asks no one to suffer in vain.

Let me say that again: Jesus asks no one to suffer alone. And Jesus asks no one to suffer in vain.

Saying “that’s just my cross to bear” about abuse is bad theology, it misunderstands who we are in the mind of God. Let me say, in case there is someone who needs to hear these words, “God does not want you to stay quiet.”

Abuse is hardly ever isolated. Someone who abuses a romantic partner often repeats the pattern of abuse with the next partner, or with children. A boss who abuses one staff member is likely to repeat the behavior with another. If there is a “cross to bear” in these situations it is this, “take courage, get out, get help, report the abuse.” Reporting the abuse can be awful. Telling the story again and again can be re-traumatizing. But telling the story, that may indeed be your cross to bear. Because telling the story has the power to stop the pattern. Making the report holds out the possibility that the abuser could be stopped. Telling the story might bring an end to the suffering. Don’t carry that cross alone. Trust a friend. Find an ally. Take the step of asking for help.

Likewise quietly suffering through your family’s homophobia, or your addiction, or your lack of self-esteem, these are not your crosses to bear. Not alone, never alone. They aren’t, because in Christian theology the cross liberates. The cross is all about setting us free. With Jesus we don’t remain bound. The power of the cross is precisely that an instrument of torture, an instrument of death brings salvation, brings hope, and health, and life to the world. The work of “taking up your cross” is about about setting the captive free. Bearing your cross isn’t something you do alone. It takes trusting others, letting them help carry so they can help transform.

I’ve spent all of this time with the cross today, because for me the cross helps me answer the question from the beginning of the sermon: “Am I thinking human thoughts or God’s thoughts?” The cross is a filter through which I can see the difference more clearly.

If I really take the time to pause, to assess, I can usually determine whether I am at the center of my thinking. Am I doing mental gymnastics to keep myself in control? If so, well those are probably human thoughts.

On the other hand, if I am trying to work out how to bring health, and safety, and equity to my community, if I am thinking about how to bring love and light to my family, if I am working to lighten someone else’s load, I know I’ve found my way into God’s thinking. The cross is about sacrificing our own need to be in control, and doing so out of love for the other. The cross is how God orients the universe. Finding your life, as Jesus’ puts it, finding your life is about finding your way to self-offering love. Self-offering love is the whole flow of the river.

It’s not easy. It’s not. Living a cross-shaped life takes slowing down, saying no to my self, and taking a wider view. This way of Jesus is not easy, don’t let someone tell you it is. But there is a certain freedom to be found when we are willing to let go of our flailing attempts to control our circumstances. When we stop trying to think our way out of our own discomfort, we might just find the mental space to notice one another. Christ wants us to find our lives as we seek to lighten the load of others: our spouse, our child, our parent, our neighbor. If we practice letting go, we might even get quiet enough to hear the thoughts of God.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: