Some years ago, while he was Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser managed to cause a bit of a ruckus by stating the now infamous words: “Life is not meant to be easy.” All sorts of meanings were placed on what the saying might mean. Whatever about the various interpretations that have flown about since then, the fact of the matter is that, for many of us, life is not easy.
One of the very humbling aspects of being a priest is that many people are prepared to share the deepest parts of their lives with you. They are prepared to reveal more about the full circumstances of their lives than they do to others in the normal course of events.
And what this willingness of people to share their concerns and worries with me has taught me is that many of us carry burdens around with us all the time that cause us worry, anxiety, emotional pain and fatigue. And in many cases, there is nothing that is going to change the situations. They will continue to exist for us for many years to come, if not for the rest of our lives.
A theologian who died in 1971, Reinhold Niebuhr, is credited with framing the famous Serenity Prayer. The beginning of the prayer is fairly well known generally:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
The prayer has been taken up by groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve-Step Programs. We seldom if ever hear the rest of the prayer. It is worth listening to because I think it gives us greater heart to bear the burdens that may be ours in this life.
The Serenity Prayer continues:
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next. Amen.
I think that these sentiments pick up well on Jesus’ admonition to us in the gospel: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
You see there is a certain sense in which, to the unbeliever, these words can sound like some sort of masochistic instruction. If you want to be one of my followers, you’ve got to take on pain – look for pain.
But that is not the point at all. The point is, as Niebuhr puts it, Jesus took this sinful world “as it is, not as I would have it.”
The reason that Jesus is advocating to us that we take up our cross and follow him is that he knows that there is pain and brokenness all around. We kid ourselves if we run around in some sort of dreamy haze thinking that blue birds of happiness are nesting all around.
And given that the world is as it is because of the sinfulness of humankind, there is only one place where Jesus can be and that is in the middle of the pain, bearing his cross along with those who suffer as well – not running away from it looking for an easy way.
Jesus invites us to take up our cross, not because pain is something to be desired, but because pain is something to be shared and ultimately redeemed by the one who “did not cling to equality with God”, but “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant:” and “became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” as St Paul tells us in Philippians chapter two.
For most of us, when Jesus encourages us to take up our cross, we know exactly what he is referring to. We know the situation or circumstance in our life which is the cross for us to bear. We rarely need to go out somewhere looking. What Jesus is encouraging us to do is to endure that suffering as best we can and not to run away from it. That is the cross that is ours to bear.
And as we struggle and strain to bear the load, we are with Jesus who did not shun the cross that came his way. And just as Jesus has redeemed the world by his following through and bearing his cross, so we will share in that redemption through our constancy and determination to do as Jesus has done. We keep in our hearts the hope that Niebuhr expresses in his prayer:
Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will: (and what is his will? – to take up my cross)
That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
And so we are encouraged, each one of us, to bear the crosses that may be placed in our lives. Keeping our eyes on Jesus as we do so. Then we will have taken up one of the great challenges that Jesus has put before us who seek to be his disciples.
It is of the very essence of things that facing up to the suffering in our lives leads to ultimate happiness that only God can give.
And curiously, even Malcolm Fraser’s words are tinged with that hope. You see, the words he used come from George Bernard Shaw and Mr Fraser only quoted half of the saying. What George Bernard Shaw said was: “Life is not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage: it can be delightful.” Crosses born in the name of Jesus can ultimately be delightful.
As we continue our Lenten journey, let our prayer be that we will each be able to bear our crosses with courage and perseverance in the name of Jesus our Lord.
Fr Allan Paulsen
Priest in Charge
St Matt’s Anglican, Holland Park