He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. – Mark 8:34-35
I’ve always thought I’d make a terrible martyr. I just don’t think I could manage to be strong and centered while being hung up on a cross and stabbed to death with a lance like the Japanese Christians being honored today. (For their story, go here. I’d probably be a total disgrace, sobbing and begging for mercy. I would betray all my beliefs, I am just sure of it.
When I shared this conviction of likely failure with a friend, he asked me, “well, but there must be some things you would never say, even under threat of death, aren’t there?”
And, after a little reflection, I realized that there are certain things more important to me than life or freedom from pain. For instance I would never want my children or my partner to believe I do not love them. And by the same token, I would never want to give anyone the impression that they are not loved deeply and passionately by God. I would never want to suggest, through what I said or through what I refrained from saying, that anyone is alone in the universe, or that their life has no meaning, or that they are worthless. I fervently hope that God would be with me in my trial, giving me whatever it would take to keep me from betraying myself, and God, that far.
But from my easy chair in a warm and comfortable office, it is impossible to really know what would happen were I put to that sort of test. I can admire and appreciate the Japanese being honored today, but could I emulate them? I am far from certain that I would be successful.
There is, however, a different sort of martyrdom. It is the little ego deaths that happen every day in the service of compassion. For instance, one might give one’s favorite winter coat away to an inebriated woman in danger of freezing to death on a cold city street. Or one might work tirelessly for a social justice advocacy group for little pay and even less acclaim. Speaking up for somebody who is being poorly treated, one might lose one’s job. Or working to let go of one’s resentment, one might forgive somebody who has perpetrated some great wrong. Quietly refraining from claiming honor, one might promote one’s team mates. One might relinquish one’s sense of belonging to embrace similarities with strangers rather than emphasizing differences.
There are hundreds of ways the little ego deaths manifest themselves in daily life. Usually they are accompanied with a moment of pain, sometimes also of grief.
It is hard to let go of the things which are important to us. But I go back to the list of things I would never want to cause anyone to believe. What good does it do to tell a person they are loved if most of my actions point to indifference – or even to out-and-out dislike? What good does it do to say someone is important if I am going to participate in treating them like a second class citizen?
Taking up one’s cross is a moment-by-moment act. Sometimes it is easier, sometimes harder. Each time I do it, I live out my convictions in a way that speaks louder than words. I show people that God exists and that God loves them. I show what it is that I want each precious human being to understand.
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries With others she manages a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations’ creative ministries: Fresh Expressions Colorado