In the year and a half that I’ve been in ministry (about the same amount of time that I have not posted to this blog…) I’ve developed a practice of researching my sermon in dribs and drabs throughout the week, then on Friday mornings going for a long walk. As I progress along the surface of the earth, the sermon germinates, phrases and ideas come together, and by the end of the walk, the sermon is more developed than at the beginning.
This Friday morning, however, I decided to cross-country ski. This is unusual on several counts. The first is that it has been very cold, and that morning, with a windchill forecast of somewhere around -30 degrees Celsius, was no exception. The second is that I’m not really a cross-country skier. Many people might find this a little surprising since two of my children have competed provincially and nationally in the sport of biathlon (cross-country skiing and marksmanship – see below), but that just means that I’m really good at watching people ski rather than doing it myself. My husband coaches cross-country skiing, and so if I were actually to get on this particular family bandwagon, I think my loved ones would applaud heartily.
But the truth is, I like my feet firmly planted on the ground. I find cross-country skis to be slippery devils, and in my experience, before you know it, your feet are leading the rest of your body in directions you didn’t intend – sometimes more than one. My family has taught me the basics of cross-country skiing several times, but whenever I go out, it always feels like I have to re-learn everything. I also have kind of a bad history with cross-country skiing… A few years ago, my beloved thought it would be nice to spend Valentine’s Day on skis. It was lovely – until we got to a non-flat part. Are you really supposed to just keep your skis in the tracks, maintain the athletic stance and just glide down? Really? About halfway down this incline I panicked and tried to stop. Bad idea. I ended up in the Emergency department and then on crutches for a few days with torn ligaments. In the ensuing years I have been given a gift certificate with which I am supposed to get a non-family member to teach me about hills and stopping and other important things, but I have not as yet pursued this.
And so, yesterday morning, despite the cold, despite my tenuous relationship with my skis, beckoned by the brilliant sun and dazzling snow, I set out.
And before long, I was ruminating on aspects of Mark 8:31-38, the text I’ll preach on on Sunday. This is a hard text. This is one of the places where Jesus says that those who try to save their lives will lose it and those who lose their lives for Jesus’ sake will save it. This is also the place where Jesus invites those around him to “take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) I think traditionally we think of bearing a cross as a burden, but my reading this week suggests that Jesus was challenging those who would follow him with the idea of giving up everything, especially their identity, and being willing to exchange it for that of one despised and headed for crucifixion.
As I glided along in the dazzling white of a Canadian winter, I couldn’t help but think of Martin Luther King Jr. In my congregations we did a whole service devoted to Martin Luther King Jr. a couple of weeks ago. Just last week I saw the movie Selma, and I am moved. Deeply. It occurs to me that Martin Luther King Jr., more than anyone else I’ve encountered, embodies this idea of offering up one’s life for the Gospel. Selma did such a good job of portraying the toll this took on King, and yet also the perfection and beauty of his having responded to the call before him.
For Lent, I am trying to develop a practice of speaking truth to unholy compromises (maybe easier to give up chocolate) and I wonder, would I have been one of the white clergypeople urging King to wait for reform, to have patience, whom King addressed in his letter written from the Birmingham jail? It’s a moot point, of course, as back then I probably wouldn’t be a member of the clergy, I’d be someone’s secretary, but it’s still worth thinking about. This text challenges deeply our middle-class comforts and “good enough” faith.
I learned this week too about Christ’s “passion.” That “passion” and “passive” come from the same root – to endure. It seems that this passion is about letting go, about being willing to take up the cross and let go of identity, of control, of plans. This is hard. And it occurs to me that this is probably why I am not a good cross-country skier. It’s the letting-go part…
Ironically, as I glide along in my white world, this is what I think about, thankful that my body remembers how to do this. Thankful that I don’t encounter any hills.