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Under the Cross

Three Crosses - RembrandtThere’s a well-known Rembrandt sketch I like to ponder around Good Friday. Known as “The Three Crosses,” it portrays a crowded and chaotic crucifixion scene. Blending into the crowd under the crosses on the hill is a clearly Renaissance-era man, purported to be either the artist himself or the patron of the painting (often done in religious art of that era). The figure seems to be gazing elsewhere, perhaps oblivious to the significance of the drama playing out right in front of him. As we approach Good Friday, it’s always worth reflecting: If I were there, literally under the cross, where would I be, and what would I be doing?

As followers of Jesus, of course, we are all called to “live under the cross.” I’ve been thinking about that ever since an encounter we had in El Salvador. We were meeting with a group of pastors and other local church leaders and some of their spouses. The topic was World Vision’s work through a wonderful initiative called Channels of Hope, to help the church credibly live out the Gospel they proclaim.

Channels of Hope (CoH) was created during the worst years of the AIDS pandemic, and during that time churches were often the most stigmatizing institution in town. It’s hard to remember back even 10-15 years ago, at how condemnatory and vitriolic our own churches and churches in Africa could be regarding AIDS. Many saw their role as pointing out “sin” from some high and holy perch, and they hadn’t begun to think about where Jesus would be in this situation, or how the church could lead the way in compassionate response to those who were sick and dying. At one time, I’m ashamed to say, I could be painted right there in that crowd.

Channels of Hope walked faith leaders through these realizations, which convicted their own hearts, and then empowered them to reach out tangibly with hope and help in their communities in beyond. Over 200,000(!) pastors and faith leaders have gone through this program, and they in turn have walked millions of congregants through this same amazing transformation, from sideline finger-waggers to frontline helping hands… one reason the AIDS crisis is abating.

Now this same methodology is being applied to new issues, particularly around child protection and “gender” issues (demeaning and mistreating girls and women), and we were hearing about these that day in El Salvador. This new training helps participants explore their own upbringing and cultural overlays… what we “bring with us” to the Bible when we try to understand and teach it.

We can’t help it that we start with a specific family and cultural context; everyone does. But we can acknowledge that we have one, and try continually to be open to our fellow Christ-followers who can take us by the hand around our resulting blind spots. And that was exactly the epiphany we learned of this day.

Pastor José and his wife. Photo: World Vision

Pastor José and his wife.
Photo: World Vision

After we’d heard a bit from the pastors, the question was asked about what the impact has been. Eventually Pastor José announced with a quiet urgency that he wanted to say something. First, he asked one of our visitors who was sitting next to him if she could move so that José’s wife – his “First Lady” – could sit by him. His need to speak up and this symbolic action spoke even more directly than their subsequent words about their private transformation.

He invited his esposa to be the first to speak: “We’ve been trained on gender equality,” she began. “This has helped us a lot, even as a couple: My husband and I have been working to make adjustments in our own relationship. We understand each other better. We spend more time together and more with our children. We are doing what we can with the families in church, but we have improved as well.”

Then José added, “We learned about disorganized creation and reorganized creation… This has to do with us as a couple. God created a natural order. Then sin came and created disorder. But with Christ, everything is reordered.” He went on to say that in the church they dedicate one Sunday of every month to family issues and have instituted an annual retreat to talk about family concerns using the training they’ve received. Clearly, they have made this learning a major focus in their church.

Just as clearly, there was more to their personal story than they spelled out, but in a machismo culture, the details are not difficult to imagine. But beautifully, now his wife truly seemed to be his “First Lady.”

After others had spoken, I left a strong urge to comment on one aspect of what Pastor José had said. But how does one coming like me from a culture of power speak properly to a humble servant of God? I dropped onto my knees from my chair. I thanked him for his comments, but then tried to gingerly point out that it was not the very same moment he became a Christian when suddenly his family life was “reordered.” Rather, the act of opening ourselves to God in Christ is an invitation to remain continually open to God’s conviction and to “say yes” in obedience whenever we hear his voice. “You humbly opened yourself to new teaching and other ways of thinking, and when you heard God’s voice in that, you were obedient to it.”

This feels very important to me. Living “under the cross” must call us to continual transformation, not a one-time event and then a lifetime of intransigence. I don’t think that there has been a time when I have changed as much in my Christian life as I have the past 5-10 years. I’m no longer afraid of discovering new areas where I’ve been wrong. Nowadays I simply assume that in many areas I was “born blind,” and I can’t wait to recruit the help of others—provocative authors, diverse cultures, historical figures—to help me navigate past my blind spots in order to get a better understanding of Jesus than any single culture or upbringing could give me, my own included.

Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t enjoy feeling convicted or discovering areas where I’ve been a judge rather than a light, where my viewpoint has been only a view from one point without considering the views of others. This is not a good feeling.

But I now have a different goal which drives me, rather than defending my viewpoint: to be continually transformed more and more into the image of Christ, as quickly as I can. And this means letting go of my preconceptions and admitting quickly when I just might not be as dead-right as I thought I was. If it’s true that only together we form Christ’s Body, then I desperately need all those other parts of the body to help me navigate, if we are to make any progress at all in the work we are together called to do.

Pastor José sat there without pride, having let go and been transformed on this issue. Not afraid to be convicted. Not afraid to say that his eyes had been opened, that he was wrong, that all the Scripture verses he had used to justify his previous actions and attitudes toward his children and wife were trumped by others which until recently he had simply ignored as being irrelevant.

Today, as a result, he is leading the way for his entire congregation on that same journey past this cultural blind spot, and leading his fellow pastors in what it means to “confess our sins to one another,” bearing each other’s burdens “and so fulfill the law of Christ.” What would it really mean to take seriously our need to confront and confess our own flaws and blind spots as the only way we can actually “fulfill the law of Christ” together?

It might mean staying in that place of continual transformation, of living under the cross.

Cory Trenda is the Senior Director of Innovation for World Vision U.S. Major Donor Ministries.

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