Listen for a moment to this poem, called What People Give You:
Long-faced irises. Mums.
Pink roses and white roses
and giant sunflowers,
and hundreds of daisies.
Fruit baskets with muscular pears,
and water crackers and tiny jams
and the steady march of casseroles.
people give money these days.
Cards, of course:
the Madonna, wise
and sad just for you,
Chinese cherry blossoms,
sunsets and moonscapes,
and dragonflies for transcendence.
People stand by your sink
and offer up their pain:
Did you know I lost a baby once,
or My eldest son was killed,
or My mother died two months ago.
People are good.
They file into your cartoon house until it bows at the seams;
they give you every
except your daughter back.
That was written by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, a poet and a grieving mother, whose grief could not be lightened by any gift or well-intentioned gesture from a pastor or friend or loved one. We offer it as an example.
The kind of grief, it describes, lives in a category where we find other persistent burdens that people carry, burdens that have no solution and cannot be wished away. It is one of the most painful but important lessons any person could ever learn. Some things in life are not problems to be solved, but crosses to be carried.
The difference between a problem and a cross is that a person works on a problem, but carrying a cross works on a person. It is supposed to humble us over time, produce patience, make us aware of our need for deliverance. 2 + 2, an uncooperative insurance company, car trouble, bouncing a check, dealing with funeral arrangements (as our grieving poet had to do), these are problems. And the produce frustration and need some critical thinking skills. A problem usually has a solution nearby.
But nurturing a lifelong marriage (especially through rough times), caring day after day for someone in need, suffering through a lingering physical or emotional illness, loving someone who has no interest in loving us back, bearing a persistent grief that nothing can lighten (as our poet had to do), these are crosses. And they produce tears and the surrendering of control. A cross often has no neat solution that we can see.
When we face a problem, we summon our strength to tackle it. That’s proper. God gave us minds to use for that sort of thing. But when we take up our cross, we have no strength to carry it, because a cross is rooted in our weakness and cannot be carried except by Christ within us.
Being patient, when patience is not your strong suit; forgiving, when revenge or punishing the offender comes naturally; being limited by illness or age, when strength and dependence once defined you, these are crosses we carry which bring us face to face with our weakness. And according to Holy Scripture, that is where we end and God begins. Here are the words of St. Paul to the Christians in Corinth:
Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
That’s amazing stuff. “I am content with weakness. For when I am weak, then I am strong” It is helpful to remember how the body of Christ can come alive, especially when we lower our defenses and share our burdens. After all, some crosses we carry feel as if they gain weight with time.
Listen for a moment to a second poem, written by the grieving mother. This one was written after she and her husband attended their daughter’s funeral.
The church is a big wooden boat,
Dave and I in a corner,
as the rain drops patter
through the dark outside.
Hold on tight,
says the kindly moon face
of the minister.
But we can smell our own sweat.
We roll our eyes and moan
and grapple for position.
One by one, the others
press their bodies against us,
we tire and lean in
to their patient animal breath,
to wait it out together.
For those within her, the Body of Christ is always relational. When our crosses get too heavy to carry, God sends other people to help us carry them. “We tire and lean in to wait it out together.” Sometimes a fresh set of ears and a fresh heart bring a fresh perspective. “A friend loveth at all times,” says the writer of Proverbs, “and a brother is born for adversity” (meaning bearing a burden is what a brother is for).
How do we carry our cross? At least we know this, with the help and intercession of the body of Christ. “We tire and lean in to wait it out together.” One way to embrace the cross of our Lord is by reflecting, not on the problems we solve in our own strength, but on the crosses we carry in our own weakness. For it is only in taking up your cross, in taking up my cross, that we accept first our need for a savior and then the love of His body, our brothers and sister of the Church.
One reviewer of the book of poetry written by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno wrote that “The grieving know that grief is more than a single emotion. It’s more of a doorway to all the other emotions.” A cross that we carry can be like that. More than a single burden, it can be a doorway to a deeper communion with God and with those in His love, He has given us to help with a long, difficult but worthwhile journey toward salvation. Some things in life are not problems to be solved, but crosses to be carried, and that means they are opportunities.