A few days ago, a friend of mine completely rocked my world over a cup of coffee. We were discussing how as a Pastor, there’s this constant temptation that every time our church gathers it has to get better and better. We feel responsible for creating an atmosphere of worship and teaching that continually tops itself, week after week. In response, Curt said “well that’s why it’s so important to let go of a Theology of Glory.” I was puzzled, and asked for him to explain.
Curt then began to explain how most of us embrace a Theology of Glory, where we go from “glory to glory,” believing that our lives have a constant upward trajectory and God will meet us the most in our mountain-top experiences. Every worship experience has to be better than the last, every year we have to show progress, every day we have to find God in the “high.” This made complete sense to me, because I’ve lived much of my life in this mode, totally addicted to emotional “hit” that glory provides, and desperately trying to avoid the crash on the other side.
In contrast, Curt laid out the idea of the Theology of the Cross, where our lives have a constant downward trajectory and God meets us the most in our darkest hours and deepest sadness. If you mapped out the Theology of the Cross on paper, it would look a lot like dying; an arrow bending downward in small everyday deaths-to-self. This, he said, is what we actually find in the gospel. It’s far more about dying than it is about living, far more about the rising of the ashes than the beauty of the flame.
On the surface that sounds depressing, but when we embrace the Theology of the Cross it actually brings life and freedom. We are free to walk away from our addiction to glory. We no longer feel the constant pressure of life always having to improve, always having to grow in excitement and intensity. Instead of just being concerned what others think of us, we start to actually see people for who they are. Somehow, by embracing a life of dying daily, we become more human, more alive.
Today’s readings are a perfect fit for Ash Wednesday, and a great start to the Lenten season. As I read through them, I’m particularly struck by Hebrews 12:11…
“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
By design, discipline is uncomfortable. It has to be, otherwise we would never pay attention and change our course. The writer of Hebrews is begging us to look past the pain of discipline and remember how helpful it can be. God disciplines us because He loves us, just like I discipline my son because I love him. Sure, that makes sense and sounds great on paper, but it’s a pretty hard perspective for me to maintain. When I get in a place or season of discipline, when I feel like I’m on a downward trajectory, I want to leave as soon as possible. I’d much rather be sitting in front of my fake fireplace, enjoying the warmth, then be sitting in the midst of the flames themselves!
But in the end, embracing the downward process of dying to self through constant discipline is what truly allows me to live life to the fullest. It helps me break the strongest addiction I have in my life, my addiction to my own glory. Look at the parable Jesus describes in Luke 18:9-14. Which person is truly free? The Pharisee, who has to maintain his constant state of upright haughtiness; or the tax collector, who cries out to God from a place of total honesty? The way of the cross is the way of true peace and rest, bringing light from darkness, beauty from ashes.
So today, the question I invite you to explore is the one I’m asking myself – “Am I addicted to glory, or embracing the cross?” It’s a challenging question, and I’m afraid I might not like my answer today. But over the next few weeks, as we journey together through Lent, my prayer is that eventually I will look a little bit more like a tax collector than a Pharisee.