The votes are in. It is clear that, in many and various ways, the church is slowly but surely abandoning the cross as its primary identity.
The new hotness? The arrow.
And if you doubt this is true, think of all the churches that have an arrow pointing upward, or “right and up” as the business world calls it, in their logos. As their logo. It’s the new “thing” and it speaks to optimism and the “you can do it” vibe that much of Christianity is giving off these days.
You don’t have to Google too much to find one. You probably will see it on a bumper or as a window cling on your way home from work today.
And that’s not bad, necessarily. But it certainly isn’t the cross.
Sermons are now “TED talks.” They’re “how can I improve my life?” talks instead of “how does Jesus ask me to give up my life?” proclamations. (And I love me some TED talks)
And, look, I’m all for practical and relevant sermons. I think I give them. And I’m all for trying to improve myself and others. I hope I do that in some ways.
But I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t die on the cross so that I can learn how to reach higher in life. I’m pretty sure Jesus talked, lived, and died in such a way that makes me desire downward mobility rather than upward mobility.
The downward mobility of washing feet. The downward mobility of kneeling with those in grief. The downward mobility of embracing a life that banks more on repentance and grace rather than “trying harder” or “getting it right.”
In my neck of the woods so many churches are embracing the arrow over the cross. The arrow of “make your life better” instead of “God is embracing you where you are, and believe it or not, that is better than constantly trying to make your life better.” And I get why it’s happening, at least in part. Arrows can speak to transcendence, a desire that humanity has been wrestling with since we first started to think bigger than our stomachs. But the problem is that arrows promise a false transcendence; a transcendence that requires you to “keep climbing” instead of giving up.
But the cross speaks of giving up. Specifically giving up your life for the sake of others. And only then realizing that your life is given back to you in a new way.The cross speaks to the truth of human fragility, human vulnerability, human suffering and, subversively, Divine hope. The arrow speaks to the lies of stair-stepping our way to salvation and human moral progress in such a way the sacrifice is less about “what I give up” and more about “I’m going to work harder.”
A difficult truth to swallow for some may be this understanding, which I’ve come to see as true: sometimes I find people following other faith paths (and sometimes even no faith path) living a more cruciform life than those with Jesus fish on the back of their cars.
And it’s not about wealth or church attendance or even belief statements, necessarily. It’s about, as Jesus says, “Losing your life to gain it.” It’s about starving the all-consuming ego monster in deference for the Other in front of you. It’s about God resurrecting you more than you trying over and over again to resuscitate your happiness, self-worth, career, what have you.
This is something that 12 step programs understand so well, and something that we’re missing in the pews (or auditorium chairs, if that’s your thing).
Now, before you write that response below, I have to clarify something: I’m not for living or wallowing in total depravity. I’m not for shunning the gym or canceling your therapist. I am all for self-betterment in the non-annoying, non-cloying, non-consumerist ways it can happen (spoiler alert: that audio book will not “take away your Mondays”…but you knew that before you bought it and you bought it anyway because you’re willing to try anything to get rid of that feeling, right?). This is not just a “grumpy church person” rant.
I think these things form and shape us. And I think arrows are bad news when it comes to spiritual life. They look like good news, but as a Lutheran I must “call a thing what it is.” And it is bad news.
Because we don’t climb our way out of life. This life is not about the climb. We can’t climb out of that life, no matter how high you go, but we can live in such a way that we give up that life in exchange for a different one not so intent on moving up, but more intent on having the Spirit move within.
But the Spirit does all sorts of thing that will make you unhappy. Things like:
Ask you to give up your life for the sake of others.
Ask you to put down the self-help book, to help the other selves around you.
Ask you to speak out against injustice and own your role in the system (a system that promises you ascension at the expense of others).
Things like convince you that God is less interested in how much money you make, and more interested in how much money you decide to keep.
And, ironically, that’s exactly what we need.