'Take Up Your Cross . . .'
By: Rubel Shelly

Life has seasons. Have you noticed?

The first third – perhaps 25 to 30 years – of a typical life span is the dreaming, visioning, direction-charting season of life. Life is thought about in future tense: I will do this or that. I will live here or there. I will achieve one thing or another. It’s not only a busy time of education and preparation but also the early time of productivity and progress.

In this first third of your life, you frame an identity. Make critical choices. Get married. Have children. And a career path begins to become a reality.

Most of us are black-and-white thinkers in this first season of life. There is a clear and precise answer to every question – even if you don’t know what that answer is, you tend to be certain it is there to be found. So there are bursts of energy – pursuing, figuring out, sorting categories. The strength of this first season of life is hope tied to strength. Its weakness is the limitation of experience and a certain naiveté about life’s simplicity.

The second third is the generative season of life. This is when men and women of the human species are our most focused. To use biblical language, we have “put away childish things” for the sake of setting priorities, jettisoning things that don’t really contribute to our chosen life-direction, and have entered our most productive period. Strength is beginning to be tempered by maturity, and people in this season of life are becoming aware that life is more complex than they first thought. Answers aren’t always neat and pat; we have begun to realize how complicated some of the questions are.

In this second season, there are adjustments to make. You realign your identity, early choices, and career decisions with a fuller view of authentic personhood and spiritual life. But now your own children are in the first season of their lives – moving out on their own, making their first-season choices, embracing their identities. And you must figure out how to integrate your lives and theirs by mutual choice rather than by necessity.

This is the season of “midlife crisis” for both men and women. Where are we on the idealistic trajectory we had plotted early on? Have we made good choices? Is it too late to correct bad ones? Is there time to start any part of life over again? The strength of the second season of life is maturity linked to the ability to be both productive and efficient. The weakness of it is self-doubt and anxiety over the amount of time left – either to achieve the original dream or to reorient to the one that has taken its place.

The final third of the typical human life is the contemplative-giving season of life. This point is life isn’t so much old age or infirmity or inactivity – and certainly not in the past fifty years or so. It is the point in life to which some people never come. They get stuck in “reinventing” themselves endlessly or trying to deny that certain prior seasons are essentially gone. This is the point in life where someone is content that he or she has done something worthwhile, had seen fruit borne from the experience, and can look back with perspective never possible before.

Yes, it’s the “winding down” of hustle and bustle. Much more important than that, it is the abandonment of elbow-past-someone competitiveness. There is a major degree of satisfaction within a set of relationships cultivated for twenty or thirty or forty years. It is awareness of one’s proper place in the scheme of things – more fully aware than ever before that she doesn’t have all the answers but convinced of his ability to contribute.

This is not a time of life to dread. It is a good feeling. There is healthier perspective. And the future-tense hope of the first season is felt again – with non-morbid attention to the future God has promised his people with him.

The one constant through all these periods is not physical strength, intellectual concerns, psychological states, or religious posture. It is the person of Christ. The shadow of his cross. And the early, definitive first-season decision to take up one’s own cross in order to follow him.

One day when large groups of people were walking along with him, Jesus turned and told them, “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters – yes, even one’s own self! – can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple. “Is there anyone here who, planning to build a new house, doesn’t first sit down and figure the cost so you’ll know if you can complete it? If you only get the foundation laid and then run out of money, you’re going to look pretty foolish. Everyone passing by will poke fun at you: ‘He started something he couldn’t finish.’ “Or can you imagine a king going into battle against another king without first deciding whether it is possible with his ten thousand troops to face the twenty thousand troops of the other? And if he decides he can’t, won’t he send an emissary and work out a truce? “Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can’t be my disciple” (Luke 14:25-33 MSG).
Today we are celebrating New Arrivals Day – all those precious babies born to families in this church during the prior calendar year. But I’m talking to their parents. I’m addressing you first-season Moms and Dads about what matters to your family. Your precious baby. Your relationships. Your careers. Your values. Your spiritual lives. Your ability to navigate your productive years without losing touch with one another and your God. Your ability to get to the final season of your life still so much in love with each other that your child is safe in using your footprints to navigate his or her own choices and growth and anxieties.

Next Sunday I’m going to preach in dialogue with Marine Captain John Paul Norman, and you will get to hear the detailed testimony of how this young dad, his bride of four years, and their young son are getting through – and getting clear about – an experience more horrible than you will likely ever face. This Sunday I’m asking you to use this first season of your life to choose wisely. To set a Christ-seeking, cross-formed direction for all you are about. To put relationships above money and wants, rights and egos, success and flattery.

For the sake of your God and your relationship with him, your marriage and the children you have brought to life, kiss everything good-bye that doesn’t draw you closer to Christ, make your family tighter, and your heart purer.

Settle it in this first season of your life to be a lifelong apprentice to Jesus of Nazareth. To die to yourself in order to live for him. To let go of anything you know is making it harder for you to be his disciple. To hit the stride of your most productive years for the sake of serving and honoring him. To come to your second and third seasons of life with something learned at the depth of your being that can be passed on to the people with whom you are linked by life and love! And lead them to eternal life by who you are.

Let words about God, his will, and his favor come from your lips naturally and easily with these babies. And pray daily for the Spirit to give you the power to keep your life consistent with the things you are saying to them and in their presence.

Be a worshipful person – not only in public but also in private – so that your child can know without guessing what you value most.

Let your greatest gift to your child be your faithful, unquestioned devotion to each other. Let them have the security of knowing how rock-solid love is. Affirm one another before your child, work out your differences as adults in private, and be willing to take charge of leading your home. Agree on the boundaries of your family’s life, state them clearly, and don’t let your understandably immature children intimidate you by whining or telling you that other families do things differently.

Don’t be afraid to say “No.” Children need to know that a family can’t afford everything it would like to have, that some things simply aren’t worth having if you can get them, and that other people and other families will not dictate your family’s lifestyle.

Don’t be afraid to say “Yes.” Being a parent is not a power game to show you are the bosses. When the requests are reasonable and within the value system you have affirmed, give the kids a break.

Be what you want your babies to grow up to be. Chances are about nine in ten that they can rise above your good-faith ignorance and failures and bad counsel but not above a depraved character, mean spirit, or pretended faith.

Oh, you’re in a grand season of your life! Celebrate. Give thanks to God. Take up your cross of death to self for the sake of the kingdom of God. And look forward to what lies ahead – all the way into eternity.