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Last week Brian Keepers wrote about the theology of the cross and our allergic reaction to talk of grief and loss. It reminded me of my family’s recent drive from Michigan to New Mexico where we passed not one, but two giant roadside attractions: The Cross at the Crossroads in Effingham, Illinois and The Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Groom, Texas.
Both sites feature towering, white, steel crosses. Notably, both are just shy of 200 feet, which means they do not need to comply with FAA regulations for placing a light at the top of tall buildings. But I digress.
Roadside America rates both attractions as “major fun” and gives both attractions four out of five smiley face water towers. If that’s not a symbol of our desperation to avoid suffering then I don’t know what is. According to their rating system explained on the Roadside America website this means the attraction is “A superlative sight, in the upper tier of roadside attractions.
‘Major fun’ attractions may deliver hours of guffaws, or a single explosive snort of laughter.” We didn’t stop, but I’ll admit my reaction was closer to the single explosive snort of laughter, minus the laughter.
Perhaps a pastor should not snort at the sight of a giant, white-washed cross, but I suppose it’s because I’m skeptical that these over-the-top (but not so over-the-top that the government would interfere with the design) roadside attractions help folks to embrace a theology of the cross. Or to consider what it means to participate in Christ’s sufferings. Or, as Brian wrote last week, to learn how to suffer well. I would be relieved to be proven wrong.
A more generous interpretation might see the white-washed cross as a symbol for Jesus’ victory over death, and “major fun” might symbolically describe the resurrection life given to us by the Spirit. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that in this case “major fun” is more a symbol of the self-righteousness that many of us revel in when we engage in culture wars Christianity.
I remember one of my preaching professors, John Rottman, preaching on Jesus’ words: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). He painted a picture of visiting the execution chamber at the Louisiana State Penitentiary and seeing the electric chair where men had been executed. He described a heaviness and an eeriness in the room.
Jesus’ words to his disciples have been blunted by the proliferation of and commodification of the cross as jewelry and decoration (and roadside attraction, apparently). To hear these words as the disciples must have heard them, we might instead imagine Jesus telling us to strap into the electric chair if we want to follow him. So when we passed the almost-200-foot tall white-washed crosses on the highway I couldn’t help but wonder if an almost-200-foot tall electric chair would also be rated as “major fun.”
I’m trying to pay closer attention to things recently: to God’s presence and grace in mundane places, yes, but also to my not-fully-sanctified-inner-life. I’m trying to pay attention to my skepticism, cynicism, and to the “single explosive snort.”
I appreciate the observation once made to me that skepticism and cynicism are not virtues nor are they the fruit of the Spirit. It’s a helpful reminder to not take pleasure in these feelings or be overcome with them. But things just seem so far off track in the white American church and it’s hard to envision a hopeful future where we are able to suffer well together and to embrace suffering for the sake of our neighbors.
It sounds odd to talk about a hopeful future that includes suffering, but that’s the promise that Jesus holds out to us when he says, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35). Maybe in this case a hopeful future is one where the white-washed steel culture war crosses are disassembled and we are able to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and bear our suffering together, to bear it for the sake of our neighbors, and finally to bear it to the glory of God.