Explores the centrality of the cross in a Christian's faith and the tragedy of its absence in contemporary Christian life.
- Baker Publishing Group
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- 5.54(w) x 8.56(h) x 0.46(d)
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For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospelnot with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. -1 Corinthians 117
THE OLD GREENWICH CROSS
In Old Greenwich, Connecticut, stands a church with a cross in it. Unlike most churches, whose crosses adorn the front wall behind the preacher, this one is bolted down into the concrete floor in front of the platform, not more than three feet from where the preacher stands.
Its positioning defies reason and art and convention. No architect in his right mind would have designed such a placement. It is an obstruction. The preacher's words have to pass through it; the congregation's eyes always have it somewhere in view, so that even when they look away, it is still there, impressed on the back wall of the retina.
It is a sturdy wooden cross, ten feet tall. The crossbar is set high on the vertical beam, so high that it seems out of proportion compared to other more proportionate crosses that decorate other more proportionate churches.
Nothing about this cross is pretty. It is made of raw, untreated wood, and when you see it up close, you think of splinters, of something hard ... immovable. It is set deep in the concrete floor as well as bolted to it, so that a blow makes it vibrate rapidly. Strike it hard enough, and it will answer back in a low tone. I've heard that it can be removed, but not without great difficulty, because of its size and weight.
I got hit once with a baseball bat when I was a kidwalked right into my brother's backswing during a family softball game. The blow broke my nose. For some reason, that distant memory makes my face ache when I think about this crossas if I might forget about it for a moment, turn around too quickly, and meet it head on.
But it would be almost impossible to forget about this cross. When I was standing and talking with someone or walking anywhere near the front of the church, I had a tendency to shy away from itto lean unconsciously, to make sure I always knew where it was or, more accurately, where I was in relation to it.
The minute I walked into the church in Old Greenwich and encountered this startling placement of the cross, I felt as if I had discovered something truly significant. For just as the cross has been placed squarely in the center of this church, so it has always stood in the center of history and in the center of any life that has truly embraced it. And just as the placement of this cross seems uncomfortable, so it is ... and so it should be. There is nothing comfortable about the cross.
This raw, wooden cross in the middle of the floor manages to defy the efforts we often make to soften its blow. Most crosses we encounter are harmless. They dangle from an ear or a wrist or lie in the nape of a pretty neck. They perch atop buildings or adorn the interior walls of our places of worship. The cross has become an ornament, a religious symbol mellowed by sentimental value. Some think that wearing a cross or hanging it on a wall makes God more favorably disposed to them. Others attribute some kind of magical or superstitious power to it, like a ballplayer signing the cross before he swings away.
The cross as a symbol has become more like a charm on a bracelet than a huge, rough, inconvenient reminder I might bump into in the front of a church. That is what makes this cross in Old Greenwich stand out. It is not something to wear or wish upon. You can't bring it into your life that easily. You can't hold it in your hand and bring it lovingly to your chest. You can't even pass your hand across its surface without getting splinters. The closest you could get to this cross would be to hug it, and hugging this cross is a little like hugging a tree.
The bold placement of this particular cross takes on a special significance in this dawning of a new millennium. The church in America has become increasingly accustomed to Christianity without a crossor, at best, with one hanging harmlessly in the background. In our eagerness to popularize Christianity, we have created a very user-friendly gospel that asks for hardly a sacrifice. We have forgotten that in the middle of this gospel stands a crossan instrument of execution, the splinters of which are largely ignored by a contemporary Christian world eager to tell mostly the good part of the story.
The good part, of course, is the love of God in sending his Son to die such a painful death for us. How much he must love and value us to do this! But are these the only messages the cross brings to us? Is it only a coincidence that we receive other versions of these messages from our culture in the form of self-worth and self-love? Has the gospel found us and reoriented our thinking about ourselves to bring it more in line with the truth, or have we merely isolated the parts of the gospel that fit in well with prevailing culture?
What about sin and the helpless state of our existence that sent God's Son to the cross in the first place? In our day, such conviction has been overshadowed by discussions of dysfunction and codependency. Even in our churches, we don't need the cross as much as we need a good psychiatrist to help us straighten out our thinking.
And what about God's inapproachable righteousness and holiness that required a sacrifice for sin? The God of present-day evangelicalism is a big buddy in the sky, and the closest thing to sacrifice most of us understand is a fly ball to right with a runner on third and less than two outs.
What about the blood of bulls and goats that were slaughtered for hundreds of years in a repetitious attempt to satisfy the righteous judgment of God? What do we hear of these things? Do we wonder at all about any of this, or is a contemporary Christian love song from God all we need to know about the cross? Is the cross only a way that God says, "I love you" to all of us?
The truth is, the timelessness of the cross forces us to encounter many unpleasant realities about ourselves, outside our present cultural mindset. But we may not encounter any of these things in the crosses we see every dayunless we happened into a certain church in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. There an unreasonable ten-foot wooden cross demands to be more than an ornament, a piece of jewelry, a religious icon, or an afterthought.
It's not a particularly memorable church. It uses a good deal of natural wood in the walls and ceiling, but the overall feeling of this building is humble and unpretentious. The platform is low, the floor is concrete, and when I was there last, there were folding chairs set out for the people. The only thing unusual about this churchother than the cross in the middleis a wide aisle, also down the middle, that is necessary to allow people sitting on either side of the congregation to see around the cross to whomever is standing behind it in the center of the platform.
I was there for a day of seminars, so I was able to experience both sides of the crossto stand on the platform and talk around the cross to the people and to sit in the congregation and listen around it to the person doing the presentation. And I noticed that it doesn't make much difference where you are. The cross has a leveling effect. It puts us all on the same plane. Teacher/student, performer/audience, pastor/parish, the usual distinctions fall away in the presence of this visual aid. Suddenly we are all in the same boat. No matter what side we are on, the cross always reminds us of our sin, the equality of our guilt, and our only hope.
And the truest hope of the gospel is that forgiveness is available for all of us because we are all sinners of comparable merit. We are, all of us, experts at the subtleties of sin and equally good at cover-up. A cross in the middle of everything blows our cover. It's difficult to be haughty and proud when a hard physical reminder of what that pride cost the Savior casts a shadow in your own personal spotlight.
Something about the cross set in the concrete in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, also reminds me that our salvation is rooted in history. As the familiar hymns tell us, it's an old rugged cross we cling to and an old, old story we tell. To a society that is always trying to reinvent itself, the cross and the gospel appear to be strangely out of sync. Something tells me it's supposed to be this way, that it always was and always will be this way.
The cross shows little regard for relevancy in any age. While each generation tries to manifest its own culture, the cross seems hardly to care. At any point in history, at any place on this planet, the death of Christ, like the lines of the cross itself, runs perpendicular to the flow of culture. The cross is shocking, arresting, out of step, out of timeand yet for all time.
I'm beginning to believe that God designed it this waythat the cross is purposely irrelevant to any ageso that God might draw attention to his sacrifice by virtue of its ageless incongruity. Blood sacrifice for sin doth not a popular song make. And yet the church today is trying to win friends and influence people by being popular and relevant to current needs and trends. To such a church, a stark rendering of the cross in the middle of everything could be an embarrassment.
I travel the country almost every weekend and often spend Sunday in churches far away from home. Perhaps it's just the nature of the particular churches that bring me in, but I am amazed at how contemporary most church services have become. Having been a pioneer of the movement toward more contemporary Christian music, I should welcome this perspective. But somewhere deep inside I wonder if all that contemporary Christian music has brought to the church is necessarily good.
I honestly can't think of the last time I was in an evangelical church that did not have a contemporary worship band and a few singers to help lead the congregation in a rousing session of contemporary music made up of sing-able, repetitive choruses and danceable rhythms. It seems like years since I've heard an organ.
I grew up in a church that smelled old. The floors creaked when you walked on them. It seemed as if God had been living there for a long time. And when they played music in that church, it creaked, too. It was music you wouldn't hear anywhere else but in church. It wasn't popular music; it was church music. It wasn't supposed to be popularit didn't have to be. No one was pretending to be trendy about faith. Faith wasn't trendy. It was importantnecessarybut certainly not trendy. Faith tied you to something old then, more than to anything new.
When we sang hymns, they were filled with old wordsways to say things that no one said anymore "Leaning, leaning, /Safe and secure from all alarms; /Leaning, leaning, /Leaning on the everlasting arms." We sang about sailing through bloody seas, about having thousands of tongues to sing with, about marching to Zion.
I don't want to go back. But sometimes I wonder if we went too far too fast or let go of too much in the process of reaching out to our culture. New movements are primarily a reaction to a deficiency in the current state of affairs, and often, in their reactionary nature, they carry their own kind of one-sided blindness. History's movements always swing like pendulums.
Twenty years ago there was a crying need for an expression of faith relevant to the issues of the day. Contemporary Christianity sought to answer that call. Now a different need gnaws at my own soul. It's a need for history, for roots, for substance. As the church today gets increasingly popularmore and more need-oriented, responding to the buttons that people push in their pewsI find myself longing for a historical faith. I find myself not wanting to have everything explained to me in simple terms. I'm not sure I want the paraphrase anymore, not sure I want the mystery solved.
Why was a sacrifice necessary in the first place? Why does there have to be a cross? Why do I find myself longing even for the poetic beauty of King James English that left me wondering? Why do I find myself wanting to go back to hearing an organ again? No, not a glorious pipe organ in a four-thousand-seat auditorium, but one of those ugly-sounding electric ones with someone's grandmother struggling through all four verses of a two-hundred-year-old hymn as we try to sing our way through ancient words that somehow capture, if only for a moment, the mystery of the knowledge of God.
I'm not even sure I want all my needs met as much as I want to meet God, and sometimes I wonder if he's really interested in the noise of our contemporary clamoring. I wonder if we are like my dog, who can't seem to get anywhere because he keeps having to stop and scratch his fleas. I wonder if we are so busy scratching where everybody itches that we aren't taking anybody anywhere significant.
I spent a decade of summers at the Christian Artists Seminar in the Rockies, an annual seminar for contemporary Christian musicians in the mountains of Colorado. When I think back on those days, I try to capture what stands out in my memory. And what stands alone among all the new groups vying for attention was the day Cynthia Clawson sang without any accompaniment "There is a fountain filled with blood, /Drawn from Emmanuel's veins; /And sinners plunged beneath that flood, /Lose all their guilty stains."
I remember wanting it all to stop right there. I didn't want to hear another musical soundnot another wordfor about three days. I just wanted to let that last song echo around in the rocky mountains of my mind until I could hear it no more. I remember resenting the people who got up next to singI'm sure they were wonderful. But everything after that mysterious, culturally irrelevant, historical relic of a hymn was mere noise to me. I didn't want to hear another up-tempo expression of the gospel. I wanted to sit for a while with the shocking thought of a fountain of blood spewing from the Savior's veins; I wanted to explore the bizarre thought that this might fill up a dark red pool into which some crazy saint or sinner like me might want to actually plunge his whole body. Nothing about this concept was appealing. Everything about it was arresting and somewhat offensive, as the cross has always been.
The cross is an anomaly. It is inconsistent with what would naturally be expected. The cross destroys the wisdom of the wise and frustrates the intelligence of the intelligent. Yet it is perfectly in line with a God who has always been full of surprises. Who but God would ever have thought of this, and who but someone he chose would ever believe it?
The very anomaly of the cross, in fact, makes the truth of Christianity self-evident. No human being would have come up with dying on the cross as a means of saving the world. "For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached [the message of the cross] to save those who believe" (1 Corinthians 121).
This is why something valuable is lost when the cross becomes no more than a charm or an ornament or a sign a nervous batter makes before an 0 and 2 pitch. This is why the attractive cross on the front wall of the churchthe one designed by the same graphic artists who coordinated it with the logo on the bulletin and the four-color brochure that is handed out every Sunday to new visitorshas somehow lost its foolishness. This cross is too pretty. It blends in too well with the decor. It doesn't move us to ask any hard questions like Why was it necessary? What does it mean? What is its purpose in my life now?
The Old Greenwich cross seems more like what crosses should be if we are, in fact, going to have any of them around as reminders. It is rugged, sturdy, hard, bare, and in the way.
The Old Greenwich cross has to be reckoned with. It is in the middle of everythingweddings, funerals, concerts, baptisms, dedications, prayer meetings, Sunday morning services. Where do you put the casket? Are the bride and groom going to stand on either side of it? What if the bride's dress gets caught on a splinter? Where do you put the horn section? Where do you stand? Every event that takes place in this church has to accommodate this cross in some way. It cannot be moved easily like the pulpit or the platform chairs or the Communion table or the planters of ivy that line the platform's edge. It's almost as if the church was built around this crossas if it were the first thing down before the walls went up and the roof went on.
Something tells me it was.
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