“You need to find a major that will get you a job where you can make some money!” I don’t think I was intentionally eavesdropping, but I did overhear this statement between what looked like a mother and daughter recently at the airport. I can only assume they were talking about college and the future when the mom raised her voice and invoked the almighty dollar.
I’m not casting stones at this mom or using her as an example of what not to do. I don’t think she is emphasizing money over happiness or anything like that. As a matter of fact, I’ve had similar conversations with my children about vocations and being able to pay the bills. I can still remember my dad asking me at the second change of majors in college how a concentration in political science would lead to a “real” job.
Why are we so obsessed with “moving up?” Maybe it’s that we view this upward mobility in all things as a way to save ourselves-to make us worthy somehow of the things we have or want, including acceptance, belonging and love. If we don’t do it this way, or if life doesn’t look like that, then somehow we are less than good or worthy. Culture conditions us in so many ways to think that we are what we do or have and when we don’t…we aren’t.
We’re taught that there is a prescription for success, and our entire lives must follow it to the letter. And this upward mobility isn’t limited to our work. We seek bigger titles, higher compensation, better relationships, greater spirituality, improvement in self and others and more of everything we deem valuable. We climb ever higher to the success we’re expected to want and demand. We want this for ourselves and our children.
It becomes the measure we use for success in most things in life, including our relationship with God. Do this and that, pray in this way, listen to the right music, volunteer for the proper ministry (and be sure to tell everyone about it) and a host of other “stuff” and then you will be a real follower of Jesus. If you can just climb a little higher, then you will be worthy of God’s love, and the adulation of those around you is just an added plus. So what happens when on day four of your Lenten Bible reading plan, you’re late for work (again), your child throws a fit in Walmart, you scream at your spouse, and you throw the whole “plan” out the window to vege out watching re-runs of The Voice? Does your Creator love you less? In our shame over failing yet again or being less than the perfect parent or spouse does Jesus cancel the appointment until we can get it all together?
Stephen Freeman, a priest in the Eastern Orthodox Church, says that our modern selves, and I would argue the human animal from the beginning of time, love ladders. We spend vast swaths of time talking, thinking and dreaming about “career ladders,” “climbing the social ladder” and any other “ladder of success.” For some, this becomes the heart’s deepest desire and the striving or fantasy of what it will be like at the top of life’s ladder, ultimately strips away life. We can get lost in the striving, but we can also get lost in the dream. Like those standing in front of the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we risk spending our entire existence staring at the vision of what could or should become of life.
Freeman points out that the ladders of the world and culture stand in contrast to the ladder to Christ. He references the “myth of personal power” and our striving and industry as those things that keep us, at least in our minds, moving rung by rung upward. Of course this “industry” and those things we do lead to comparisons with others and many times into the land of pride and even contempt. It’s all “distortion and delusion” when it comes to our faith and seeking union with God. “We simply are not saved by getting better,” Freeman says. The ladder to Christ is one that leads down.
When we say we follow Christ, we must be willing to follow him down to the bottom of the pit and the Cross itself. It’s there that we find the truth of our own need and our need of a Savior. And it’s there that God meets us and leads us to something new.
If the word from Holy Scripture and the life of our Savior is all glory, then we are at risk for losing hope and meaning when we find ourselves at the bottom. If it’s all climbing the ladder of glory in all its senses, we’ll hide our desperation and pain from the world, ourselves and God, when we’re in the valley and life, turns to ash.
Holy Week is upon us. We’re tempted to climb right to Easter and new life and leave the Cross in the darkness of Good Friday. Let’s take the time this next week to walk with Jesus into the Holy City of Jerusalem, through the streets of betrayal and to the shame and death of the Cross; make our way with the disciples to the Upper Room and the new commandment to love one another. And then to Golgotha and the Cross where we are shocked by the depth of God’s love for us. Through the services this week, we come face to face with God’s sacrifice for us. We accept the invitation into God’s story which becomes our story. We reflect on our own need and God’s arrival at that point of weakness. And we’ll find what it means to put the word “amazing” in front of Grace and experience the power of Resurrection in new ways.
“Jesus has trampled shame and death and invites us to do the same thing,” Freeman says. If we do not stand at the Cross of Christ, as much as we do not want to stand there of all places in time and space, and come face to face with our failures, know our shame, be overwhelmed with our need to be delivered, not just during Holy Week, but every day, then we risk emptying the Cross of meaning and hope for us. We are in danger of dialing it in, going through the motions and paying lip service to Resurrected life, all the while hiding what prevents us from truly embracing it.
This part of God’s story reminds us that what goes up will come down. We see this in the world and experience it in our lives. But the Good News that we embrace by experiencing the whole of the story is that what is down will ultimately be raised up.