Large crowds were following this particular miracle worker as he tracked across the sun-baked semi-arid desert which formed the western bank of the River Jordan, after leaving the freshwater lake of Galilee and its flourishing fishing industry. Already achieving national fame for doing good by healing the sick, driving out demons and showing mercy to the poor and the hopeless, and at the same time arousing raging envy from the religious mob, this particular Jew, as he was heading towards Jerusalem, suddenly turned around and loudly declared a three fold challenge to the eager crowds:
If you don't hate all your family members, including your own life, you cannot be my disciple.
If you do not take up the cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple.
If you do not forsake everything you have to follow me, you cannot be my disciple.
Indeed he also inserts a couple of illustrations to drive his point home. One was about a man who started to build a watchtower over his vineyard but runs out of funds before he was able to finish it, and ended up as a victim of mockery thrown at him by passersby. And the second illustration was about a king who was set to go to war against a rival monarch whose military was twice as large, and was instead sensible enough to send an ambassador to ask for conditions of peace.
This "taking up the cross" exhortation, also recorded in Matthew 16:24-28 and Mark 8:34-38, was something I became familiar with soon after conversion towards the end of 1972. For this to be repeated in all three synoptic Gospels, and even hinted in John 12:25-26 as well, seems to indicate the importance of this specific instruction. I felt trapped into a corner. I was confused at the time. Which was the true path to heaven? Receiving eternal life as a free gift through God's grace and mercy? Or by means of self sacrifice and voluntary entering a life of extreme poverty - which is a form of salvation by works?
For example, the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) was offered "living waters welling up to eternal life" without any demand from him for her to take up her cross, or to forsake everything she had, whether family members or possessions. Instead, what he did was to reveal that she was steeped in sin, having already had five husbands and unable to hold down a relationship with any of them. And there she was, cohabiting with yet another man without even first marrying. Imagine having a woman like her entering a typical church and wishing to settle in. Would she be told to reform or be kicked out? I have heard of a preacher delivering a sermon about Christians divorcing and remarrying losing their salvation and sentenced to Hell for all eternity, because of what Jesus himself had taught that to marry a divorced partner is to commit adultery, so clearly expressed in Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18. Indeed, God cannot bless a wedding if one or both partners is a divorcee, according to this internationally known "big shot" of a church pastor.
The audience, large enough to fill a theatre, erupted into a near riot. Counselling sessions were held after the meeting for anyone who needed it. The preacher who delivered the sermon called this mass repentance. Rather, I tend to see these counselling sessions as expressions of fear of potentially suffering in Hell after death. That was in 1994 at a holiday resort of Minehead. And such a spiritual earthquake can still be felt to this day, and the preacher has been known to be ranked as equal to an Old Testament prophet. But when considering that this Samaritan woman at the well had received forgiveness so freely whilst in that audience there were a large number of couples who had remarried and were trembling at their eternal fate, somehow it does not seem right. Therefore, I cannot help but see a rather big difference in the way Jesus Christ treated that Samaritan female and the way he see us today.
Which puts us in a predicament. Because in truth I did not marry a virgin. Rather, I held out my hand to a young woman, rather similar to the Samaritan, who had suffered relationship problems, and I took her in. I then married her, and I have always loved her to this day, not counting her past against her. Our marriage is strong and robust as a result. Her love, adoration and devotion for me is well expressed. But according to Jesus, and endorsed by this preacher, we have lived a life of adultery, and we are both condemned to a lost eternity. If all this is true, then I have grounds to believe that my love for my wife, which is unconditional, is stronger and more stable than God's love for us!
And sometimes I have come close to suspecting this. Between us we have had three beautiful daughters. Then a social worker had them taken away from us for adoption, simply because we did not fit the social ethics befitting our culture (we both have mild autism). Was this tragedy a punishment sent from God for our adulterous affair? Yet to the social worker's surprise, rather than raise my daughters as a divorced single father, I chose to stay with my wife and give her all the love and support I can muster. As a result of the loss of our beautiful daughters, my wife's health had deteriorated to the point that she is confined to a wheelchair whenever she is outdoors. Now, at present, we live on a knife edge. Sharp, severe pains unexpectedly come and go, and not a few times she had to be rushed to hospital in an ambulance to receive morphine and oxygen.
And how much do we both wish we had a supply of morphine and canned air here at home. Then maybe home treatment can be administered without a trip to the hospital. But it is not to be. There isn't a pharmacy in the whole land which sells or prescribe morphine. And so only this week, just ten days after our last visit to Accident and Emergency where we spent most of the night, she was down again, this time with a severe chest pain. She called for out-of-hours surgery instead of the emergency number. After an apparent long while a GP and an ambulance crew called at our home. It was quite dramatic, believe me. The doctor slapped her across her face to wake her up from apparent unconsciousness and then pressed hard on the painful area of her chest, intensifying the pain. Angrily, she ordered both the doctor and the crew out of the house whilst I was still in my shell.
However, before the team left, the doctor was very polite to me and correctly assessed a muscular pain which can be treated with a gel. I rushed out into the night to purchase the gel, just in time before the superstore, where the pharmacy is located, was about to close for the night. Gentle treatment slowly brought such sought after relief without another trip to hospital.
The next day a chilly breeze blew as one of Alex's friends from my church called round our home for an hour's chat and social. This provided a good opportunity for me to set out for a much needed stroll through a wooded beauty spot which literally starts at our rear garden gate. As I walked along, I was mentally protesting:
Why, God, why? This cross is damned too heavy to bear. I can't cope with it any more. I have come to the end of my tether. I had enough! I had enough!
I was pondering whether we were living in adultery and we are now reaping the consequences. Other Christians, both in my church and elsewhere, seemed far more fortunate, especially with a university background. For I have discovered that Further Education is also a hot spot for romance and the start of relationships. This between students of both genders who are not only pure virgins but had never had any other relationships on a platonic level before meeting at college. And so, according to experience in church, guest speakers visit, preach, and move on. Some may call more than once on a Sunday. But in every case, they are happily married, very often having met at college, or soon afterwards whilst both engaged in some post-graduating mission or project.
So I thought as I strolled along the bank of one of the two lakes. I was not like those preachers and visiting guest speakers who tote their happy families wherever they go. Instead, I saw one equivalent of the Samaritan woman, and in love and mercy, I took her in and married her. Am I now facing the consequences for such kindness? Or is all this a disciplining process, which involves carrying my own cross, and a damned heavy one at that?
The sun broke from behind a cloud. The cool breeze stilled as a result. I beheld the beauty of nature around me. Indeed it was man-made, as the whole of this site was once a part of a thick forest. As it is, the sun and shadows played upon the large area of grass, the lake, which is sheltered by a bank of trees, shimmering in its own beauty. Ducks, swans and geese swam around the lake and populated the area of grass. And it was here when a verse I vaguely remembered entered my mind. It was from Lamentations, but at the moment it was garbled, for it was a long time since I last read it in the Bible. But as I kept on reciting it, the wording soon fell into place:
Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed,
for his compassion never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is your faithfulness.
I recited the words as one of the popular verses we sing at church:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
His mercies never comes to an end.
They are new every morning,
New every morning,
Great is thy faithfulness O Lord,
Great is thy faithfulness.
I recited those words as I walked towards a copse of trees which shelters a children's adventure playground. On a multi-seat swing which resembled a battering ram, totally alone and undisturbed, since the children were all at school, I felt my spirit rise. I looked up to the sky as it was clearing of clouds, and I was able to smile. I thanked him for his goodness, his mercy, his salvation, our strong and stable marriage, my retirement, and the beauty of his creation. How much I long to behold the Lord Jesus, and I said so. How much I long for his loving embrace, a token of love and acceptance, and I said that too. How much I desire the manifestation of God to the extent that my life is forever changed.
And I think of people in my church at Ascot. They are fellow believers just as I am. And yes, I love them as brothers and sisters in Christ. That is how I want to perceive them - created in God's image to fulfil the ultimate purpose: to love and serve God their Redeemer. No nationalism, no political alliance, no social class. Just one in Christ. For the first time in 24 hours, I once again felt elated.
Because there is a powerful message behind Lamentations. It was written by the prophet Jeremiah. He wrote it with tears running down his face (hence the name of the book). He was weeping for his beloved city Jerusalem. The capital of Israel, the City of God, a city of prayer, of praise, and of worship, and a city of peace and of joy. A city where sinful mankind can approach a holy God through means of animal sacrifices administered through a team of priests, with the High Priest making his annual visit into the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the whole nation. A city where the final Atonement will one day be made for the whole world through Jesus on the cross. It will be the site of his Resurrection, and the beginning of the Church Age. And so Jeremiah wept as he watch Jerusalem razed to the ground by the invading Babylonian armies.
Yet he remembered God's mercies, which are new every morning. He realised that God's steadfast love for Israel and its capital will never fail. Nor will God's love for the prophet himself, and God's love for us will never fail either. As with back then, they are equally new every morning, because his faithfulness remains. He also promises that as long as day and night follow each other, God's love for Israel will never fail, despite what the nation has done and its rebellion.
Therefore as long as God's covenant with Israel stands, we as humans need not fear a nuclear holocaust wiping us off the planet, neither need will fear a pandemic that will bring us to extinction. Neither need we ever fear a collision of our planet with an asteroid or large meteorite. As God's covenant with Israel stands, global life will continue (Jeremiah 33:19-26). God's love is universal.
And here I can ask: Is our marriage adulterous? No, I very much doubt that. Especially when Alex had a prenuptial prayer of cleansing by our elders, and she was baptised in water, which also took place before the wedding. She was cleansed by the blood of Jesus, and I too was cleansed. And I can testify that by the strength of our marriage for nearly two decades is a strong indication that it was God who brought us together in the first place.
Will this revelation bring an end to our knife-edge mode of living? If only! It does look as if Alex's severe pains will erupt from time to time and further trips to hospital does look to be on the cards. It does look as though I will have to continue bearing that heavy cross until only God knows when. But among such turmoil, I can be assured that God's love remains constant.