Our small-town library has a modest collection of books, and so the ability to request books from other libraries is a blessing. The librarian must laugh, though, when a pile of books comes in for our family. Most recently, a pile arrived with titles such as Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, and Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that the Koch kids are not sleeping through the night.
Sleepless nights are just one of the crosses God places on marriage. It is amazing, actually, that our world is so surprised by the inevitable difficulty of marriage and family. Hollywood superstar Ben Affleck shocked the Academy Awards audience by admitting that marriage is work. His comments were spoken in gratitude to his wife for working together on their marriage for ten years, and he admitted that it is the best kind of work there is, but reading the blogosphere the next day, you would think he had called his wife a shrew.
Popular culture is not the only place where people stumble over the difficulty of family life. If hymnals are any indication, then the church, too, has been reluctant to claim its teaching that there are crosses here and that God himself places them there.
A few generations ago, some Lutheran prayer books (e.g. Lutheran Liturgy and Agenda of 1921) had pastors instructing brides and grooms during the wedding: “Hear also the cross which by reason of sin God hath laid upon this estate.” The pastor went on to recite God’s curse upon our first parents after they had eaten the forbidden fruit. These books echoed Martin Luther’s “Marriage Booklet for Simple Pastors” which included similar words.
In 1958, the Service Book and Hymnal order for marriage referred to the cross, but with a subtle difference. The minister says, “And although, by reason of sin, many a cross hath been laid thereon, nevertheless our gracious Father in heaven doth not forsake his children.” Many a cross has been laid on marriage, but the hymnal doesn’t make clear by whom.
By 1978, in Lutheran Book of Worship’s marriage service, explicit reference to the cross disappeared. Prior to the vows, the minister instructs the couple about God’s founding of marriage, and then adds, “Because of sin, our age old rebellion, the gladness of marriage can be overcast and the gift of the family can become a burden.” One can feel the liturgists hedging their predictions. Things might get overcast. We’re not promising. But it can happen. These changes were no oversight. The Commentary on the Lutheran Book of Worship tells us that references to the cross were avoided precisely because the editors didn’t want to imply that suffering and hardship were God’s doing.
The latest round of Lutheran hymnals goes a step further. Evangelical Lutheran Worship tucks those words about marriage becoming overcast into an optional part found only in the minister’s edition. To be sure, there is an alternative set of vows in which couples promise faithfulness “in joy and in sorrow, in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health.” But these are only alternative B, benchwarmers, if you will, as though hardship were an option. We’ve gone from “God places a cross on you” to “a cross is placed on you” to “you might have trouble in your marriage” to “it’s all good!” No wonder a Hollywood star shocks people with a bit of loving honesty.
Traditionally, Christians have understood cross-bearing in two ways. One is more general, referring to various kinds of affliction that God brings upon us, such as illness or punishment for crimes. The other is more specific, referring to the suffering that Christians endure for their faith and confession of Christ. Luther believed that this second kind was the true cross-bearing. Nevertheless, he continued to speak of cross-bearing in its more general sense. In his Genesis commentary, for example, he speaks of God’s curse on our first parents, noting that the cross is applied to the body, which “has its cross and death here,” leaving the new life created in the Spirit. In the same commentary he speaks about the fruit of misfortunes: “They tend to humble and hold down our nature, which could not be held in check without a cross.”
In giving us crosses, God curbs our sinful flesh, the old self. My sinful flesh would rather stay up late surfing the Internet, reading the latest developments on the Minnesota Vikings, but then I face the prospect of another night holding a crying infant, or waking up to lead a toddler to the potty. As interesting as quarterback controversies can be, there is a high premium on sleep when you can get it.
Furthermore, these crosses make Christians long for God’s help and the final day of deliverance. The disciples asked Christ, “Teach us to pray.” The Lord’s Prayer is his immediate answer to that request, but his injunction to take up the cross is another. By giving us a cross to carry, our Lord teaches us to pray, showing us the limits of our ability to care for ourselves, and with his prayer “Our Father who art in heaven,” he shows us where to find help in such times. When the crosses are especially heavy, we yearn all the more for the great hope we have in heavenly glory.
When considering cross-carrying, one notices a couple of points that are often missing from current discourse. The first is the inevitability of the cross. You cannot run away from it.
Since becoming parents, my wife and I have received a barrage of parenting magazines. The headlines on the covers have something in common: they offer ways to avoid the cross, or at least shorten its duration. Parents magazine has promised “The 1-Week Fix for Your Child’s Worst Behavior” as well as “The 1-Minute Fix for Biting, Tantrums, and Hitting.” If you’re really short on time, the February 2009 issue offers the “5-Second Discipline Fix.”
The problem with all such methods is that they can’t deal with the root of the problem, namely the stubborn sin of our old nature. Our Lord has given us one remedy, one that requires only a little more time than the “5-Second Fix,” that is, the amount of time to say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Simple in its execution, yet profound in its effects, such birth by water and the Spirit means death to the old nature. However, even after baptism that very nature continues insisting that it is alive and well until it is buried in the ground, and so God continues applying the cross as long as we are breathing.
Parenting magazines have been working their way into the conscience of my parishioners. I have heard moms and dads ask why it never gets easier, or what they are doing wrong that their children are so disobedient. What technique have we missed? If there are five-second fixes, why is my family such a chore? Or, why are my neighbors’ kids such brats? What are they doing wrong?
Family life is full of demands, and left in the conscience, it leads to despair or judgment of one’s neighbor. If we reclaim our teaching that there are crosses in marriage and family, and at the same time preach the one who died on the cross, we can hope to seat Christ on the throne of the conscience where he belongs, with his gracious forgiveness, and put the hard work of family matters back in the members of our bodies where it belongs, with its demands. Take up your work of marriage and parenting. You are free from its condemnation.
Another point missing from current discourse is that God is the one who applies the cross. We take up our crosses, because we trust the one who has given them to us. This is especially important to remember when facing those afflictions that are apparently meaningless. I can make sense of the loneliness and heartache a husband and wife feel when there is no mutual forgiveness, but how does one make sense of a child’s death? Bereaved parents don’t need explanations, but they do need Christ’s mercy and the hope of eternal life. They need a heavenly Father with loving and strong hands into which they may commend all their questions and sorrows.
It would be easier if we could choose our own crosses. I might choose something more glamorous than rocking a crying child. Frederick Buechner suggests that one’s vocation is where one’s gladness meets the world’s need, but I’m never that glad about being roused out of sleep. Bonhoeffer provides a better definition. If when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die, then my vocation is where I am being put to death, day after day. It hardly requires the reflective moment, asking myself where gladness and need intersect. Look around. Who is standing next to you?
Jesus’ words about serving one’s neighbor are unsettling, precisely because he speaks of one’s neighbor, not humanity in general. The Samaritan helped the man in his path. For most of us, most of the time, the person in our path is a spouse, child, parent, sibling, coworker, or classmate. You do not have to go far to carry the cross. Just get married and stay married. Have kids.
In his marriage booklet, Luther offers a boon to brides and grooms who are preparing to carry their crosses. “This is your comfort,” he says, “that you may know and believe that your estate is pleasing to God and blessed by him.” To human reasoning, such comfort seems small. When I am suffering, I want a way out of that suffering, not simply a change of mind and heart. Who cares if God is happy? I want to be happy. And yet for Christians, faith is always our consolation.
It is helpful to remember the context of Luther’s words. Repeatedly in his writings on marriage, he supplies husbands and wives with encouragement that God’s word sanctions their union. Whereas the church had taught that monastic life was a higher calling, spiritual as opposed to carnal, Luther discovered in scripture that God commanded and approved of marriage.
The relevance of Luther’s words are perhaps difficult to see. Not many today feel pressured to flee domestic life in favor of monastic vows. The pressure to flee, however, remains. At one time, people fled marriage and childrearing for tonsure and cowl. Today, they flee for necktie and pantsuit. A parishioner once told me that she felt like a failure, that she had betrayed the women who had supported her in her education, simply because she had stopped working to stay home and raise her children. The question remains: do our gods smile on us in marriage? Those things we fear, love, and trust the most—whether they are friends or societal standards of justice and success—are they pleased by marriage and children? Luther’s comments are quite relevant. There is a God, the Father of our Lord Jesus, who smiles on husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, when they discharge their familial duties with faith in his Son.
What does it mean that God smiles on you? Look at his Son. At Jesus’ Baptism, God tore open the heavens to declare that he was pleased with his Son. Jesus trusted in that pleasure, and knew that his Father was caring for him even more than he cared for ravens and lilies. His Father’s pleasure also led him to the cross, but then beyond the walls of the tomb. By faith, your God is smiling on you, and you will find more blessings than ravens and lilies. You will also find a cross to carry, as well as a place to lay it down.
Paul Koch is pastor of Wannaska Lutheran Parish in rural northwestern Minnesota.