And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, Jesus said ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’
How often do we catch ourselves following things? Following comes so naturally to us that we often forget we are doing it. In our culture, the idea of following is associated with being sheep-like, of being passive and not thinking for ourselves. In contrast, the image that is applauded is of the lone wolf, the free-thinking individual, who cuts their own path in the world. But even the lone wolf must follow the sheep when he is looking for his next meal. No matter how independent, we all follow something.
We follow in all sorts of ways. Most obviously we can follow with our feet by treading the same steps as someone in front of us but we can also follow with our ears by focusing on what another person is saying. We can also follow something with our eyes by locking on to it and tracking it as it moves. In all these examples of following the common denominator is: focus. To follow is to focus.
Every second of our time spent awake is spent focusing on something. Those of us with the gift of sight are always choosing to look at something and not at something else. Every moment our eyes are open we are making value judgments about what we want to look at and what we are happy to ignore. We do this so quickly and automatically that we don’t even notice that we have made a choice. As human beings, and as hunters, our eyes are designed to focus on things; we are obsessed with targets. You have only to listen to the news to hear about one target or another. It is no coincidence that the word ‘sin’ in the New Testament relates to archery. It means to miss the mark – to miss the target. As human beings we are always pointed towards a target (or missing a target) whether we are aware of it or not.
So what are your targets? What are you focusing on? What are you ignoring? In our desire to focus we can be blissfully unaware of other things going on. We can even be unaware of what targets we are aiming at unconsciously. What do the compasses of our hearts really point to? Are we focusing on the accumulation of power? Are we looking for affirmation or love? Are we angling for the praise of others; of status? Are we looking for pleasure; of making ourselves feel good? What are you following?
For beings that are designed to focus on one thing at a time this can become overwhelming. So many targets can present themselves at different times. Like an excited dog chasing a group of rabbits we can try and catch all of them at the same time and end up catching nothing. Or if we do catch something we don’t know what to do next with it. If you obtained what your heart currently desires would you know what to do next? And after that… then what?
In this invisible world of competing demands, Jesus gives us clarity. He says ‘follow me’. As followers of Jesus we have one focus and that is Jesus himself. He says ‘stop living for yourself and follow me’. If you really want to live, pick up your cross and follow Jesus.
Now the thing about picking up your cross is that your cross is your own, and no one else’s. We each have our own crosses to bear. The other thing about carrying crosses is that carrying your own cross can only be done one step at a time. The path of Jesus begins with another automatic movement; it begins with putting one foot in front of another.
So the challenge for each of us this Lent is to do two things that come so naturally that we often do them without thinking: we need to look and we need to walk. We need to look at Jesus, we need to focus on him, tracking him with our eyes; and we also need to walk after him, lifting one foot and moving it closer to him, and then the other, and then again.
In concrete terms this means taking each day as it comes and asking ourselves ‘what can I do today to make things better than yesterday?’ Not comparing ourselves to each other but bearing our own crosses. What tiny step can I make now that will help me be better than I was before? Looking to Jesus as our example of what the best looks like, we can use each day to shuffle closer to a new life. Amen.