The stories we tell about the creation of the Earth and the origins of humankind show us how our culture views the world, our place in it, and our relationships with the other living things which inhabit it.
To change the world, we… need first to change ourselves – and then we need to change the stories we tell about who we are. The stories we’ve been living by for the past few centuries – the stories of male superiority, of progress and growth and domination – don’t serve women and they certainly don’t serve the planet. Stories matter, you see.
They’re not just entertainment – stories matter because humans are narrative creatures. It’s not simply that we like to tell stories, and to listen to them: it’s that narrative is hard – wired into us. It’s a function of our biology, and the way our brains have evolved over time. We make sense of the world and fashion our identities through the sharing and passing on of stories. And so the stories that we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it, and the stories that are told to us by others about the world and our place in it, shape not just our own lives, but the world around us.
As I wrestle with life, I find that reading from many sources of inspiration from Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland, to the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Tao Te Ching, to the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, helps me to begin to make sense of my experiences. I had rejected some of the more traditional sources of inspiration earlier in my life, having been indoctrinated by priests and nuns with a literal reading of these age-old books of wisdom. More recently I’ve come to value some of the stories in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. The excerpt below is from one of my favorite Catholic writers, Ronald Rolheiser, and refers to a quote we are not meant to take literally.
Father Rolheiser and other progressive Christian authors seem to understand that just as Yeshua of Nazareth taught with parables, so did his followers in the writing of the Christian gospels. The stories which I was told I must understand literally (and therefore rejected), are loaded with metaphors which can be useful in helping us reflect upon and learn from our own life experiences. The following excerpt from Rolheiser is a reflection on the seemingly rather harsh gospel quote…
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23–24).
I doubt the gospel writers are really telling us that we need to carry a cross about to be saved. But as a metaphor, it might have a deep meaning for those of us who have suffered (I guess that means all of us). Rolheiser writes….
I suspect that each of us has a gut-sense of what this means… but I suspect too that many of us misunderstand what Jesus is asking here and struggle unhealthily with this invitation. What, concretely, does Jesus mean by this?
To answer that, I would like to lean on some insights offered by James Martin in his book Jesus: A Pilgrimage. He suggests that taking up our cross daily and giving up life in order to find deeper life means six interpenetrating things:
First, it means accepting that suffering is a part of our lives. Accepting our cross and giving up our lives means that, at some point, we have to make peace with the unalterable fact that frustration, disappointment, pain, misfortune, illness, unfairness, sadness, and death are a part of our lives and they must ultimately be accepted without bitterness. As long as we nurse the notion that pain in our lives is something we need not accept, we will habitually find ourselves bitter—bitter for not having accepted the cross.
Second, taking up our cross and giving up our lives means that we may not, in our suffering, pass on any bitterness to those around us. We have a strong inclination, almost as part of our natural instincts, to make others suffer when we are suffering: “If I’m unhappy, I will make sure that others around me are unhappy too!” This does not mean, as Martin points out, that we cannot share our pain with others. But there’s a healthy way of doing this, where our sharing leaves others free, as opposed to an unhealthy kind of sharing that subtly tries to make others unhappy because we are unhappy. There’s a difference between healthily groaning under the weight of our pain and unhealthily whining in self-pity and bitterness under that weight. The cross gives us permission to do the former, but not the latter. Jesus groaned under the weight of his cross, but no self-pity, whining, or bitterness issued forth from his lips or his beaten body.
Third, walking in the footsteps of Jesus as he carries his cross means that we must accept some other deaths before our physical death, that we are invited to let some parts of ourselves die. When Jesus invites us to die in order to find life, he is not, first of all, talking about physical death. If we live in adulthood, there are a myriad of other deaths that we must undergo before we die physically. Maturity and discipleship are about perennially naming our deaths, claiming our births, mourning our losses, letting go of what’s died, and receiving new spirit for the new life that we are now living. These are the stages of growing up. There are small deaths in our lives…. daily.
Fourth, it means that we must wait for the resurrection, that here in this life all symphonies must remain unfinished. So much of life and discipleship is about waiting—waiting in frustration, inside injustice, inside pain, in longing, battling bitterness—as we wait for something or someone to come and change our situation. We spend about 98 percent of our lives waiting for fulfillment, in small and big ways. Jesus’s invitation to us to follow him implies waiting and accepting the truth that we live inside an unfinished symphony.
Fifth, carrying our cross daily means accepting that God’s gift to us is often not what we expect. God always answers our prayers but, oftentimes, by giving us what we really need rather than what we think we need. Resurrection, says James Martin, does not come when we expect it and rarely fits our notion of how a resurrection should happen. To carry your cross is to be open to surprise.
Finally, taking up your cross and being willing to give up your life means living in a faith that believes that nothing is impossible for God. As James Martin puts it, this means accepting that God is greater than the human imagination. Indeed, whenever we succumb to the notion that God cannot offer us a way out of our pain into some kind of newness, it’s precisely because we have reduced God down to the size of our own limited imagination. It’s possible to accept our cross, to live in trust, and to not grow bitter inside pain only if we believe in possibilities beyond what we can imagine; namely, if we believe in the resurrection.
FROM: Rolheiser, Ronald. The Passion and the Cross (pp. 64-67). Franciscan Media. Kindle Edition.
I find a lot of value in Rolheiser’s interpretation of the gospel quote. Perhaps you’d share your own thoughts in the comments box below?
This post is a celebration of the community of family and friends who have stepped up to support and love my wife, Phyl Gerber, who was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrigs Disease) in the spring of 2017. We have posted Phyl’s speech which she (and I) delivered at the opening ceremony for the 2019 Western Massachusetts Walk-a-Thon fundraiser in Look Park on May 18. Several hundred people attended including about 75 who walked with Phyl.
The following is Phyl’s speech…
Hello family and friends! It does my heart and soul good to see so many people out here to support those of us dealing with ALS. At this time, I am dealing with one of the many symptoms of ALS, a weakened voice. Since I plan to chat a lot today, I want to save my
The Common Good Project which has been so successful in Greenfield is now available to residents of Amherst and the surrounding towns!
I hope you will join me in celebrating the BIG news that Atkins Farms Country Markets began accepting Common Good payments last week!
Common Good is a non-profit, social change organization using a payment card to enable the community to support local projects. Common Good account holders in Greenfield have funded several local businesses and non-profits – and as soon as we build our membership in Amherst – we can do the same!
Several Amherst businesses now accept the Common Good card (with more to come), including:
The following essay expresses some of my thoughts on the experience of being a caregiver. I am both saddened by the need to be in this role because of the suffering my wife has had to endure and grateful that I have the flexibility and resources to devote myself to “the most important job” I’ve ever had in my life…..
John M. Gerber
Those of us caring for a loved one diagnosed with a terminal illness know suffering. Caregiver suffering is different from that experienced by the loved one, but is still the “flip side of the same coin” – intimately connected through the pain and confusion caused by the disease. When we first learn of a terminal prognosis for someone we love, it may feel like we’ve been pushed off a cliff and are flailing and falling out of control, trying to cling to our loved one who seems to be just out of reach – and falling even faster. Looking for a way to stop the fall we desperately grasp for facts about the illness, information about potential treatments, alternative therapies, and perhaps even stories of miracle cures – something to ease the pain and end the feeling of powerlessness.
It was on March 15 (the Ides of March) 2017 when our world began to shrink. My wife and I left the neurologist’s office in Springfield, MA after the diagnosis and were sitting in the car outside when the process of withdrawal and isolation began. “I suspect you have Lou Gehrig’s Disease” he had stated gently, leaving open the possibility that he might be wrong – a possibility we clung to for a few weeks – but he was not wrong. The diagnosis of ALS marked the beginning of a journey in which the pace of our lives slowed down and became more isolated from those of you who are still living what we call “normal” lives. In spite of the love of family members and the incredible support of friends and local community, the person with a terminal illness feels so very alone – some of the time.
The following excerpt is from a book by K. D. Singh titled The Grace in Dying. It describes the feelings expressed by my wife, who has ALS, in words far more eloquent and
Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez was tying grape vines at a farm in Central California, when the temperature soared well above 95 degrees. Only a few days in the country, this undocumented field worker, who didn’t have easy access to water, shade or the work breaks required by law, passed out from the heat and died two days later.
Maria was 17 years old. The Center for Disease Control reports that heat-related deaths of farm workers are on the rise in the U.S. This deadly trend is unfortunately one of the costs of cheap food. When you buy cheap food at the big box stores, you also invest in this deadly system of industrialized food.
Compare this experience with that of working at a local farm like Simple Gifts in North Amherst. Here the farm workers work hard but are treated fairly. As apprentices who live on the site, they are gaining a valuable education in preparation for the day when they might manage their own farm.
Our industrialized food system of mega-farms, long-distance shipping and big box-stores has driven down the retail price of food to the point that Americans, on average, expend about 9 percent of their annual income on food. The industrial food system in the U.S. produces relatively “cheap” food, but at a cost. Fortunately, in some parts of the U.S., we can partially opt out of this exploitative and costly system.
In our community of Amherst and surrounds, the locally grown vegetables are of higher quality than anything shipped from a distance. We can enjoy the freshness and flavor of the food available at our local farmers’ markets, farm stands, food coops and some regional supermarkets. Yet most experts agree that less than 10 percent of the produce purchased in our region is grown locally.
Why don’t more of us in Amherst “buy local”?
I suspect the reason that 90 percent of the consumers in our fairly progressive region of the country don’t regularly buy local food is due to its perceived higher price and the convenience of shopping at the big box stores.
Busy people treat food shopping as just another task, rather than a pleasurable social experience. Studies indicate that we have 10 times more conversations when we shop at the farmers’ market than at the supermarket. I know when I stop in at the new Simple Gifts Farm Stand in North Amherst, I always bump into friends and neighbors.
The “grand opening” of the new Simple Gifts Farm Stand was an example of the sort of celebration of good food and community, some of us have come to value. When we stop in at Simple Gifts, we invest in a food system that strives toward a better quality of life – fall all!
Shopping locally isn’t an “efficient” use of time in a task-driven life – which is one of the reasons I make the effort slow down and shop at the farmers market or Simple Gifts. Yes…. for me, buying locally is an investment in a higher quality of life (for all).
Some regional supermarkets do try to offer local products. The Big Y in Western Massachusetts, for example, is a family-owned business and a major supporter of the UMass Student Farm, which grows organic vegetables for sale locally. When we do choose to shop at supermarkets, we can support local farmers by asking specifically for locally grown products.
And what about price? How often have we heard the statement that local food costs more?
Certainly, local beef, pork and chicken cost more than meat raised in a factory farm. You just can’t beat the efficiency and scale of the industrial animal factory for low price. Hve you ever experienced “sticker shock” when you see that local, fresh eggs may be priced at $5.00 a dozen or more when industrial eggs may be closer to $1.50? Well, there is a reason! Just look at the pictures of local eggs and free-ranged hens compared to factory farmed eggs below….
The fact that local meat products are generally produced with less stress on the animals may not be worth the higher price to some of us. And some people truly can’t afford to pay the higher price for meat, dairy and eggs that are produced in a sustainable manner. But many of us have a choice! On the other hand, there is little difference in price between local and shipped vegetables, especially during our growing season.
If we were truly concerned about the health of the animals, our own health, the health of our community and the health of the environment, we would choose to buy local meat, dairy and egg products, wouldn’t we. We would investment in a higher quality of life for ourselves, for local farm families, our community, and for the animals we consume.
When we buy local bacon and sausages, we can even introduce our children to the live animals that provide these products for us, like “Pig Floyd” at Simple Gifts Farm!
“Cost” includes more than “price”
The industrial food system that produces cheap food does so at a great cost! The retail price does not include the cost of harm done to the workers in the food system; on farms, in factories, shipping terminals, big box-stores, and the fast-food restaurants serving the food. These workers earn near minimum wage. A federal minimum wage law that leaves families in poverty is part of the cost of cheap food.
When we consider the quality of life we enjoy in those regions like ours where local food is plentiful, we might also wonder about the quality of life of those who are working to produce, ship and sell cheap food. When we buy food shipped from long distances, we say “yes” to an exploitative system designed primarily to maximize financial returns of corporate shareholders – at the expense of others.
It is true that relocalization of the food system may result in higher (but fairer) food prices overall. At the same time buying local food will create local jobs and build community.
When you buy your food locally you are making an investment in a higher quality of life (for all). I think this is an investment we can’t afford not to make.
The North Amherst Community Farm is a small, local, not-for-profit organization devoted to preserving farmland and promoting sustainable farming practices in our community. The capital campaign we completed in 2016 will preserve a 30+ acre farm property in North Amherst, MA that is currently managed by Simple Gifts Farm.