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The Burden of the Crucifix: What the Sweetbrier Pastor did instead of writing Lenten sermons

It wasn’t writer’s block. It’s just that he’d much rather do anything than sit down and write Lenten sermons, not because he didn’t like writing sermons but because he didn’t like Lent—all that doom and gloom when what the people wanted was joy, the glorious joy of Easter. And so did he.

So what he did instead of writing sermons was grab that huge crucifix and head out to the trash. It was two feet long at least, hung with the body of our Lord, face raised in anguish, legs traditionally bent, left over right. He wanted to get rid of it because, really, it was a Roman Catholic thing. He’d had it in his study for two weeks—not where people could see it easily, of course. He’d hung it off to the left of his desk in a corner. Originally, he’d thought it a novelty—imagine! a real crucifix.

The inner panels of sleek black metal were set against a mahogany frame, and Christ was pewter. It looked expensive and weighed a ton, the size of a small model plane. “Made in Germany,” it said on the back.

He’d kept it because a crucifix was something he’d never had, life-long Protestant that he was. There was something medieval about it, like stone-floored European cathedrals, the kind you tour in reverent silence. It reminded him of Central America, a phalanx of peasant believers following their hooded priest under the hot sun. It was a part of the Christian faith too, an ancient part—depressing, he thought, Christ the sufferer. Thank goodness, we’re over all that angst—the agony of the cross, weeping and wailing. Thank goodness for Easter, he thought. Now that was a sermon he could write. What he believed in was the empty cross—the resurrection, the glory and the life everlasting.

Ever since he’d put the crucifix up on his wall, it had been an irritant, really, so he went out back of the church, carrying that crucifix in his hand.

Call it serendipitous, call it fate, call it what you will—things hadn’t gone well with that thing around. Two of the church’s most active families had decided to leave town for new jobs since he’d hung it on the wall. Besides, sometimes he’d found himself almost morbidly attracted to it. It bothered him. Of course, the crucifix didn’t really belong in an evangelical’s life. It reminded him of Gregorian chants, not praise-and-worship; of indulgences, not the open Word.

The garbage truck was coming in a few minutes, so there he stood, holding something he told himself was nothing more than a chunk of fancy wood decorated with—with the broken body of Jesus Christ. Well, not really. Only a sculpture, a graven image.

Just throw it, he told himself. He wondered whether he should tuck it beneath the bags of last week’s bulletins or simply lay it on top—and how would that look, a crucifix crowning the garbage? On the other hand, what if the garbage guy picked up the paper and found this huge crucifix beneath it? Maybe he’d take it along, stick it somewhere on the truck where garbage men keep valuables they discover.

The crucifix felt almost radioactive in his hand. He couldn’t just toss it. He’d gotten it from his sister, who worked for social services, visiting old people who had no other companionship. Some crotchety old woman had given it to her, had put it in her hands, she said, because his sister wasn’t a believer. “Take it home,” that old woman had told her. “Just you take it home, you hear?” So she did, to get out of the woman’s apartment that day.

“I don’t want it,” his sister had told him, so he’d volunteered to take it. But once it was up on his wall, even inconspicuously, it made the whole place, well, unpleasant, a too-persistent reminder of Christ’s suffering.

Put it in the trash, he told himself, put it right on top—don’t be coy about it. In a way, throwing it out would be a confession of faith in the risen Lord.

So he laid it right on top, went back into the church, and sat at his desk reading e-mail for exactly a half hour, long enough be sure the garbage truck had passed. Later, when he looked outside, the blue barrel lay on its side. He took a deep breath, gathered his notes before him for worship on Sunday—second Sunday of Lent. Nothing came. Once more, he looked outside. The barrel looked gloriously empty.

The lindens’ long upper branches turned almost sideways in the wind. He really should retrieve the barrel, he told himself, or it would disappear forever down the alley. He clicked off the Internet, walked out into the lawn, and found that crucifix—can you believe it?—lying in the dew. The garbage guy couldn’t toss it either. Really, how do you toss out a suffering Christ?

Maybe he was supposed to have it, he thought. He reached for it, then jerked back his hand, as if it had mysteriously emerged from a furnace. He looked down the street to see if anyone was watching, then took it in his hands and walked back to the church, feeling naked. He brought it back into the study and laid it on the couch, then put the afghan over it as if to shadow some strange glow.

Maybe he could live with it, he thought—maybe if he hid it in a drawer. But then why keep it? Wouldn’t hiding it make it seem like contraband? It was Tuesday morning, there was work enough for two pastors lined up in his study, and that blame crucifix was making time disappear. If he didn’t get rid of it, there’d be no Lent at all.

He went into the church kitchen and pulled out a garbage bag, which billowed behind him as he walked back to his study. Then he picked that huge crucifix up once again and laid it carefully inside. Once more, he stepped out the back door, then walked to his car. He laid the bag in the back seat, got in, started the engine, and backed out, the gravel crunching like thunder beneath his tires.

In ten minutes he was out of town and into the cotton fields north. It was something people did with dogs—just dropped them off in the country. This wasn’t even a dog, and therefore it wouldn’t suffer. He stopped the car, reached into the back seat, and tightened the knot he’d tied in the bag. He’d rather no one ever saw what was inside. He could just imagine some high school group coming by to clean the ditches eventually, some sweet kid picking up the bag and pulling out this . . . thing. Well, of course, you know what she’d pull out, and immediately her eyes would bulge like something from The Exorcist. One more knot.

Slowly he crept north, the garbage bag in his lap. He had a hold of it with his left hand as if it might suddenly jerk loose and make a break for some far corner of the interior, where it would demand not to be dumped.

He picked up a little speed, checked back over his shoulder, and swung over to the opposite side of the road. It was like old oil or battery acid or lead paint, he thought. Who knows what it might do to the ditch?

A car came up over the bluff in front of him, and he swerved back into his lane. He had to get back to the office—he’d played golf yesterday and didn’t get done what had to be done.

Keep it!—something in him urged. But we don’t believe in a crucifix, he told himself again. We don’t entertain morbid notions about the suffering Christ. We worship—hallelujah!—a risen Lord. We don’t need to concern ourselves with punctured palms and a bloody gash. Christ is risen—now there’s a theme to preach on.

He looked into the rearview mirror—nothing. Up ahead, a shimmering mirage rose over the country road like some vision. Once and for all, get rid of it, something told him, so he did—he threw it into the ditch, just threw it and ran like a terrorist.

When he came to the end of the road, he stopped, then made a U-turn and rode by again to make sure it was gone. Just beyond the ditches, the rows of cotton were dressed out gloriously in fluffy whiteness, ready for harvest. When he passed the spot, he saw nothing, the ditch falling away far enough beneath him to obscure whatever it might have held in its maw. At the stop sign, he turned right and headed back to the city, breathing easily for the first time that morning.

At Sweetbrier Church, he told himself, there was a service to create—What visuals? What music? What would he say for Lent? Really, everything aimed at Easter, didn’t it? The empty cross, the joy, the praise, the trumpets, the lilies. He didn’t want to fuss with the suffering, not with the glory a’comin’. Lent made long faces. Easter made the world sing.

That crucifix was lying in a ditch somewhere north of the city. The suffering Christ was history. The cross was empty—no more pewter Jesus hanging in torment.

A half-hour later there was still nothing on the screen. Maybe it was some kind of mysticism, but the office somehow felt empty without the crucifix, and the mere idea of his having tossed it out in a garbage bag seemed a tormenting sacrilege. He felt guilty, and he hated guilt.

Maybe he needed it somehow. It was silly and superstitious of him to throw it out the way he did. Maybe he needed the suffering Christ, he told himself. Maybe he needed the suffering Christ.

The sermon still unwritten, he headed out the door and back to the cotton field—because he couldn’t leave it in the ditch, just like the garbage man couldn’t throw it away. The reason was so simple, really, and yet so deeply true. Of course he needed the suffering Christ. Of course. Of course.

Don’t we all?