Why There Was No Crowd at the Foot of the Cross

“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”  — Matthew 27:46

Quinn holds out his hand to show me his thumbnail. Or lack thereof. The end of it has been ripped clean off. He says he hit it on the jungle gym while playing tag at recess. A day earlier, his nose had been bloodied when his face lost a battle with a kid’s head on the same playground. And a week earlier he had told me the top of his head was bruised after he flew headlong into one of the slides on the playground. I look at him incredulously and say, “Dude, you’re taking a beating on the playground.” He frowns, shakes his head, and says, “Yeah, I guess it’s not meant for me.”

I guess it’s not meant for me.

This is what we do. When we start to take some hits on the playground of life, we assume we’re on the wrong playground or we simply shouldn’t be playing at all. We human beings tend to treat our circumstances like divining rods, using good fortune and hardship to determine if we’re on the right path and in good favor with the powers — or the Power — that be. When things are breaking bad, we interpret our misfortune and disappointment as a cosmic course correction. When things are going well, we believe our choices have received a divine stamp of approval. Either way, it’s comforting to feel like we have a heavenly tour guide.

Of course, sometimes we’re not meant to do the thing we’re trying to do. For example, when I was cut from the middle school choral ensemble, I decided singing wasn’t for me. Twenty years later, when my kids began asking me to either sing their lullabies “like Momma does” or not to sing them at all, because it was hurting their ears, I realized the wisdom of my middle school decision.

And it’s equally true that when we’re courageously stepping through our fears and into our passions, the universe often seems to open up for us. Tumblers fall into place, doors swing wide, and warm winds fill our sails day after smooth-sailing day. We seem to have fallen into lockstep with a purpose or a plan more ancient than time itself.

Yet, whenever we pursue a passion that is an authentic expression of our true self, we will also experience misfortune, disappointment, hardship, and pain. Because when we’re pursuing our passions, our souls are out there, exposed, vulnerable. There’s no way to practice a passion without leaving ourselves wide open for wounding. Like Quinn on the playground, we will get bruised, bloody, and beat up. So, if you’re going to step into your passion, it’s probably a good idea to take a big box of Band-Aids into it with you.

Instead, we tend to take our divining rods into it.

For instance, when I was nearing the end of graduate school, I was in a church small group full of other young and ambitious students, and as the time approached for graduation, the divining rods came out: “I can’t find an apartment in Philly; God must not want me there.” Or “I didn’t get the internship; maybe God doesn’t want me to be a chemist.” Of course, it all boiled down to this: I’m getting banged up on this here playground, so I guess it’s not meant for me.

This subtle belief is a big reason so many passions aren’t lived out. And it’s why there was no crowd at the foot of the cross

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In the story central to my faith, Jesus begins the final week of His life with a triumphal entry into the holy city of Jerusalem. The crowds turn out en masse. He looks like a man who is doing all the right things and making all the right moves. He has no bruises on His head, no bloody nose, no broken thumbnail. To the crowd, it looks like God is on His side, and He looks like the savior they’ve been waiting for — the one who will lead the revolution to free Israel from the grip of the Roman Empire. It looks like He’s found His messianic purpose.

So they lay palm leaves at His feet and cheer wildly. Yet before they have a chance to catch their breath, His good fortune goes bad. Instead of being celebrated by the Jewish authorities, He comes into conflict with them. A major bruise to the head. Then one of His disciples betrays Him, and He’s arrested. A bloody nose on the messianic playground. Then He’s beaten and brutalized and hung upon a cross — the ultimate torture and shame in His culture. It makes a bloody thumbnail look like, well, child’s play.

In the span of a week, He’s gone from having an obvious stamp of divine approval to being banged up and beaten, a sign to the crowds of divine rejection. You see, pursuing our passions makes no sense to a world that still believes the path of passion is paved only with good fortune and signs of divine blessing. It makes no sense to people who still believe hardship is a consequence for making the wrong decision or choosing the wrong path. So the crowds look at Jesus and decide it wasn’t meant to be.

And they go away.

Even Jesus, as He hangs on the cross, in a moment of excruciating solidarity with all our suffering humanity, experiences His pain as abandonment when He looks up and cries out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?

The third act of a story contains the climactic moment of the story. It is the moment on which the protagonist’s story hinges — will the character we have come to love finally succumb to the conflict, or resolve it? In the third act of life, it’s the moment when our dedication to the passions we’re living is tested, and we have a choice: we can go back, or we can call back, “I’m all in. This is what I’m here to do, and I’ll do it until I can’t do it anymore.”

In these pages, I’ve described passion as “an extravagant fondness.” However, the word passion was originally derived from a Latin root meaning “to suffer.” What if both are true at the same time? What if a passion is something we are so extravagantly fond of doing — so central to who we are — that we would also choose to suffer for it, if necessary? The climactic moment in the third act of life is the moment you realize you’ve truly found your purpose, because you’ve found a passion you refuse to give up on even if the crowd gives up on you.

I used to assume resurrection was the climactic moment of the Jesus story. Now, though, I think the climax of His story was the moment of His greatest despair. I imagine Jesus looking up and crying out to God, who seems to have abandoned Him, and then I imagine Him looking down and locking eyes with the only three people who remained at the foot of the Cross — His mother, a friend, and a follower. I imagine Him looking into the eyes of the people He belonged to — the people who still believed in Him even when things looked bleakest — and finding there the strength to carry on. In our climactic moment, our people go beyond simply pointing us toward our passion — they become compassion, a word meaning, literally, “to suffer with.” The people we belong to are the ones who choose to remain with us as we choose to suffer for the thing we’re here to do.

The story of Jesus’ cross is an extraordinary one — some have called it the greatest story ever told. The crosses we choose to suffer tend to be much more ordinary.

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I decided a while back that, among other things, I’m on this planet to write a book. I decided it was my passion, and I decided to suffer for it, if necessary. In that sense, I suppose, it is a cross I have chosen to carry. And it’s tempting to think the publication of it will be the climactic moment in this particular third act of my life. But when I think about Jesus hanging on the cross, crying out in despair and then looking down into the eyes of the three who remained — His mother, Mary Magdalene, and John — I realize my climactic moment happened months ago.

After writing and trashing more than two hundred thousand words over the course of almost two years, I found thirteen thousand words that worked for a book proposal. When my agent first approached several publishing houses and they saw the volume of my blog traffic, many were eager to see the proposal.

But then we sent the actual proposal, and the many quickly dispersed.

It was “too spiritual” for some and “not Christian enough” for others. Some wanted only a book of letters to my kids, while others wanted a book about marriage. Most didn’t think I had the credentials to write about passion and purpose. Nobody thought they could bank on it. They wanted me to write a completely different book.

In that moment, I wanted to quit — bruised head, bleeding nose, broken thumbnail — because I thought this author playground wasn’t meant for me. I thought maybe I was supposed to be doing something else, and I wanted that something else to feel less like death and more like resurrection. But then, at the foot of the cross-passion I had chosen, my faithful agent said she wouldn’t let me write anything else, because she believed in it too much. I looked into the eyes of my wife, and she said the same thing. And this whole lovely cloud of witnesses around the world, who read my blog every week, kept letting me know they weren’t going anywhere. Suddenly, the presence of those who remained mattered more than the opinion of the dwindling crowd.

I got back on the playground and decided to keep playing. To keep writing.

I hope you will too. I hope you’ll pick up your cross-passion and carry it. Not necessarily because it will lead to resurrection, but because the sacrifice alone is worth it. After all, sacrifice isn’t the way to Heaven; sacrifice is the way of Heaven. It’s where your commitment to the thing you’re here to do will be tested and refined, where your circles of belonging will be proven steadfast, and where you’ll learn all over again: you are worthy, whether you wind up leading a revolution, or simply returning to the playground, Band-Aids and all, for a little more play.

Because it is meant for you.

Excerpted with permission from Loveable by Kelly Flanagan, copyright Kelly Flanagan.

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Your Turn

When have you taken hits on the “playground of life”? When in your life have you felt that the passion you’re pursuing “just wasn’t meant” for you? How does it change your perspective to know that passion and suffering go hand-in-hand? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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