How good do we have it? What a soft life most of us have, or at least in comparison to that of our parents or grandparents or others who lived in their generations. Here in Texas, I live in an air conditioned home, drive an air conditioned car, work in an air conditioned office, and really hate to sweat unless I am exercising on purpose and then want to break a sweat to prove I have done enough exercise. I live in a home that is all electric so when the power goes off I can do nothing except sit and look at the walls and maybe read a book and hope it does not get too hot until the power comes back on. Luckily, the water flow continues in the house because it is not dependent on electricity but everything else in the house is.
I have been very spoiled, my wife likes to tell me, because I grew up in a family that had air conditioning since I was 6 years old. I have never known the unairconditioned life. My wife, on the other hand, grew up in a home that has never had air conditioning. Her family lived in a farm house built in the 1940s by her parents and grandparents and other relatives. They all pitched in and built the house as a family project and the house today remains much as it was when it was built in the 40s. There is no air conditioning and you could not add it because the wiring is not able to support it. My wife grew up on a farm where they grew much of what they ate and she and her sisters helped to grow and pick the crops and sometimes sell them at a farmers market. I was spoiled, again she says, because I rarely had to pick crops. We grew crops just because we wanted to, not because our economic lives depended on it. My dad had a job that paid him well enough that he could buy all the food we needed. If we did not grow something, we still had plenty of food to eat, thanks to the local grocery store.
So, I guess you can say that I did have it pretty easy when I was a child growing up in the 1960s. My challenges began when I graduated from high school and went to college and then went to college some more and began sorting out life. Independence brings with it the challenge of supporting oneself and ones' family by grabbing ones' own bootstraps and becoming what one would become in order to live and enjoy what life offers. The life I have now is partially due to the education that I acquired and the motivation to obtain that education, knowing that if I did not get a good education, then (as my dad told me) I would have to work out in the unairconditioned world around me (as he did). I love air conditioning too much to do that.
In Mark's Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (8:34) What does it mean for 21st century Christians to "deny themselves"? How do persons "take up their cross"? For me personally, a somewhat middle-aged North American man, to deny myself does not require me to turn off my air conditioning or to do without electricity. Instead, it speaks to me each time I have to decide whether I feel like going to the nursing home to see members who live there. Will I go and put myself in that place where they live, leaving behind (at least for a portion of an hour) the world in which I exist or will I find an excuse to use so as not to have to fulfill my calling to that task? The need to "deny myself" happens to each of us when we decide to act on behalf of another rather than doing what we would want to do as comfortable North Americans.
Taking us the cross is another matter. It happens as we continue to live the Christian life as well as we know how and to act and speak and do as we think Christians would rather than in a selfish or unloving manner. It happens as we pattern our lives after the Christ of the Gospels who choose to give of himself in every way rather than to take the easy way out. Taking up the cross is a daily event. Sometimes it takes deliberation but most of the time it is a natural reaction in life that happens because it is something we do because it is part of what it means to live the life of a Christian. Taking up the cross is expressed each time Christians act as they think Christ would act while living among other human beings.
Is the life of a Christian easy? Is the decision to be a Christian easy? It may be in North America where Christianity is the dominant religion. In fact, in most churches, we make it very easy for persons to become Christians and to become part of a local church. We do not require a lot out of them. Most churches simply ask people if they will be loyal to a local church and support it. Some churches define being loyal as supporting the church with your "time, talent, and treasure" or giving your "prayers, presence, gifts, and service" but even those terms are rarely defined. What part of your treasure should you give in order to be considered loyal? How often should you pray? How much time is required? We leave it up to the individual to make those decisions and answer those questions, as we should. If the method of becoming a Christian is easy, then is the Christian life expected to also be an easy one? Many people think so and think that when hard times befall them, then something has gone awry. Perhaps at that moment is when they need to consider if it is the time to deny oneself and pick up the cross and follow. The challenges of life may be the cross we all bear as we attempt to negotiate this life and what is demanded of us daily.