02/26/2015 10:33 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2015

The Weight of a Lenten Cross

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I am not a person who wears jewelry. But sometimes I wear a watch, and other times I wear a cross on a chain. It is the size of my thumb, and made of worn silver. It was given to me by Dr. Joanne Braxton, the poet who gave me the only B grade I received in college, and some 30 years later reached out to me in friendship. To say that she "gave" it to me is to diminish the fact of what happened, though. She prayed on it and blessed it, looked me gravely in the eye, and placed it in my palm with a solemn certainty.

One of the wonderfully confounding parts of the gospel to me is Jesus telling the disciples that "if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." Remember, this is before his trial and crucifixion -- it is part of his prophesy of his own fate. He was using the cross as metaphor before two millennia of preachers had a chance to do so.

It is a great metaphor, after all. When I taught at Baylor, there was a student who sometimes would literally carry a huge wooden cross around Waco, and it was a striking sight. He labored under its weight, and I imagined it made marks on his body that never quite faded. If his act was a ministry, it worked on me. When I hear someone use the term "his cross to bear," I think of that guy struggling in the Texas sun, his shape hidden by the two wooden beams.

Jesus tells us, in that short passage, exactly what the weight of that cross would be: selflessness. To carry the cross, he said, would mean the sacrifice of identity and selfhood and pride. To we Americans, that cuts against a core value of our culture: That we all have a right to be famous. We long to be celebrated, to be recognized. More than money or virtue, what marks success in this country is to be known. And then comes Downer Jesus.

Let's not ignore the strength of identity and the celebration of self in our society. I love the Star Wars movies, and they follow a predictable formula: After victory is achieved by individual heroism, there is a parade to celebrate them. Sometimes, the heroes even awarded a glowing orb. Our fixation on this isn't just in fantasy, either-- when we watch the Oscars, the same dynamic appears. Others must do the same thing I find myself doing every year as I watch the Academy Awards: Imagining the speech I would give, much better than this blubbering lummox who can't remember his agent's name.

What that selflessness means, too, is that we will not be known for our best moments, and may even be reviled for them. I have known a few truly great people of my own generation, people who boldly changed the world in some subtle and important way. They aren't famous. Actually, they are often reviled by those who are threatened by the changes those few quiet heroes have created. That revulsion isn't secret, either; it is on blogs and in chat rooms, and in lengthy screeds deep in a comments section.

I don't often wear the cross that Joanne Braxton gave me, but when I choose to wear it, there is a reason. I wear it when I am going to take a risk, to speak hard truths, and to wade into deep waters in pale imitation of the heroes I described. Sometimes when I do that, the audience is with me and affirm my every word. It is those days -- the ones where everyone agrees and celebrates me -- that I am not worthy of the Lenten Cross.