The Phantom Cross

A little more than a week ago, we dropped our second son Gabe off at the NET Center in St. Paul to begin training for nine months of drawing young people to Christ as a NET Ministries missionary. Then yesterday we dropped our eldest, Brendan, off for his third and final year at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.

As we sped east on I-94 last night, Jodi reflected that we hadn’t taken a photo of Bren as we dropped him off this year. The first year we took several. Last year I snapped one of Brendan and his roommate Nick for Jodi, since she couldn’t be there when I dropped him off. This time we were both there, and it was clearer than ever that our adult son has another beautiful life, mostly hidden from us. This was revealed during a brief stop  at his girlfriend Becky’s home in Moorehead for introductions and delicious, homemade double-chocolate-chip-and-almond scones on the way to UMary, by the laughter and embraces upon his arrival on campus, the excitement and shouted greetings from hallways and upstairs windows, the verbal and non-verbal shorthand between our son and his friends. He belongs there as much as in our home, and we were so subconsciously aware of this that dropping him off and driving away seemed almost natural.

It was not precisely so when we dropped off Gabe. I’ve reflected briefly on the difference when we celebrated his grad party earlier this summer: When we took Bren to Bismarck the first time, the sensation was like a long, taut line from me to him—I could not see him, but I could feel him and was acutely aware of his presence six hours to the west. But Gabe was dropped off just down the road in St. Paul, at a place he has been before. Currently he is at a camp somewhere in the woods, praying and team-building and training like countless times previously. From this perspective, this feels like no big deal—Gabe is doing youth ministry as he has for years now.

On the other hand, this time he is not coming home until Christmas and will be gone again until spring. And if he is chosen for a traveling team, as he hopes, he won’t be in any one place, but will live out of a suitcase, a van and a trailer, staying in strange homes in strange cities.

Only when the line connecting us is pulled tight can we feel the tug across the miles. This line is so slack and tangled that I don’t see him here or feel him there. He’s just absent.

This morning at Adoration, it struck me harder than ever: God is teaching me to surrender—to entrust everything He has given Jodi and me back into His hands and let Him dispose of it as He chooses.

My children. My marriage. My career. My life, heart, and soul. 

We have been blessed so abundantly that I am frightened by it and catch myself looking all around for the cross I will be asked to die on. Jesus said we will suffer as His disciples, and that we must take up our cross. But I can’t see it. I want to surrender, take up my cross, and follow. I want to feel the weight of the wood and drag it up the stony path. I want to see the nails and even to feel the terrible pain as they secure me to Him.

But I can’t see it. I don’t feel it. I am joyful, comfortable, content—and it scares me.

And then it occurs to me: I long to feel the rough wood and the bite of steel, because I seek certainty. I want a cross I can feel, adjust to, and manage. But—at least for now—mine is a phantom cross. Its presence is this absence, this blindness and grasping, this reluctance to be led where He wants me to go.

I want to know I am His. He wants me to trust. I want to rest secure in this beautiful life He has given to Jodi and me. He wants me to strive—to strain with all my might against no weight at all and to keep doing so; to resist the complacency and mediocrity that come with comfort.

He has blessed me to test me.

During our recent retreat at Demontreville, our retreat master urged me to write a letter to me family, apologizing for the ways in which I have let my own insecurities and anxieties take a toll on them. I did so, shared it with Jodi and the four older children, and asked for their feedback. On the way to the NET Center last week, Gabe mentioned that he had brought with him Introduction to the Devout Life by my patron, St. Francis de Sales, in order to finish it in the coming months. He reminded me that the gentle Doctor of the Church speaks of our affections, which draw us to God, and our resolutions, by which we change ourselves to secure the Object of our affections.

“So I guess my feedback for you is this,” he said (or something very like this—I was so humbled by his frankness and wisdom I admit I lost the exact wording). “Every few months you write about your desire to draw nearer to God—what are you going to do about it?”

I am choking up as I recall and write this. Gabe is a good man—wise beyond his years in many ways—and I miss him.

We are blessed, and the risk is rest. The way of the cross is up, up toward heaven, and we have to climb. One can only coast downward.

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