Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Image of the Cross

The Cross by Saint Luke Lutheran Church.
Copyright © 2006 Barry G. Moses.

The image of the cross has a long and varied history in my personal life. When I was a baby, my parents baptized me in the Lutheran Church, and I'm sure the priest made the sign of the cross upon me to claim my soul for Christ. My mother's family stopped attending that church shortly after my christening, and I think my mother never went back. I'm not sure I ever visited a Lutheran Church again, though I would like to, just to see where my religious path started.

As a young boy, my grandmother (my mother's mother) brought me to services at the Assembly of God. I still remember the feeling I had when the congregation sang praise to God. Something in that spirit made me want to cry, but I'm not sure if I wept for sadness or joy. All I know is something buried deep within myself tended to well up when I heard the people sing.

When I was about six years old, I visited my ya-ya (my father's mother) in the hospital and witnessed some kind of argument between my father and the nurses. The family rushed me out the door, but no one explained anything to me. I thought my ya-ya was going to die, so I cried all the way home. My other grandmother took me aside and asked if I wanted to pray for my ya-ya. I nodded. She took my hands and placed them on the Bible, then told me to repeat her words. She asked God to spare my ya-ya's life and then asked Jesus to come into my heart. I followed my grandmother's lead as I spoke these words: "I accept you Lord Jesus as my personal Savior." My spiritual path began again.

For the next six years, I followed a Christian path by attending services at the Assemblies of God and a Baptist Church down the street. I also attended Bible study in private homes. I read the Bible in my room, even when nobody was around to help me. I really loved the Lord. The cross became a symbol of my hope for heaven.

Things changed for me when I was 12 years old; my best friend introduced me to Mormonism, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I was baptized in the Mormon Church about a year later. I still loved the Lord, but my perception of the cross shifted dramatically. Latter-day Saints do not use crosses in their churches, or on their person. They believe Jesus died for their sins on the cross at Calvary, but they view the cross as an instrument of torture. For them, the true symbol of their faith lies in the power of the resurrection, not the tortuous death of God's son.

During my years in the LDS Church, the image of the cross faded into the background, but sometimes I would see a cross on a steeple somewhere or in the media and I would feel something moving in my subconscious, just beneath the surface. When this happened to me I would often ask myself, "What is this feeling? Why do I feel this way?"

During my senior year of high school, I took a class called "Senior Studio," an advanced art class for students who showed some dedication to painting or drawing. We had a student teacher join us that year from the Seattle area who made the most enigmatic paintings depicting abstract scenes adorned with crosses. Something about her work held me in a spell. As Iworkedd on my own art, I found my eyes wandering back to the crosses on her paintings. I found myself asking once again, "What is this feeling?"

Finally I asked her, "Are you Christian? Is that why you paint so many crosses?"

She smiled and said, "No. I'm not Christian, but I really like the image of the cross. There's something powerful in that shape, don't you think?"

"Yes, I do." I admitted in a whisper.

Several years later I served a mission for the LDS Church in Guatemala. The spiritual landscape of that country is very different than here. The majority still claim at least marginal affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church, and as such they accept the presence of crosses and other religious images as part of their devotion to God. On the other hand, Evangelical Christianity has made strong inroads and claims as much as 30% of the total population, or more. Evangelicals in Guatemala generally abhor any kind of Catholic pageantry. They tend to hold a more literal view of the Bible when it says, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images..." They tended to consider crosses and religious statues as a modern form of graven image.

Here's the irony for me: I went to Guatemala to teach Mormonism, and yet I secretly found myself being influenced by the conservative viewpoint of Evangelical Christians. Something about their claim seemed reasonable to me. Isn't the cross a graven image? And what about statues of Jesus, like the Christus at Temple Square? I know Mormons don't pray to the statue, but the 10 Commandments don't say anything about prayer. They simply say not to MAKE any such images, either of things on the earth, or in heaven. Jesus is in heaven, and the Christus is an image that was graven by human hands. Was it also an abomination unto God? And what about paintings or drawing depicting God? Aren't they also graven images?

I remained faithful to the LDS Church after my mission, but I held those kinds of doubts for many years. I was secretly afraid Mormonism was too liberal and thus displeasing to God.

Well, anyone who knows me well can say I took a dramatically different turn several years ago. My attitude on social issues shifted and became increasingly critical of religious dogma. In essence, I became a liberal. I began to have serious doubts about Mormonism and conservative religion in general. For a time I even questioned the existence of God, but I was never able to deny my deepest faith. My perception of God changed radically, and yet God remains at the center of everything I do.

A big part of the change came from my Native American heritage. Without going into too much detail, I essentially inherited the obligation to perform certain ceremonies in our family dance. Eventually, I had to choose to follow one religion or the other. I followed my heart and formally withdrew from the LDS Church.

Again I faced another irony. Some would say I returned to heathenism or paganism, and while some of our rituals would seem foreign or strange, I feel my old devotion to God welling up once again. We don't wear crosses during our rituals because of their association with death. Our ancestors didn't know the cross until the Catholics arrived and placed a cross on someone's grave. It became a symbol of bitterness and grief for all the destruction to follow.

Even still, I keep a cross in a special place in my home to honor my spiritual ancestors who were Christian. I may not use that image in my public duties, but the cross still moves me after all these years. Even as I drove home last night and saw the cross bathed in light amid the fog; I had to stop and pay my respect.


Chelle said...

I really like the picute of the cross, it is very pretty. This post made me ponder some questions. Such as, why does one person chose relgion while another does not? Why can one person accept god while another person struggles with it. Is in nature or nuture?

sulustu said...

A few years ago I was reading an article from a major news magazine, like Time or Newsweek, and it talked about the brain structures related to religious experiences. It sugested a belief in God is built into the brain. Of course, that doesn't necessarily limit you. People can still choose what to believe in.


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