THE OLD GREENWICH
In old Greenwich, Connecticut, stands a church with a cross in it. Unlike most churches, whose crosses adorn the front
wall behind the preacher, this one is bolted down into the concrete floor in front of the platform, not more than three feet from where the preacher stands.
Its positioning defies
reason and art and convention. No architect in his right mind would have designed such a placement. It is an obstruction. The preacher's words have to pass through it; the congregation's eyes always have it
somewhere in view, so that even when they look away, it is still there, impressed on the back wall of the retina.
It is a sturdy wooden cross, ten feet tall. The crossbar is set
high on the vertical beam, so high that it seems out of proportion compared to other more proportionate crosses that decorate other more proportionate churches.
Nothing about this cross
is pretty. It is made of raw, untreated wood, and when you see it up close, you think of splinters, of something hard ... immovable. It is set deep in the concrete floor as well as bolted to it, so that a blow makes it
vibrate rapidly. Strike it hard enough, and it will answer back in a low tone. I've heard that it can be removed, but not without great difficulty, because of its size and weight.
I got hit once with a baseball bat when I was a kid - walked right into my brother's backswing during a family softball game. The blow broke my nose. For some reason, that
distant memory makes my face ache when I think about this cross - as if I might forget about it for a moment, turn around too quickly, and meet it head on.
But it would be almost
impossible to forget about this cross. When I was standing and talking with someone or walking anywhere near the front of the church, I had a tendency to shy away from it - to lean unconsciously, to make sure I always knew
where it was or, more accurately, where I was in relation to it.
The minute I walked into the church in Old Greenwich and encountered this startling placement of the cross, I felt as if
I had discovered something truly significant. For just as the cross has been placed squarely in the center of this church, so it has always stood in the center of history and in the center of any life that has truly embraced
it. And just as the placement of this cross seems uncomfortable, so it is ... and so it should be. There is nothing comfortable about the cross.
This raw, wooden cross in
the middle of the floor manages to defy the efforts we often make to soften its blow. Most crosses we encounter are harmless. They dangle from an ear or a wrist or lie in the nape of a pretty neck. They perch atop
buildings or adorn the interior walls of our places of worship. The cross has become an ornament, a religious symbol mellowed by sentimental value. Some think that wearing a cross or hanging it on a wall makes God more
favorably disposed to them. Others attribute some kind of magical or superstitious power to it, like a ballplayer signing the cross before he swings away.
The cross as a symbol
has become more like a charm on a bracelet than a huge, rough, inconvenient reminder I might bump into in the front of a church. That is what makes this cross in Old Greenwich stand out. It is not something to wear or
wish upon. You can't bring it into your life that easily. You can't hold it in your hand and bring it lovingly to your chest. You can't even pass your hand across its surface without getting splinters. The
closest you could get to this cross would be to hug it, and hugging this cross is a little like hugging a tree.
The bold placement of this particular cross takes on a special
significance in this dawning of a new millennium. The church in America has become increasingly accustomed to Christianity without a cross - or, at best, with one hanging harmlessly in the background. In our eagerness
to popularize Christianity, we have created a very user-friendly gospel that asks for hardly a sacrifice. We have forgotten that in the middle of this gospel stands a cross - an instrument of execution, the splinters of which
are largely ignored by a contemporary Christian world eager to tell mostly the good part of the story.
. . .
The good part, of course, is the love of God in sending his Son to die such a painful death for
us. How much he must love and value us to do this! But are these the only messages the cross brings to us? Is it only a coincidence that we receive other versions of these messages from our culture in the form of
self-worth and self-love? Has the gospel found us and reoriented our thinking about ourselves to bring it more in line with the truth, or have we merely isolated the parts of the gospel that fit in well with prevailing
What about sin and the helpless state of our existence that sent God's Son to the cross in the first place? In our day, such conviction has been overshadowed by
discussions of dysfunction and codependency. Even in our churches, we don't need the cross as much as we need a good psychiatrist to help us straighten out our thinking.
about God's inapproachable righteousness and holiness that required a sacrifice for sin? The God of present-day evangelicalism is a big buddy in the sky, and the closest thing to sacrifice most of us understand is a fly ball
to right with a runner on third and less than two outs.
What about the blood of bulls and goats that were slaughtered for hundreds of years in a repetitious attempt to satisfy the
righteous judgment of God? What do we hear of these things? Do we wonder at all about any of this, or is a contemporary Christian love song from God all we need to know about the cross? Is the cross only a way
that God says, "I love you" to all of us?
The truth is, the timelessness of the cross forces us to encounter many unpleasant realities about ourselves, outside our present cultural
mindset. But we may not encounter any of these things in the crosses we see every day - unless we happened into a certain church in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. There an unreasonable ten-foot wooden cross demands to be
more than an ornament, a piece of jewelry, a religious icon, or an afterthought.
It's not a particularly memorable church. It uses a good deal of natural wood in the walls
and ceiling, but the overall feeling of this building is humble and unpretentious. The platform is low, the floor is concrete, and when I was there last, there were folding chairs set out for the people. The only thing
unusual about this church - other than the cross in the middle - is a wide aisle, also down the middle, that is necessary to allow people sitting on either side of the congregation to see around the cross to whomever is standing
behind it in the center of the platform.
I was there for a day of seminars, so I was able to experience both sides of the cross - to stand on the platform and talk around the
cross to the people and to sit in the congregation and listen around it to the person doing the presentation. And I noticed that it doesn't make much difference where you are. The cross has a leveling effect. It
puts us all on the same plane. Teacher/ student, performer/ audience, pastor/ parish, the usual distinctions fall away in the presence of this visual aid. Suddenly we are all in the same boat. No matter what side
we are on, the cross always reminds us of our sin, the equality of our guilt, and our only hope.
And the truest hope of the gospel is that forgiveness is available for all of us because
we are all sinners of comparable merit. We are, all of us, experts at the subtleties of sin and equally good at cover-up. A cross in the middle of everything blows our cover. It's difficult to be haughty and proud
when a hard physical reminder of what that pride cost the Savior casts a shadow in your own personal spotlight.
Something about the cross set in the concrete in Old Greenwich,
Connecticut, also reminds me that our salvation is rooted in history. As the familiar hymns tell us, it's an old rugged cross we cling to and an old, old story we tell. To a society that is always trying to reinvent
itself, the cross and the gospel appear to be strangely out of sync. Something tells me it's supposed to be this way, that it always was and always will be this way.
shows little regard for relevancy in any age. While each generation tries to manifest its own culture, the cross seems hardly to care. At any point in history, at any place on this planet, the death of Christ, like the
lines of the cross itself, runs perpendicular to the flow of culture. The cross is shocking, arresting, out of step, out of time - and yet for all time.
I'm beginning to
believe that God designed it this way - that the cross is purposely irrelevant to any age - so that God might draw attention to his sacrifice by virtue of its ageless incongruity. Blood sacrifice for sin doth not a popular
song make. And yet the church today is trying to win friends and influence people by being popular and relevant to current needs and trends. To such a church, a stark rendering of the cross in the middle of everything
could be an embarrassment.
On A Hill Far Away by John Fischer. Bethany House, 2001.