“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” It is one thing to carry a cross that is your own, but this cross thrust upon him unjustly. It the cross of someone else’s making. Why would he or she carry it, have to carry it, or even willingly carry it?
In 1982 Thomas Webb III moved from Chicago to Norman, Oklahoma. As best he could see, it seemed like a reasonable move. There wasn’t a lot happening for him in Chicago and a friend said there was opportunity and fun in and around the University of Oklahoma campus. Why not? In 1983 he was convicted of rape, burglary, and other crimes and sentenced to 60 years in prison. He always maintained his innocence but he had been picked out of lineup on two separate occasions. The victim was unshakeable in her identification.
While Thomas Webb was in prison the Hubble Space Telescope was placed into orbit. It was an amazing technological project taking, decades in the planning and execution before its 1990 launch. We are all familiar with the amazing images from Hubble, pictures of our solar system, the Milky Way, and a universe beyond our wildest imaginings. Hubble showed us the way the universe is…. Well, eventually it did. When the first images came, the images were blurred, distorted, out of focus, and while better than earth based telescopes, it hardly justified the $1.5 billion price tag. Turns out that Hubble was near sighted and its pictures of the universe were all wrong. But the universe was not wrong – the universe was spectacular. When Hubble got its “contact lens” Hubble and all of us were finally able to see the universe as it was. Thomas Webb III read about it Oklahoma State prison.
In 1996 Thomas Webb was exonerated by DNA evidence. 13 years of his life were gone, but now he was out. He was able to see the world, to imagine a new life. But there was no transition, no compensation, no support, no one to guide him in re-entry to life after 13 years in prison as a sex offender. He entered the world with the lenses of a convicted man, an institutionalized man, a man who for 13 years had a limited view of the world. He discovered he was no longer incarcerated, but he was not free.
We live in an amazing universe, a spectacular world, if we have the correct lenses, it is what we see. Thomas Webb saw through his lenses: a life stolen, anxiety, depression, helplessness, chronic anger, distrust, inability to form and maintain relationships, and a cross thrust upon him. In a way, Thomas Webb was like Hubble – nearsighted. Like it or not, this life and its unjust history was his cross to bear. No amount of wishing or hoping would change it.
Sixteen years after his exoneration, he hit bottom. There at the bottom he prayed, entered recovery, continued to suffer, but saw the world with a new lens. Webb still cannot forget what was stolen from him. A stray memory triggers tears. A friendly question dooms friendships. Wrongs resurface. At the same time, he the way he sees is different.
Webb offers that “It’s a story of inability, it’s a story of helplessness, it’s a story of injustice, but then there’s another part of it that shows miracle after miracle and shows things that no human power, no system, could stop. It shows another side that is full of power, full of justice. Full of hope and faith and inspiration. And that’s the part that is my guide.” His cross is still there and daily reminding him of its weight, but now Webb can see clearly. Hubble got a contact lens and began to see a new universe – one that was always there – but just out of focus. Thomas Webb received the contact lens of grace and faith – he saw a different universe. Really, it was the same universe, it just came into focus. He stills sees this cross, but he can see beyond it, too.
Because crosses are what they are. We rarely choose them. They are thrust upon us. What we select are the lenses of our life. Some leave us near-sighted with a universe out of focus. But some lenses give a clear vision: full of power, full of justice, full of hope and faith and inspiration. Lenses that lead to a greater sense of purpose, life, and joy. Lenses that do not eliminate the cross, but enable you to see it and beyond it.
And what about us? In part, my question is whether we see and acknowledge the crosses that burden us in this life. But I would suggest that the larger part of the question is if we understand the lenses by which we see. Stop for a moment and think about your own family. Think about your parents, your siblings, your spouse, your children, your relatives near and far… we see them all, not as they are, but as we want them to be, through our hopes and disappointments, in our joy and anger, and it so many ways. And we are called to ask how near-sighted we are in our vision.
And what about our vision of Jesus, our faith, our community of believers, and the community at large – how near-sighted are we? Maybe this is the meaning of the spiritual life…figuring out the lenses we have and the corrective lenses we need to see the universe as it is – spectacular and glorious. It is the work of private prayer, Reconciliation, Eucharist, community, Bible study, centering prayer, ministry, and all that makes up our life in this living faith.
The crosses will still be there. We will not forget what has been taken from us or lost to us. A stray memory will trigger regret and sorrow. Old grievances will surface. But in the lenses of faith we can see them clearly – and see beyond them to what God would reveal to us. Then we will no longer be incarcerated by our crosses and limitation, we will truly be on the road to the Freedom only God can offer.
May the grace of God lead you to choose the lenses of faith which correct your vision to see your cross and the promise beyond it. Amen.
Image credit: NASA, Public Domain