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Glimpses of the Cross: nonfiction by Jessamyn Rains

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

photo of a 2-story house in front of a snow-covered forest, image by Alain Audet, on Pixabay

winter landscape and house, image by Alain Audet, on Pixabay

Glimpses of the Cross

I was five years old when the Baptist church bus picked me up for the first time

and the tall man with dark swoopy hair came to my door and held my hand as we

walked to the bus. I had been to the Assembly of God church  where they spoke

in tongues and, in Sunday school, told stories with the flannel graph people and

camels on their way to Jerusalem.

But the Baptist church was better. There was popcorn and candy. There were tickets.

Prizes if you were the quietest child during the lesson. Trips to the zoo and the skating

rink. I went to that church for years, and then I went to the school affiliated with the

church. I learned lots of things. About the end of the world, for instance. I puzzled

over things, too. 

There were lots of songs, like the funny one about all the ways you can’t get to heaven:

1. You can’t get to heaven in a Kleenex box

2. You can’t get to heaven on roller skates

3. You can’t get to heaven in dirty jeans (‘cause the Lord don’t have no washing machines.)

And then there were lots of songs about how you DO get to heaven, including one that

goes with a bracelet with colored beads:

My heart was black with sin

Until the savior came in

His precious blood, I know

Has washed me white as snow.

The meaning of the cross in this little song — simply explained, though not fully explicated — was enough for me as a child. I didn’t doubt it, didn’t need it to be more than or different from what it was. But things are never so simple when you’re a teenager. Especially when you are drawn to the strange and esoteric. You begin to see the complexity of things, though you may lack the language to express this. As a teenager, I would have rolled my eyes at the bracelet with the colored beads.

But when I attended a Catholic retreat as an eighteen-year-old, I encountered the Gospel again in a way that, though very simple, struck me profoundly. The first night, we were supposed to “follow Christ to the cross and die with Him.” I squirmed uncomfortably in

the chapel, trying to get the mechanics of “dying” with Christ. I didn’t get it.

But later that night, I met someone who did. She was a girl who smoked and used colorful language and had a tongue ring. I remember her in sweats, lounging with her leg over the arm of the chair, tears streaming down her face as she told her story: She’d been in a car accident. Her best friend had died, and she blamed herself, and her life since had been controlled by impossible guilt and sorrow.

That night, in the quiet chapel, dimly lit with candles, she had followed Jesus to the cross: instead of running or hiding or sewing together fig leaves, she pulled back the curtains and

gave the whole painful mess to God. There was a kind of death in letting it go — because

when you surrender a thing, you also have to let go of all the ways that you’ve been coping

and compensating. The next day we would “rise” with Christ. But she had already risen,

had already passed from death to new life.

From there, my spiritual journey has taken many twists and turns. At each muddy turn,

I unpack and repack all my spiritual baggage on the side of the road, all the hymnals

and song lyrics on projector screens and stained glass and the music and small groups

and the legalisms and my sins and everyone else’s, and I arrange and rearrange them,

looking for patterns and hidden meanings.

My life has been like a street in the Bible belt: a church on every corner. But it doesn’t

matter what church I go to. I keep meeting people who have the same story:

My heart was black with sin

Until the savior came in…

I have been like the children of Israel, circling around and around a wilderness. My

circles have been a spiral staircase that I ascend and descend, and my wilderness

is that Holy Foolishness, that Great Stumbling Block: the Cross of Jesus. And the way

out of this interminable circle is to embrace the cross.

First, I have to embrace what Jesus did for me. And the truth of my sin and its magnitude.

And that, because of Him — not my own deeds, good or bad — I am accepted. I also have

to let go of the things people have done to me. I have to stop blaming them, have to forgive — even love them. This is easier to do when I see my own desperate need for forgiveness,

when I realize my own regrets and shortcomings and the ways I have failed others. And then, I take up my cross and follow.

I used to think this was hard. I used to think Jesus wanted to kill everything living and green inside me. Especially dreams and love. I used to remake God into the image of the preachers with the harshest voices — the ones who are always mad at you — and the Bible teachers with the most cutting words who, while accepting no excuses, also seem to offer no love or sympathy.

But I have learned that the cross is not something to fear: it is something to welcome. It is not antithetical to dreams or love; rather, it offers higher loves, higher dreams. I look at the Bible — the whole Bible — and I listen to the voice of love coming from its pages, even when its tones seem harsh or mysterious — and I see that it offers so much more than the love narratives in movies, or the kinds of success we so often aspire to.

Christ’s death has taken the sting out of death for us; he transformed an instrument of torture into a means of grace. When we confess our sins, He forgives us and invites us

to leave the past behind, to “go and sin no more.” When we follow Him into self-denial,

it is only so that we can take up our lives again, raised by resurrection power, as He did.

The cross is a place where, like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, we can leave our burdens

and baggage — even our religious baggage. We turn from the outward — from the show,

the performance, and from our heroes, whether they fall or stand — and we perceive

the presence of God in the middle of all the variegated aesthetics. We relinquish our hurts

and bitternesses. We find the cure for the poison and darkness and selfishness in our hearts and minds. I have never found this little song to be truer in my life than now:

My heart was black with sin

Until the savior came in

His precious blood I know

Has washed me white as snow.


Bible verse: “Go, and sin no more.” (from John 8:11)

Song: The Wordless Book Song, by Frances M. Johnston


Jessamyn Rains is a mother

of four small children, who

writes and makes music.

She lives near Chattanooga,


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08 sept. 2023


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