Gospelizer Dr. Walter Arthur McCray
I thank God for giving me a better understanding of the “cross” in my life and ministry—a ministry of 50 years in 2019. Besides giving me strength, this wisdom about the “cross” has brought about a major change in my thoughts on pursuing spiritual formation. The words of Jesus speak to the issue: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23, NKJV, emphasis added).
In 2012, the Lord answered a prayer request that I had been asking of Him for five years. I asked the Lord to “show me my cross.” And He did. He revealed the nature of redemptive suffering (cross-bearing) that I should experience in the course of fulfilling His mission for my life. The change in my life took place as I completed the book Pro-Black, Pro-Christ, Pro-Cross: African-Descended Evangelical Identity. Let me explain.
As Passion Week drew near in 2006, I preached a series of sermons on the cross, such as “The Place of the Cross,” “Soldiers at the Cross,” etc. I named one of those sermons “The Title of Your Cross.” The text was John 19:19: “Now Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross. And the writing was: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS” (NKJV). This sermon became crucial in my understanding of the cross and the change it made in my life.
In that sermon, I argued that each saint should know the name or identity—the “title” if you please—of their personal cross. All believers should understand, in enough detail, the nature of the cross that the Lord has gifted each one to bear. And, yes, to suffer with Christ in a cross-bearing experience is certainly a gift from God (cf. Philippians 1:29).
Absolutely—I proclaimed in my message—Jesus knew the nature of His cross—that He would suffer actual crucifixion at Jerusalem, on a hill called Golgotha (John 12:23–33; 19:17–18). Likewise, close followers of the Lord knew their cross. The Apostle Peter understood the specific cross that he would bear in his old age, in his service and death for the Lord (John 21:18–19; 2 Peter 1:14–15). The Apostle Paul also knew the cross of suffering and testimony that Jesus required him to bear (Acts 9:6, 15–16; 20:22–24). Mary, mother of Jesus, knew her cross—that one day a sword would pierce through her soul (Luke 2:35).
The sermon that I preached on that Sunday morning—“The Title of Your Cross”—went over well with the congregation. Most of my hearers seemed pleased with the message. However, a day or so after delivering the sermon, the voice of the Holy Spirit spoke to me. During my quiet time with the Lord, He asked me a simple, yet probing question: “Preacher, if someone asked you to name the title of the cross that you bear, what answer would you give?”
The Lord’s examination caught me by surprise, and unprepared. Biblically teaching, I was able to identify the cross of Jesus, of Peter, of Paul, of Mary—but not of me. Truly, at that moment, I did not know my own specific cross—even after many years of Christian ministry and preaching sermons on the subject. Up to that day, my expositions about the cross were general. My explanations of Scripture called each disciple of Christ to obedience, to commitment, to self-denial, and to redemptive suffering. However, my general proclamations fell short. I failed to offer the truths, and necessary guidance, that others or I could use to bring into focus the specific identity of one’s personal cross.
As a result, the Lord’s question had left my spirit speechless. My silence served only to reveal the deeper extent of my personal spiritual ignorance in this area. With a bit of embarrassment, I allowed the Holy Spirit to question my sense of spiritual “maturity.” He humbled me and sent me into my prayer closet to earnestly seek His face. There with a consecrated heart, in my secret presence with the Lord, I sought to know the name of my cross.
Consequently, from the time of that divine encounter, I started my journey of discovery. I began seriously asking the Lord to reveal my personal cross. I desired to specifically understand that special cross which was unique to my life. I prayed about this issue off and on for the next few years. Sometimes my prayerful heart expressed ambivalence. Did I truly desire to know the clear nature of my own cross? Was I really seeking God with my whole heart? How prepared was I to fully accept the pathway of obedient redemptive-suffering that God was calling me to take? Despite my hesitations, I continued praying.
Five years later, the Lord heard my prayers to discover my cross. As I continued working on my manuscript, I received His answer. In the editing process, Jesus revealed the special nature and identity of the cross that I should personally make my own. His answer came in 2011, at the juncture when He inspired me to rework the title of the book I was writing. Simply, the Lord led me to make a title change that disclosed my cross. Unbeknown to me, the Lord had embedded the “name” of my cross in the book’s new title. By switching the title, the Lord specified my cross and provided direction for my life and mission.
God clearly identified my cross: to be Black and of Christ. I believe that much of the redemptive suffering that I experience in life will revolve around fulfilling this mission. This is God’s cross for me—a cross that I am consciously bearing.
I gratefully responded to God’s fresh revelation. I welcomed the Lord’s definition of my identity and purpose in ministry.
Looking in the past through the windows of this now-identified cross, I began to rethink my perspective about the ministerial work that Christ has assigned me. I reviewed my mission in Gospel ministry—42 years at the time, 2011. In reflection, I saw occasions when I was right on point with my cross. Those were times when I definitively and successfully wed my Blackness and Christianness. In contrast, I regretted other times when I had erred from the rugged path. On occasion I had veered from the dedicated course, simply due to my lacking a clear understanding and devotion to my cross-related calling.
However, with the new insight that God provided, I now found myself joining with Christ in a private “cross-naming celebration.” Naming my cross gave me spiritual renewal. As never before, I gained a clear focus in the spirit of cross-bearing, and the personal responsibilities and repercussions of my being Black and Christ-centered. By identifying my cross, I received greater assurance in the will of God (cf. Colossians 4:12). I gained a new quickening in my spirit. Thus, I immediately began repositioning myself to fulfill the missional destiny that I believe God has pre-ordained and assigned to my life and work (cf. Ephesians 2:10).
In retrospect, I can clearly see the spiritual transformation that transpired. In the spring of 2006, I had embarked on the journey of a writing project: to define the meaning of identity for Black Evangelicals. The prospective title I chose was Black Evangelical Identity: Core Beliefs of a Community in Christ and Culture. Unexpectedly in March of 2011, after months of writing, the good Lord turned my journey down an unforeseen path. He moved me to change the name of the manuscript from the title I had originally chosen. The final title became Pro-Black, Pro-Christ, Pro-Cross: African-Descended Evangelical Identity.
As I pursued the path to rework the title, two new vistas opened before me. First, in the process of changing the title, I found a new approach in my task of explaining the identity of Evangelical Blacks. Keen clarity, a wider scope, and new energy now gave strength to my writing. Moreover, as is often the case, this first vista flowered into a second perspective that has greater importance. The new title had enlightened me about myself as a renewed writer. It brought me to realize a deeper cross-oriented purpose for my life.
As my writing project extended into a sixth year, my journey to define the meaning of Black Evangelicalism neared its completion. I sensed myself getting closer to the goal. I anticipated a long-awaited rest and the benefits of finishing the book. However, prior to completing my work, the very journey of explaining my message had already begun producing within me an initial and blessed harvest.
As a sower, I first planted some seed for the spiritual formation of the Black evangelical collective. Then the Lord—as the One Who creates blessings—changed the seed, nurtured it, and grew an increase. Finally, as a reaper, I immediately began gathering the first fruits of the crop: I gained a new orientation and a stronger conviction about the meaning of the cross for my life and ministry. This formative journey was lengthy, yet enlightening. It taught this preacher and writer a valuable lesson: making a simple change in a title can engender a significant transformation in spiritual missional formation.
The new awareness of my cross has given me a greater grasp on my work for Christ. By naming my cross I have found a new freedom to do ministry with intentionality. Since the time of my transformational moment, I am continually discovering the deeper meaning and expression of the cross that I must bear in service for my Lord. I am becoming more certain now than ever: my cross, my mission is being authentically Black and of Christ. Being a “black light” of Christ captures the idea. My purpose is to intentionally shine this beacon as a faithful servant and witness to the redeeming work of Christ.
To say that I am pro-Black, pro-Christ, and pro-Cross means that I biblically speak to the cultural and theological distinction of African-Americans who affirm an evangelical persuasion. My voice calls for Evangelicals of African-descent to face the challenge of composing, and living, authentic self-definition to the glory of God. I advocate a pro-Black self-determination in Christ that is missional from African-America into the world. Herein resides the heart of my cross, of my personal mission and its manifested outworking.
This pro-Black and pro-Christ mission requires me to yield my will to the Lord’s will. It demands me to forsake my all, to bear my cross, and to follow behind the footsteps of my Redeemer, my Deliverer, my Liberator. By faith and grace, Jesus has charged me to Gospelize this redemptive work in settings of either African-descended persons, or whites and others. At the end of the day, my sacred responsibility is to accept any rejection or suffering associated with taking up this Black- and Christ-redeeming cause, this mission of love.
Yet strangely, sometimes the passion of my cross—being as Black and of Christ as I can—binds me to alter my path within the course of fulfilling this mission. When prompted by my conscience and the guidance of God’s Spirit, at any given season my mission may turn aside to seek the salvation of even one lost sheep of Christ, whoever they are. Further, the pathway of my mission may go forth to express the eternal love of Christ to any person or diverse people—all for God’s glory.
I willingly accept the culturally-focused identity of my cross and its special calling in serving Christ and God’s humanity. At my own expense—spiritual, financial, and otherwise—I am resolved to fully embrace the name of my cross, to bear its load, and to endure its pains. To carry this cross as I follow Jesus is the God-given expression of my personal mission and destiny. Inherently, the name of my cross is dynamic and gospelizing. And its effects are redemptive, by the grace and for the glory of God.
In closing, I’ll ask these serious and sacred questions: “What are you doing to discern the specific nature of the cross that God calls you to bear?” “How long will you take to identify your cross?” “What is the title that best describes your cross?” And, “When is it appropriate, righteous, and beneficial to make known the name of your cross?”
Rev. Dr. Walter Arthur McCray