IN: an invitation to come and see

DSCN1629“If you had known. . . , you would not have condemned the innocent.” The words jump off the page at me.

“The innocent?” I want to object.

It’s uncomfortable to find myself standing with the Pharisees who are calling Jesus’ attention to the disciples’ misdemeanor and feel my finger pointing too. I’m not sure I like this company, and I’m quite sure I don’t want to be seen to be part of it. But I’m also not ready to let the dispute go.

“But. . .but. . .” I stammer, taken aback, not wanting to let Jesus get away with this distortion of truth. “But they’re wrong! Scripture says so!”

Apparently Jesus has a different view than I of what it means to be innocent.

And a different view of who gets to make that call.

“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:7)

With that statement and two brief stories, Jesus critiques the Pharisees’ lovelessness, defends his disciples, and shows himself to be the gentle Savior who frees his people from fear of getting it wrong.

And with that statement, Jesus critiques my lovelessness, and my fear, and the legalism which can spring from fear. Because as I hear his words—“if you had known. . . you would not have condemned the innocent”—I’m not looking at his disciples who are daring to pick grain on the Sabbath but at other lovers of Jesus who are wrestling to offer almost-impossible-to-articulate, life-giving mystery, and, in their attempt, are rubbing up against my fears.

Jesus is busy blowing open my boxes these days. He seems to be particularly good at doing that—letting light and air in, and then, eventually, me, others, and Himself out of the boxes in which I keep trying to stuff us to keep us all safe. He’s encouraging me to ask hard questions about what the truth is and why it matters.

One of those questions is what it means that Christ is in us. The question is pressing up against me in blog posts and facebook posts, books and sermons, conversations and presentations and paintings, and I am realizing again that “All good theology is done on the cliff-edge—one step too far and you tumble into idolatry, one step back and the view is never so good.”1.

How do we fully embrace the truth that Christ is in us without subtly slipping into new age philosophy—or sounding like we are? A few years ago, the question would have surprised me. The two are so vastly different—how could they be confused? They are immeasurably different. But is it also possible that I haven’t seen either the edge or the full wonder of the truth because fear has kept me standing a mile or two away from the cliff? And is it possible that Jesus is reaching out his hand to take mine and saying, “Come, child of mine. Let’s go a little closer to the truth so I can show you what I’ve been talking about”? Maybe sometimes the only way to see clearly is to go, with Jesus, right up to the edge. Right into mystery.

DSCN1631The question of Christ is in us is not a minor one. We daren’t just stay away from the cliff. Paul calls this “glorious mystery” of Christ in us “the word of God in its fullness.” This, he says, is where our hope lies. (Colossians 1:25-27)

Jesus, too, situates this truth at the center of the gospel and our life as His followers in the world.

 “On that day, you will realize that I am in the Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” (John 14:20)

It is, Jesus says, the only way to a fruitful Christian life.

“Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself. . .” (John 15:4)

It’s the only way into a Christian life at all. Anything less than living in Christ and Christ in us is something other than Christianity.

This matters. 

It matters enough that Jesus’ longing for us to know and live the truth of our in-Christ-ness filled his final conversation and prayer before he headed to the cross where he would take the next step of making our in-Christ-ness possible (John 14-17).

It matters enough to study and pray to articulate such mysteries as truly as we can.

But the apostle who made famous the phrase “in Christ” and, I suspect, understood its mysteries better than any human who has ever lived (except, of course, for Jesus) also wrote this: “If I . . . can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, . . . but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor 13:2)

Actually living in Christ is a lot more important than being able to talk about it, and that looks a lot like love. 

I take the hand Jesus is offering and let him lead me out of the finger-pointing crowd and toward the cliff. I’m glad of his hand; I want to see, but I’m not so fond of heights.

By this time next week, we’ll be into Advent, that season in which we prepare to welcome again God’s coming not just to live with us, but in us. What better time to take another peek at the mystery of in? We won’t “solve” the mystery—Christian mysteries can’t be solved, only lived—but we’ll ask Jesus to point out some markers that will help us recognize the cliff edge, and to free us to live a little more deeply into the mystery that, as Christ’s people, we really are in Him and He in us.


1.Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 279.

When you need a little comfort


Shots fill the air and a bomb shatters. Death stalks and life has been changed forever. And we grieve. Or we stand feeling helpless. Or we turn away from the pain, back to our small lives that might feel a little more numb and grey, or a little more like a treasured gift, or a little more ringed and laced with fears and questions and uncertainty.

Sometimes a whole city is shaken, or a whole nation, or the whole world as we watch bombs and shots and hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring like rivers from country upon country. Sometimes all it takes to unsettle us is one patch of black ice or one diagnosis. Shock shakes our self-confident independence. Trauma brings out the child in us, awakens us to our vulnerability and makes us want to run into safe arms. Sometimes it takes even less than a diagnosis—just a few words I wish I could take back and all of a sudden I need to hear again that sin (my own and that of others), and death (of hundreds or of my own overblown ego), neither had the first word nor will have the last.

Before sin, love blessed us; after sin, love remains. The love that spoke this world into being and, from dust, shaped living, breathing children to be like Him, will never let go. We are His, and no matter how dark the darkness, it cannot overcome the light of that love.

“God our Father has a mother’s heart toward us,” Pastor Tim Kuepfer reminded us yesterday. “He not only births us (John 3:5-8; Acts 17:28; 1 Peter 1:3), he nurses us.”

“Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” (1 Peter 2:2-3)

I can’t get away from the picture of God nursing us, from the picture of us as newborn babies “craving, demanding, gulping the pure milk of God’s love”; our pastor’s words offer me space to press in close to Jesus again and again, hungry for his touch, his gentle eyes, finding him always ready to feed me with his fullness.

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you.” (Isaiah 49:15)

I love the image. Then I begin to wonder about the clause, “so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” Shouldn’t I have grown by now beyond needing to gulp God’s love? Does growing up in our salvation mean being weaned from this craving for God’s love, from being allowed to come close and drink as often as I need?

But I think of Brother Lawrence whose growth into maturity was a growth into awareness of God’s presence every moment. I remember Jesus’ own invitation, “I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love” (John 15:9 The Message). Jesus paired the invitation with a declaration of the way things are: “I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. . .” (John 15:5,9 The Message).

Once more I see that this world has everything backwards. In Real Life, the only kind of life that works, maturity is never about growing independence, but about deepening dependence. Maturing from milk to meat doesn’t mean moving on from needing God’s tender love, but settling more deeply into it. It means having learned and lived the details of sin and faith and baptism long enough that we can chew and savor the many-layered love-gift of righteousness, that right relationship that God gives us with Himself and, through him, with creation and others and ourselves (Hebrews 4:14-6:2).

No, we’re not meant to grow out of needing the tender mother-love or the protective father-love of God. So enjoy, friends. Settle in and make your home in the arms where it’s safe to be small and hungry and needing comfort, where you will always, always be welcomed and loved.

“Listen to me. . . you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth. Even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” (Isaiah 46:3-4)

“You in me and I in you”: learning to live the mystery

DSC_0366The first day of the course was hard. I had only slept a couple of hours the night before. Even at the best of times, my brain processes things slowly, though richly and deeply, and with fatigue and nervousness added to the mix, I found myself unable to complete any of the exercises in the time given. “Please slow down!” I wanted to cry to the facilitators. “I can do this, really I can! I just need a little more time.”

“You’re failing!” a voice in my head prodded anxiously. “Pull it together! Hurry up! Just try a little harder!”

Another voice mocked, “You might as well stop trying. It’s obvious you’re not cut out for this. You’re already failing.”

But finally that afternoon, when I could sit alone with Jesus for long enough to let the other voices still, He reminded me of truth: I am His and He is mine. He delights in me and desires me and it doesn’t matter one iota to Him that I couldn’t complete the exercises in the minutes allotted. It doesn’t make me one tiny bit less in His eyes. It doesn’t even make me less close to Him. Instead, it drives me closer and makes me love Him more, as I’m reminded again that I can do nothing on my own—can’t come close to Him, can’t settle myself in His presence, can’t hear His voice—and He draws me, settles me, helps me hear, just because He delights in me and wants me close.

The next morning we listened to the story of blind Bartimaeus. We were instructed to put ourselves into the story, to imagine ourselves on the road, in the middle of the crowd. “What is the road like?” Instantly I was back in Afghanistan, my black shoes greyed by the clouds of powdery dust that rose with each step. It was hot and I was sweating and I could feel the press and shove of bodies around me. A woman hidden beneath a dusty burqua tugged on my sleeve, clinging, slowing me with her pleading.

“Imagine you are Bartimaeus, the blind beggar. What do you hear, what do you feel as Jesus approaches?” I didn’t even get to how Bartimaeus’ might be feeling. As soon as I found my place as the beggar, sitting at the side of the road, I was surprised by a lightness within me. Tears filled my eyes as I realized what had happened: I’d dropped the weight of having to be Jesus. I only realized when I took my place at Jesus’ feet that I’d experienced the scene first as though I was Jesus, crowds pulling at my clothes, begging for healing, I feeling the weight as though their needs were mine to bear.

There’s a tree behind the home where we met. Its bottom has been hollowed by death but its top is wildly, vibrantly alive. I can’t explain it; I only know that the rent ascends and descends from perfect love, and opens wide enough for me to step inside and stand wondering at the mystery which opens upward, too high for me to see the top. I want to stay there, to live in the love that opens wide for me and welcomes me in. I am there, held and surrounded and forever belonging.

The mystery is too big for me. We, together, are Christ’s body, Jesus living in us and through us. He looks out of our eyes at crowds and loves beggars. Sometimes we are the way He bears burdens and touches blind eyes with healing. But He is in us only because we are in Him, held and loved, ourselves beggars being healed into disciples. We rest, forever safe in the embrace that carries the weight and keeps loving us in the reality of what is in any given moment.

The limits of discipline {OR When God’s love tastes like ice cream}


I was walking along the seawall, hands pulled up into my sleeves away from the chilly dusk air, arguing with God about a bowl of ice cream.

I’d been reading a book on prayer, and questions about fasting were sharpening both my desire to have that bowl of ice cream, and my guilt about that desire.

I don’t remember exactly how the conversation unfolded, but I do remember thinking, “I’m sure this isn’t that big a deal, but we need to talk about it because I’m not able either to enjoy the ice cream or to happily forego it.” And I remember the gentle choice: “Which do you want? Do you want the discipline not to have the ice cream, or the freedom to enjoy it?

There was, I’m afraid, a bit of self-pity as I wavered between the choices and finally reminded God that I’m a body as well as a soul, “and, please, tonight, I just want that bowl of ice cream. And I want to be able to enjoy it without guilt.”

That was when He asked the question that left me trying to hold back the tears until I could get inside: “Can you let me love you in your lack of discipline as well as in your discipline?” There were other questions later about whether wanting a bowl of ice cream (or, rather, half a cup of vanilla frozen yoghurt with fresh fruit) is a problem or a normal, healthy, desire to enjoy one of God’s many good gifts, but God knew that we needed first to face the bigger issue—the fear that some lack in me would keep me from being close to him.

“Can you let me love you in your lack of discipline?”

It was as though a sudden wind blew through and the needles of a two-month-old Christmas tree gave up trying to hold on and fell, revealing dry, naked twigs, the branches too dead even to draw close and cover their shame. I was discovering that my self-discipline which, when fueled by passion, has helped me go far, is, on its own, pretty shabby. And the legalistic “should” was being shown for what it is: at best a guardian, at worst a bully, but either way powerless to help me be the person I want to be:

“I can will knowledge, but not wisdom; going to bed, but not sleeping; meekness, but not humility; scrupulosity, but not virtue; self-assertion or bravado, but not courage; lust, but not love; commiseration, but not sympathy; congratulations, but not admiration; religiosity, but not faith.” (psychoanalyst Leslie Farber, quoted in Benner’s Desiring God’s Will, p. 50)

And then, having revealed the true state of the tree, the same wind whispered the invitation to lay the dead trunk on its side and shape it into a welcoming manger. When we find our limits, we also find grace, and Love waiting to reassure us that what sheer will can’t do, Love can.

“. . . [R]elying on willpower. . . is still living a willful life. The kingdom of self and the kingdom of God are like oil and water; they just do not mix. Genuine surrender does not depend on discipline and resolution. [Genuine surrender] is leaving all that behind and being seduced by Love, even if that takes time. Seductions always do!” (Benner, Desiring God’s Will, p. 73)

No ice cream has ever tasted so good as that bowl, every spoon full of God’s tangible love.


Next week I’m off on a course so won’t be here blogging. I look forward to listening together again when I return!

How to make choices you won’t regret


I’ve often been asked about my years in Afghanistan and the fallout I’ve lived with since. “Knowing what you know now, would you do it again? Would you make the same choices?”

I’ve struggled to answer in a way that makes sense. On the one hand, I have no regrets. I’m glad I chose as I did then. On the other, I’ve grown, and I recognize that not all of the choices I made then fit well with what I’ve since learned of God and of myself.

It’s sometimes hard to hold these two pieces together, to believe that neither the way I chose then nor the way I’m choosing now are of less value than the other. And it’s not always easy to know, looking forward, how to make new choices that will leave me with no regrets regardless of the outcome.

I find help—both in living with past choices and in choosing well in the present—in a surprising spot. Paul has just spent eighteen hundred words arguing in the strongest terms that the Galatians must resist the demand to live under the details of the old law, marked by circumcision. But then he surprises me with this:

“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. . .”

“Now wait a second, Paul,” I want to say. “You’ve just spent more than four chapters arguing the dangers of letting our lives be ruled by a list of shoulds. But now you’re saying that living free is no better?”

Neither fasting nor feasting has any value.

Neither keeping Sabbath nor not keeping it.

Neither doing the dishes right after dinner, nor choosing to rest and do them later.

Slowly I realize that Paul is removing yet another layer of distraction so he can lead us to the core of choosing well. Quiet, contemplative living is neither holier nor less holy than years of long nights trying to help half-dead patients in a mud hospital because, as we live our life in Christ,

“. . . the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6)

Does my choice flow out of faith in Jesus? Does it help me trust him more?

And does it express that faith through love—for God, for others, and for myself in a healthy, respectful, stepping-into-God’s-love-for-me way?

Then it is a good choice.

In my twenties and early thirties, driven and anxious to make a difference in the world, and loving God as best I knew how in the midst of that, faith expressed itself in love to God and others by my commitment and determination to keep serving in the midst of craziness and huge cost in Afghanistan.

In these past seven years since God closed the door on that way of loving him, faith is expressing itself through love by learning to live within my limitations and offer back to God and others the gentle, grace-filled space God has been offering me. Now, drivenness and the previously unrecognized self-abuse of constantly ignoring my limitations would be neither faith (trusting God’s love for me) nor love (respecting God and His treasured possessions by caring gently for people who matter to him—myself as well as those around me).

So the question, “Would you do it again?” Not now, but I’m glad I did it then. Then it was the best way I knew to offer God my faith and love. Now He’s asking me to express my trust through love in different ways.

Choosing to live by “faith expressing itself through love” doesn’t guarantee a smooth path or a comfortable outcome. It does mean that, whatever the outcome, I can trust that the God who has made me His has received my offering of faith and love with the delight of a mother receiving her toddler’s first dandelion bouquet. And God’s smile is what leaves me with no regrets.