My breath made clouds in the early morning light as I ran along the seawall, my mind wandering back to the month I recently spent pondering the mystery of Christ in us. I felt I understood less at the end than when I began—not, I think, because my understanding had decreased, but because I’d freshly glimpsed how great the mystery is.
I slowed to a walk as a woman approached, her unleashed dog close at her side. The dog’s loving eyes were attentive to her every move. A slight point of her hand toward a crow on a huge fallen trunk and the dog saw and leapt and ran, wholly intent on pursuit. The crow flew and the dog raced and then, moments later, returned, panting, to his mistress’s side. My eyes met the woman’s and we shared a smile at the dog’s joy in the chase. I pictured God smiling too at the start of my month of pursuing mystery, a tilt of His hand gently directing my attention toward it, knowing I’d delight to chase it, happy for me to be free, to run, to play, to explore, my whole self alive and engaged in the pursuit for moments, days even, then, panting, the mystery having flown, returning to my Master’s side, eyes on His face, His hand, grateful once again that I don’t have to comprehend the mystery to live it.
I’m glad I couldn’t pin down the mystery, glad it’s still out there, wild and free. Glad I can chase it again, and know it will once again escape my full (small!) understanding.
In the process of the chase, my prayer has shifted. Oh, I still ask, “Help me to understand,” but alongside that prayer is another, more intent on knowing God than on understanding Him: “As You lead me into all truth, guard me from ever thinking I’ve got You figured out. If I ever think I’ve got You under my paw, it’s certainly not the true God I’ve apprehended.”
My dearest sister,
Two days before my third birthday, when Dad put you into my arms, I scarcely glimpsed the gift I was receiving. I knew this live doll who wiggled and woke and ate was a wonderful creature. I was happy to have a sister. I didn’t know I was being handed a person who would grow into one of my dearest friends, someone who would show me in a thousand beautiful ways what Christ looks like.
It wasn’t long before we began to play school. I was the teacher, helping you learn to write your letters. I didn’t realize you were becoming my teacher, too, helping me sound out the meaning of the Word as I saw Him living in your skin.
You kept loving me even when I didn’t want to wear matching clothes, and didn’t want you to play with me and my friends.
You forgave me a million slights and pushing-you-aways, and never stopped believing in me or wanting to be near me.
As you twirled and sang and made our new baby brother laugh with your silliness—”Mary had a little lamb, it’s fleece was green as peas”—you began a lifetime of helping me realize that God’s love is celebration as much as seriousness.
In you I see how sacrifice and celebration can co-exist—how joy is not just the fulfillment but the fuel of costly love.
When I returned home from Afghanistan too sick to shop for my own clothes, you put your fashion talents to work and brought home outfits for me to try.
You sat on my bed while I rested, and brought your children to read with me. You taught them by your own love to love me, and they learned that we all have limitations and that mine didn’t make me any less precious.
Almost every time I’ve returned home from a far country or the other side of this one, you have shown up at the airport or the house with a bouquet of flowers or a balloon and a hundred hugs, always delighted to have me home though you know it won’t be long before I’ll fly off again.
You would love to keep me here close to you, but you have encouraged me to find my wings, to keep growing into the person God has made me to be.
You have given me space when I needed it.
You always think the best of me. You aren’t blind to my faults and weaknesses, yet somehow they don’t seem to matter much to you. Somehow—amazingly—you never make me feel as though I’ve been a disappointment. Your love makes space for all of me. You know your job is not to change me but to love me. And you never make me feel like you want to change me. Somehow, love like that does end up changing me, setting me free, because it opens up safe space for the real me to creep out of hiding and begin loving too.
When I’m at risk of thinking I can understand grace by figuring it out, love like yours keeps me grounded. I have learned far more of what Christ looks like through your hugs and laughter and back rubs than through my careful thinking. Some mysteries can only be understood from the inside; love can’t be analyzed, only received.
I can’t count the meals you’ve made, the gifts you’ve given, the cards you’ve created. And you’ve never made me feel like your extravagant love has cost you more than you wanted to give. Your love enables me to consider that God’s love just might not be a “have to” love but a “want to” love, an “I like you and love you and enjoy you and want to be with you and delight in you just as you are” kind of love. God knew I’d need to see that full-of-delight kind of love again and again to believe it, and you are one of the ways He keeps coming to me with flesh on to help me remember that this kind of love really does exist.
So, dearest sister, thank you. You didn’t choose to be my sister. You did choose—and do keep choosing—to let your body and soul host Jesus so that your loving is not only yours but God’s, your face and arms and feet mediating divine grace.
You are beautiful, dear sister, and I am so grateful for my third-birthday present. You remain a once-in-a-lifetime priceless gift that keeps growing and becoming more precious and treasured with every birthday that passes.
Happy fortieth birthday, and here’s to an eternity of continuing to enjoy God and each other more deeply. I love you so much!
“One thing we should have learned from his first coming,” Pastor Tim reminded us, “is that Jesus never comes in the way we expect.”
I set out to explore the mystery of Christ in us—to find some boundary markers and peek at the view—and Jesus sets aside my desire for understanding and shows me first that the living of Christ in us—which is far more important than speaking about it—is a lot about love.
And then we creep a little closer to mystery—seeking to live it rather than define it (which, I’m learning, is the only way you can creep close to mystery)—and I find that the glory of Christ in us is not to be found first in the earthquake of His power in us, or the fire of His passion, but in the gentle whisper of His presence in the midst of our mess—our fears and our failures and a barn with a cow letting loose in the corner and blood-stained straw where Mary crouches, Christ in her giving Himself as a gift to the world.
His love is so beautiful here that my desire to explore has waned; what new view could be more beautiful than this love that becomes small and whispers Himself into our darkest corners, filling us with the certainty that right here in the mess we are accepted so deeply we are asked to host Him?
I understand, for the first time, maybe, David’s sentiments:
“. . .I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
Like a weaned child with its mother. . .” (Psalm 131)
I could rest here, quite content, for a long time, here in this smallest, profoundest corner of the truth of Christ in me.
Maybe there’s rest here because His smallness makes space for my smallness: I’m welcomed to stop wrestling and rest.
Maybe the rest comes from finding that the hospitality He asks of me is always founded in the hospitality He offers me: Christ in us is always rooted in us in Christ.
Christ in us is mentioned ten times or twenty; us in Christ a hundred or two. And every time Jesus speaks of living in us, he pairs it with us living in him.
“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” (John 6:56)
“Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” (John 15:4)
“If a man remains in me, and I in him, he will bear much fruit.” (John 15:5)
It messes with my mind that likes to think in pictures. One person can live in another—a baby in a womb—but how do two people live in each other at the same time?
And then I remember the moment seven months ago when, as I was listening in the pew eight rows back, Darrell Johnson drew my attention to the remarkable truth: we, in Christ, are brought so deeply into the inner life of the Trinity that the apostle John speaks as though the Holy Trinity is the Father, the Son, and us!1
“On that day [when the Holy Spirit descends and fills you], you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” (John 14:20)
“I have given them the glory that you [, Father,] gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. . .” (John 17:22-23)
“As we are one”—This flowing, belonging, difference-within-union dance of the Trinity is the love into which we are welcomed.
The same kind of joyful hospitality that the Father and the Son offer to each other, they offer to us: a real, living delight in each other. A full-of-life, three-dimensional enjoyment in which no one is swallowed up or merged, flattened or taken over, but each is uniquely himself, secure in the love of the others.
And as I read verse after verse, my image shifts. No longer do I picture “Christ in you” as a solitary person with another inside—a baby in Mary’s womb, say, or the Spirit living inside my body (though both are part of the truth).
The image now is more fluid, more like the interweaving dance of the Trinity in whose image we are made: Christ in us and us in Christ, a word-defying, image-defying mystery of love in which we are at once fully our small human selves and, through Christ, also loved right into the life of the Trinity where we are forever welcomed and held.
1Based on work by David Crump.