Today, just this one brief question that I’ve been pondering all week since Emily Freeman shared it her Saturday morning email after she had been thinking about it all the previous week:
But have you
said this to yourself?
“I forgive you
If I have, then apparently that critical voice that sometimes shows up in my head didn’t get the memo (though it is losing its bite.)
If I haven’t, why not, when the Triune God has said those same words to me, written in blood and sealed with the coming of the Holy Spirit to live in me? “I forgive you for everything.”
Photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash
Sometimes the challenge is in hearing the heartbeat of God.
Maybe just as often the challenge is in letting my heartbeat line up with God’s. I don’t want to let go of my comfort, my security, or my control; my favorite couch, the freedom to plan my days without worrying about someone else’s schedule, the quiet space I’ve come to love.
Yesterday, words that helped me face the truth came through someone who is not one of my usual spiritual directors:
“Many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in pursuit of the goal.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in William Bridges, Managing Transitions, p. 77)
When God has closed all the doors to moving to an unfurnished apartment with my own belongings and living on my own, and is graciously opening the door to sharing a friend’s furnished apartment, at least for a few months, might God be showing me a place I’ve confused the path with the goal and am in danger of clinging to the path I’ve chosen instead of letting him lead me to the goal by the route he knows is best?
The goal is not silence or solitude or order. Those are paths, and, for me, exceptionally helpful ones, to make space to listen to God’s heartbeat. The goal is union with God such that his love fills me. The goal is receiving God’s love, loving him back, and letting his love flow through me to my neighbour.
And, right now, opening my arms to God’s embrace and my hands to his gifts means letting go of my paths and plans, my couch and tables, and letting God teach me once again how to live and love and listen in community, and how to find in that new setting whatever stillness he knows I need to hear him.
There’s freedom here. And often joy. But there have been moments and days in the letting go when I’ve felt confused. Sad. Angry. Fearful. I can slip into the temptation to feel like what I want doesn’t matter and God doesn’t really care about me. That’s when I need to go back and remember that God is the God of unfailing kindness, and look for the little and big ways I’ve seen his kindness in the past and I see it in the present. Getting to stay in the same building. First month’s rent almost free. The memory of meeting my new housemate a year or two ago and thinking I’d almost prefer sharing a place with her to living on my own. I find myself excited, if a little nervous, to see how God will meet us as we walk this new path together over the next few months. Even when the path looks different than the one I’d chosen, this I know—that God is for me. He is giving me his best—Himself—and in the process, everything else besides.
And in the moments I struggle to trust, I’m awed at the grace that meets me there too. I encountered it again in Exodus 6 one morning last week. The Israelites are still in Egypt. God has just given them his very clear promise that he will deliver them and be their God and they his people, and that he will bring them to the land he promised their ancestors. God knows the path to the goal. “But they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and cruel bondage” (v. 9). And instead of getting angry at their lack of trust and giving up on them or retracting his promise, our Father who is gentle and compassionate, remembering that we are dust, responds to their disbelief with a command to Moses, “Go, tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his country” (v. 10-11). God’s faithfulness does not depend on my faith. God responds to their struggle to trust with a settled determination to keep his promises and thus slowly, gently teach his people whose trust has been broken by discouragement and cruel bondage that it’s safe to trust again. That he is not like the taskmasters under which they currently serve. That he is for them. And always trustworthy.
“If we are faithless, God remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” (2 Tim 2:13)
I stand in the crack between what has been and what will be, scanning the years, gathering courage from past memories and present Presence as I move toward the not yet.
The word “remember” comes 176 times in Scripture, and as I read through the verses containing the word, I realize I’ve just read the whole story told in terms of what God remembers (or doesn’t remember) and what we are commanded to remember.
God remembers his covenant. He remembers our human frailty and has compassion on us. He doesn’t remember our sin.
We are to remember that we were slaves and God brought us into freedom. That He has blessed us not because we deserve it (we don’t!), but just because He loves us. We are to remember how He has led and provided for us all through the years, and are to pay special attention to how God has been toward us in the years of slavery (seeing our misery, hearing our cries, being touched by our need, and coming down to set us free) and in the desert years (tending and caring and providing when we weren’t able to provide for ourselves, and, not for the last time, causing life-giving water to spring from stone and bread to descend from heaven).
Above all, we are to remember the One in whom all this protection and provision, this sin-removing, freedom-bringing, covenant-keeping love is embodied: “Do this in remembrance of Me.”
I skim through my own story, seeing the unmistakeable fingerprints of the same life-saving, freedom-giving God. The right person in the right place at the right time to help me make the impossible decision to leave Afghanistan. The friend who came to set up my apartment when I was too sick to shop for bookshelves and wastebaskets. The right course at the right time all the way through my degree, my path twisting in ways I never anticipated but each turn tenderly, thoughtfully placed by the One who was leading though I couldn’t always see Him.
I see the way this whole story—at times painful, but also beautiful—has been leading me deeper into freedom to trust His love, freedom to be myself—and to be His!—without fear. I see how the most painful places have also been the places He has tended me most gently, and the most terrifying places (the ones where I felt trapped between the Egyptians and the deep red sea) my passage into freedom.
Standing in the present Presence and looking back and remembering, I say with all the others who have stood through the ages and looked back and remembered God’s faithfulness, “For all that has been—thanks.”
And as I remember that this same God who has shaped my past and cared for me in it, leading me toward freedom and providing when I couldn’t care for myself, is going with me into the future, my heart says with Mary and with all who have, like her, opened themselves to the thrilling, painful, miracle of God coming to live and grow in and be born through them, “For all that will be—yes.”
I stand awkwardly in the large open space shared by the physiotherapy reception and exercise areas. I’ve shed my sneakers and jeans in the examining room and now I stand with my black socks slouching around my ankles, the white shorts I brought with me riding a little higher up my thighs as I stand on one leg and lower myself into a one-legged squat, trying to keep my opposite hip from sagging toward the ground. I’m glad that my fingers are hooked over the edge of the sink. I need the help with balance.
The exercise I’m doing with my body feels like a fitting image for something happening more deeply within me.
A month or two back, Holley Gerth published a blog post sharing how, after a stretch in which God had led her into new freedom, she sensed him saying to her, “Settle.” In other words, “Live here. Let this be your home, your place to dwell and thrive.” I’ve been carrying that word “settle” around with me since then, sensing it was an invitation for me too, but waiting for that vague sense to crystallize into something specific enough to curl my fingers around and step into.
Anyone who has been around here for long will recognize themes that keep resurfacing. One of those is smallness. I regularly return to God’s promise in Isaiah 46, “Even to your old age and grey hairs, I will carry you.” I find myself sitting on his knee, held by the hand, walking along on his feet like a child standing on the feet of her father and letting herself be carried along. I’ve found myself carried in the womb of God—“In him we live and move and have our being. . . we are his offspring”—and cupped in his hand. As I settle into smallness, I settle into rest, into being loved, into hope and joy and peace. I know this is who I am and where I belong. I know this is where fullness of life begins and where it grows—my small self carried in His all-sufficient one.
But despite all that Scripture and all that experience, somewhere, lingering, has been a nagging doubt. What if smallness is a season? What about the calls to “grow up into Christ,” the summons to adult maturity? What if I’m meant to experience myself small and loved and then be able to grow through that to a new phase which is somehow bigger and broader and more “out there.” The Terrifying Question has slithered around the edges: What if my focus on smallness is a way of hiding from the real responsibilities of the Christian life?
A couple of months ago, I wrote Vines and Umbilical Cords: On Growing Up While Staying Small as part of my process of working this through. I saw again that, as a branch in the Vine, I can only reach maturity and fruitfulness through staying small and dependent. In the Christian life, we don’t outgrow smallness as we mature; rather, we settle more deeply into the reality of our smallness as we mature in trust of the One who holds us in his strong and gentle hands.
Paul confronts the Galatians in their temptation to believe the slippery thinking that grace isn’t enough, they have to take charge and start doing things themselves: “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (3:3) In other words, “Don’t you remember? This whole life must be lived the way it began—in the smallness of complete dependence on the only One who is able to grow His life in you.” As I read his words, I see The Terrifying Question for what it is: another version of the age-old apple-shaped lie that growing up means stepping from smallness into the independence of being like God.
Again He whispers, “Settle,” and now I can hear the rest of the invitation: Settle into living your smallness not as a season of life, but as a way of life. Savor the freedom. Celebrate the gift. Settle here, making your home in my love that delights in you as you are: small.
After reading last week’s post, a friend reflected, “This catches my attention: it is in leaning into your smallness that you are free to live into your full stature.” She’s right. I am most free to listen, to trust, to love, and to step out in service when I know myself small and securely held, a tiny but treasured part of God’s life and work in the world. Only in embracing my smallness can I step fully into the joys and responsibilities of the Christian life.
In this upside-down kingdom where the first shall be last and the way up is down, is it surprising that growing up means getting smaller and maturity equals humble dependence?
I hold onto the sink and lower myself again into a one-legged squat, noticing the way the two sides of the pelvis are connected. Is stability always about the way two things are connected?
When I lose sight of my smallness, I lose stability, as surely as I do when my eyes slip from the greatness of God. (. . . perhaps because trying to live bigger than my true size is a sure sign that my eyes have slipped from the true size of our great God?)
I am only free to rejoice in my smallness when I’ve got my eyes firmly fixed on the true God who loves me in my smallness and has promised to carry me forever. With this God, it is safe to be small.
And I’m only truly free to rejoice in God’s greatness when I’ve stopped fighting my own smallness.
Here, then, is my stability—not in my own strength or greatness, but in the unfailing strength of the One who holds and loves me in my smallness.
Surrender and receiving: The juxtaposition of the two words hit me so forcibly that I didn’t catch the rest of the sentence and, two sentences later, had to interrupt my conversation partner to admit that I’d missed everything she’d said since.
I usually think of surrender not as receiving but as giving. Giving up. Giving myself up.
Words can be dangerous, lugging baggage that colors our perception even when we’re not aware of it. In our world, surrender is often a word of defeat, carrying with it a sad, grey picture of soldiers who, knowing they are conquered, give up control of territory and their own freedom. What was once fear has become incontrovertible reality so they give in and stop fighting, hoping at least to preserve their lives.
But surrender as receiving? My wartime picture has no room for this. A suspicion creeps in: Might the fear I sometimes feel of surrendering to God and his will reflect this underlying picture that I didn’t even know was there until I was stopped and asked to think about it? Are there other pictures which might hold space for a truer understanding of what it means to surrender to God and his will? Slowly, they begin to appear:
A swimmer floats on her back, letting the water lift and hold her.
Be still and know that I am God. (Ps 46:10)
A boat surrenders to the current and is carried much farther and faster than if its occupants had poured all their power into paddling.
The LORD will fight for you, you need only to be still. (Exodus 14:14)
A drowning man stops flailing and fighting his rescuer and lets himself be dragged ashore.
He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. . . . He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.” (Ps. 18:16,19)
I walk in Van Deusen Gardens with a good friend. I have no sense of direction. She has a great one, and I am glad to put myself in her hands and let her choose our route.
“Trust GOD from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own. Listen for GOD’S voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track.” (Prov 3:5-6 MSG)
A screaming toddler, exhausted and not knowing what to do with herself, slowly surrenders to the strong and gentle arms that enfold her, letting her eyes close and her head rest on the shoulder of one who loves her, letting the weight of her body, her too-big emotions, her needs for security and comfort be held by someone bigger and more competent than her. She lets go of striving, grasping, trying to figure out things too hard for her and allows herself to settle into the love of the one who brought her into being.
My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty. 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, like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, put your hope in the LORD both now and forevermore.” (Ps 131)
As the pictures flow past, their common theme becomes clear: God is love, so surrendering to God is always surrendering to love.
Letting go is letting go of that which keeps me from enjoying that love.
Giving up is giving up whatever gets in the way of my living freely in that love.
Giving myself up is giving myself fully into the care of that love which loves me deeply enough to slowly, gently, set me free to become my true self in God, a self free enough to love in return.
When we surrender to Love, giving and receiving are two sides of the same act.
Its colors grace my living room now, a tangible reminder of the resurrection hope who lives in me even when I can’t feel him. Today, as I remember the painting’s beginnings, it offers another hopeful reminder: the Artist who is shaping me into my true self is skilled enough to welcome me freely and fearlessly into the creative process.
The painting began one day about four years ago. I was to be the first to put paint on the fresh canvas.
I could hardly wait. That in itself was a small miracle.
The teacher in my mandatory high school art class once told me that my perspective was “screwy as hell.” If I hadn’t been afraid to pick up a paintbrush before that, I certainly had been since. Afraid of failure. Afraid of what people would think.
So why my excitement? What had changed?
I was sharing a home with an artist. This was her idea. She had done it before with people who, in their words, ‘can’t paint.’ She told me I couldn’t ruin the picture.
Sometimes, for people afraid to begin, she would take a brush and scribble across the canvas to emphasize: they could not spoil the painting.
She went before, showing me how to hold the brush and where to start and how to mix the paint. She came behind, and however my brush stroked the canvas, the brush of the master artist incorporated and surrounded, and the first strokes of a not-so-timid-anymore but still-mostly-untrained artist became a seamless part of the beauty.
I could let go and enter the process with joy, knowing that my strokes were small and few in the bigger picture, trusting the promise and the promiser: As I worked together with the master artist, I could not ruin the picture.
There are days I need that reminder again. Most days, if I’m honest. Every day, actually. I need the Master Artist to whisper again and again in my ear, “Carolyn Joy, let Me be God.” I need him to remind me once again that I can relax and enjoy the process because I’m not the sole creator of my life. The Master Artist, brush in hand, is not only coaching but coming behind, filling and surrounding and incorporating dark and light into unbelievable beauty. He promises that, as we work together, every stroke I make on my canvas, the careful ones, the let-go-and-have-fun ones, the ones where I really mess up badly, as well as every loving touch or careless scribble or angry slash that someone else makes across my canvas, will be used in the shaping of the final glorious image—Christ in me.
“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son. . . (Romans 8:28-29 NLT)
Twenty years earlier, the young man had run away from his brother who was threatening to kill him. He’d spent those twenty years breaking his back for his father-in-law who seemed to take perverse pleasure in finding new ways to rip him off.
He’d worked seven years to be allowed to marry the woman he loved, only to discover on the morning after his wedding night that the wrong woman was with him in bed. “It’s not our custom to marry off the younger before the elder,” his father-in-law had shrugged. So the young man had worked another seven years in exchange for the woman he really loved.
And then for another six years, he had continued to tend the flocks of his father-in-law, his father-in-law changing his wages every time he could conceive a new way that he might possibly be able to pay him a little less. Finally, with the situation continuing to worsen, God said, “Enough. I’ve seen what your father-in-law has been doing to you. It’s time for you to go home.”
The not-so-young-anymore man set out amidst another layer of drama (packing up his household and running away, one of his wives stealing her father’s household gods, and a week-long cross-country chase by his irate father-in-law culminating in a nasty confrontation).
A little further along, the man hears that his brother is coming to meet him with four hundred men. His breath shortens and his mouth dries. What am I doing going home? The last time I saw my brother, he wanted to kill me! His throat tightens and his heart pounds, and he cries out to God for protection. And that’s where the already action-packed story gets even more intriguing.
God doesn’t come with comforting words or a reassuring guarantee of protection. He pulls him into a night-long wrestling match. Why, after years of traumatic experiences, when someone cries for help, would God come to him in the form of a human assailant?
All encounters with God are mysterious and multilayered and I expect there are many layers of healing taking place. Perhaps God is confronting the sin that caused the young man to have to run in the first place since, in asking his name, God elicits a confession: “My name is Jacob—deceiver.” Perhaps he is removing the disgrace of that identity and giving him a fresh start, rooted in this encounter with God, by renaming him and then blessing him. And perhaps, face to face, hand to hand, God is teaching Jacob the deceiver what it feels like to confront head-on instead of to manipulate and sneak and hide. Perhaps for Jacob, learning to fight fair is part of his discipleship.
Perhaps, for many of us, learning to stand up and fight—at all, or in a new way—is part of our discipleship.
David cried out for God to rescue him. God did—and then trained David’s own hands for battle, arming him with strength to be able to defeat the enemies that had previously rendered him terrified and helpless (Psalm 18).
Ezekiel’s formation as a prophet involved God pulling him, quite literally, to his feet and making him strong and stubborn enough to do the job God was calling him to do (Ezekiel 2:1-2, 3:7-9).
I see God wrestling with Jacob and I find myself face to face again with a trauma counselor who once had me stand and push as hard as I could against her hands. Sometimes you have to stand up and fight or you will lie down and cry.
Part of me wishes it wasn’t this way. That part of me would rather discipleship were all about growing in gentleness, in quiet contemplation, surrender, trust. But Mulholland challenges me:
“We would much rather have our spiritual formation focus on those places where we are pretty well along the way. How much of our devotional life and our worship are designed simply to affirm, for ourselves, others and perhaps even God, those areas of our lives that we think are already well along the way?” (Invitation to a Journey, p. 45)
And—surrender? trust? I write those words and feel myself cornered by a stronger Love who whispers that his embrace isn’t always what I’d expect. That genuine surrender means being open to him in whatever way he comes. That growing in trust might look right now like raising my arms and stepping into the wrestling ring with the divine assailant who stands before me, hands raised, calling me into the freedom of wholeness which involves body as well as soul, confrontation as well as gentleness.
“O God of wholeness, when I consider the lack of balance and wholeness in my life, the one-sided spiritualities with which I attempt to appease you, to appear good in the eyes of others and to please myself, I come face to face with my need for a holistic spiritual life. Help me, I pray to hunger and thirst for the wholeness you have for me in Christ. Help me to be willing to surrender to you whatever stands in the way of such wholeness.” (Mulholland, Invitation to a Journey, p. 76)
Water poured around me as I walked across the bridge on Saturday morning. Heavy and fast the drops fell, the wind shoving them under my umbrella and chilling my wet hand. It was the kind of day I’d usually prefer to stay safe in the dry indoors, but as I walked over the bridge, I realized I was loving being out in it. I felt alive as I faced into the wind and rain and kept on going.
I had dressed for it. I was wearing not just my raincoat but my rain pants and waterproof boots. I had even fastened a waterproof backpack cover over my purse. I wasn’t worried about having to sit for three hours in soggy jeans and sneakers, or having to carefully unfold and try to salvage the rain-soaked papers tucked into my purse.
Peeking out from under my umbrella (which I almost didn’t need with the rest of my coverings), I noticed a few others who had ventured out into the storm. Some were frowning as they hurried along, grasping their belongings close to them as they clung to their umbrellas. But the other group which didn’t seem to mind the rain any more than I did were the runners in their shorts. They weren’t lugging backpacks with books that would be damaged by the rain, or wearing heavy clothes that would soon be sopping and heavy and cold.
I’ve been thinking a lot these days about freedom, the kind of freedom that lets me respond and choose in accordance with the Spirit’s action. I have a sense of what it looks like and feels like, but I often find myself struggling to live in it. That walk in the rain helped me picture two steps back into freedom, the kind of freedom that lets me keep going and maybe even enjoy it when the wind is lashing huge raindrops up under my umbrella: strip down and cover up.
It reminded me to ask Jesus two questions when I’m not feeling free and can’t find remember how to find my way back into freedom:
What are you inviting me to take off?
What are you inviting me to put on?
1. Strip down: “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race set out for us.” (Hebrews 12:1) Everything that hinders: in my life, that’s often fear of what people might think, but it can also be a desire for security or control or change. God has been working on these with me lately, giving me one opportunity after another to practice trusting him with my fears. There’s a lifetime of work yet to be done in me, but already I’m noticing that it’s easier to run in the rain when I’m wearing shorts than when the heavy, soggy jeans of fear are clinging to my legs.
2. Cover up: “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” (Eph 6:11) As Darrell Johnson points out, putting on the armor of God is actually putting on Christ who is the truth and who is our salvation and our righteousness and the Word of God.
I’m discovering this all over again too: In God’s kingdom, stripping down and covering up are not opposites but two sides of the same process. It is only as I put on Christ and know that my life is safely hidden with Christ in God that I stop needing all the layers of self-protection that end up weighing me down like sopping jeans when the weather turns ugly. I can only live the first question by living the second.
As I turn again and sit quietly in Christ’s love (isn’t it lovely how everything keeps bringing us back to this central invitation of Christ to make our home in his love?) I find myself stripped down and covered up at the same time. Stripped, at least for those moments, of my arrogance and independence, and hidden in Christ’s gentle, protective love.
I watch Jesus model this process: knowing himself safely wrapped in the love of his Father, he stripped off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist, knelt, and took one disciple’s foot after another in his hands, making his way around the circle of his friends. With Jesus covered up and stripped down, the light in him just kept shining more brightly. Especially as the weather turned sour.
It was just the two of us around the table the day I first heard the words that are shaping my life during these days of Lent. I was hungry for Jesus and had emailed ahead and asked my spiritual director if we could, please, share communion when we met. After we had listened to God’s heartbeat together, she pulled the plate bearing the bread close and, smiling, spoke the simple words that filled my eyes with tears, “We come not because we must but because we may.”
I’m pondering, these days, the various habits in my life that have arisen out of a must: the run each morning, the nap each afternoon, the need to stay home most evenings. Most of my quiet, listening life began from a must. But I’m realizing that though I still need them all, most of these habits have deepened from a must to a may: I do them now not just because I have to but because I want to, because God meets me and loves me there, because they have become treasured places where I can meet him and love him back. I do them now because, in the seven years of this slower pace, Jesus has been dismantling, brick by brick, my wall of misbeliefs about who He is and who I am. I’ve learned that God is not the one who drives me. That he wants the real me, not the me I think I should be. And I’m learning to see my limitations as training wheels, helping me find my balance, guiding me into a way of listening and loving that fits the personality, giftings, and body God has given me.
It’s easy, though, even when a must has morphed into a may, for me to keep hiding behind the must. It feels far safer to my people-pleasing self to turn down an invitation based on “I can’t. . .” or “I have to. . .” than a simple choice to be still. Stillness, in my mind, has appeared too close to laziness for comfort and even though I’ve known that God calls us to stillness (Ps 46:10) the part of me that’s afraid of what people will think whispers, “You’d better look busy, or at least look like you have a good reason for not being busy.”
But here’s the truth: while God calls us to good, hard work, he also calls us to stillness. And the work, if it’s love-work that lasts, can only flow out of the stillness that lets us know ourselves small and dependent and loved. That’s why Jesus so often left the crowds that followed him and headed off somewhere to be alone with his Father (Luke 5:16).
My soul and body confirm what God commanded and Jesus modelled: I’m not made for a hectic pace. It shuts me down. It cuts me off from God and others and myself. It keeps me from being able to love. So I’ve decided: The world can go on chattering all it wants about importance and busyness and making sure I matter. I’m choosing (yes, choosing, not because I must but because I may) to keep living a life that holds enough space for me to hear my Father whispering over me that I already matter.
The must of my limitations has been a gift from God to me, creating enough space for me to begin to hear his heart beat with love. The growing freedom that has allowed the shift from must to may has been his gift too. Now everything within me cries to love him back by choosing to stand rooted in the truth of who he is and who I am, listening and loving and giving myself to be ever more wholly his not because I must but because I may.
Lent is a lot about choosing. Choosing to repent, to turn back again from whatever distractions have been nipping at our heels and swirling in front of our eyes to see and follow Jesus. Choosing to follow. Choosing to love. Choosing, in my case this year, to keep listening, only with even more intentionality, owning this way of living now as a may rather than a must, an even more conscious choice to live in ways that help me listen to God’s heartbeat and be who He has called me to be for the sake of the world.
We walk these next steps of the journey with you
in the same way we come to your table—
not because we must
but because we may:
because you have drawn us close and made us long to be closer still,
because you have graced us with freedom to choose,
because you have loved us so gently we have found ourselves loving you.
And now, fuelled by that love and that longing, we do choose—
life in the freedom of may rather than a cowering behind must,
and a growing into full-bodied, whole-souled attentiveness
“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. The 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.