Finding our place in his story

When we entered the sanctuary yesterday, we saw them: hundreds of little paper crosses strung between the balcony and the large wooden cross raised at the front of our place of worship. Our lives, our worship, our suffering, all connected to each other’s and to His.

It reminds me of how  a magnet held under a sheet of paper covered with scatted iron filings shapes lines of intricate order out of the chaos. Here, joined to his cross, our stories settle into place and begin to make sense.

It seems so right as we begin this Holy Week to find once again our small place in his big story. Yesterday was Palm Sunday. It was also Annunciation Day, and in the juxtaposition of the two, Mary’s yes to God’s invitation merged with Jesus’ yes, the human story intertwined with God’s story at yet another node. To Mary the invitation to bear God’s Son into the world. To Jesus the invitation to bear fallen humanity back into into intimate friendship with God. Both said yes. Both knew the deep joy and the deep suffering of their calling.

And now we too are invited to take up our crosses and follow, to enter more deeply the privilege of sharing both in Christ’s resurrection and in his sufferings.

We’ve been coloring the crosses for weeks, each Sunday School class, connection group, seniors’ gathering setting aside time for each person to color a cross in a way that expressed their gratitude for grace or shared what they wanted to bring to the cross. Each cross was a little bit of someone’s love, their surrender, their yes. And now the crosses hang as we enter Holy Week, our lives all linked to his: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Our lives all linked to his, and to each other’s. I can’t find my own cross. It doesn’t matter. I know that it’s here somewhere, here in the stringing of connected lives, the singing of worship linked to the cross and, through the cross, to the multitudes around his throne who continue to sing to the One in whom all of history finds its proper place, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”

The politically incorrect gospel

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

We’re well over half way through Lent, and this week I’ve been challenged again by this awareness: the gospel is not politically correct.

There’s a big part of me that prefers to stay silent when controversy arises. I prefer to offer gentle hospitality, to listen, to ask a few quiet questions, and to trust the Holy Spirit to be the one to bring to light what needs to come into the light as He guides people into all truth.

But then I look at Jesus.

In his parables, he “told all the truth but told it slant.” But there were times and settings when he spoke the truth straight out too, and lived it in ways that made the authorities furious.

Trust can mean letting God be the one to bring things into the light, or it can mean obediently offering the words God gives us to speak and trusting that God will accompany us through all that unfolds.

Jesus has never been politically correct. Even his existence was so politically incorrect that, soon after his birth, the king tried to kill him. And, at the other end of his earthly life, religious and political authorities—usually each other’s enemies—teamed up to bring a final end to the political incorrectness of Jesus’ life. But after he was no longer physically present on earth, the political incorrectness of his story continued: “When we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense” (1 Cor 1:23 NLT). There’s no way around it: the gospel, while incredibly good news, is also offensive for a world (and, sometimes, even a church?) that prefers to think of ourselves as essentially good, as enough on our own.

Over and over these days I come up against the idea that all human beings carry the presence of God at our core. The idea subtly pervades books being widely read by people in the church, and is taught by some people whom I love deeply and from whom I have learned much about grace and community and the beautiful, welcoming love of God. But on this point we differ. And because I love both Jesus and these friends so deeply, I have to speak. Because I know they love Jesus too, and yet it seems to me that when we believe that all human beings carry the presence of God within them, we cut the heart out of the gospel. Why do we need Christ if God’s presence lives in us without him?

The way I read the Bible, human beings are incredibly beautiful, complex beings, fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. It’s not too big a stretch to say we’re “god-like.”

God created human beings;

he created them godlike,

reflecting God’s nature. (Genesis 1:27, The Message)

The Psalmist says we’re made “a little lower than God and crowned with glory and honor,” two attributes that, as Old Testament scholar Iain Provan points out, are usually reserved only for God. All humans are created in God’s image and placed on this earth to be “like God” to the rest of creation, tending it with care.

The arrival of moral evil doesn’t change the fact that we are all made in the image of God and are to be treated accordingly.

“Whoever sheds human blood,

by humans shall their blood be shed;

for in the image of God

has God made mankind” (Gen 9:6).

But it is first in Jesus that a human made in the image of God now also carries the presence of God fully within him, humanity and God now joined in one person. Now when we, through our trust, allow Christ to live in us by his Spirit, we who have been made in the image of God are enabled to carry God’s presence within us, becoming who we’re made to be.

“For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body. So you also are complete through your union with Christ. . .” (Col 2:9-10 NLT).

As we walk these final weeks toward the cross, I celebrate again the love that created me beautiful and remarkable—“like God.”

I celebrate the love that created me not God and regularly reminds me that I’m not God and invites me to rest in the freedom of being human and being still and knowing that God is God.

And I celebrate the incomprehensibly magnificent love that knows that I’m not enough on my own and gives His own life in order to fill me with God’s presence, joining me to Himself and thus allowing me to share in the life of God forever.

The Coming of our Homemaking God

We sang Once in Royal David’s City in church last week, and I couldn’t help notice how the words were about home—the home Jesus left, and the home he entered here in order to make for us a home and bring us, in him, home again:

“He came down to earth from heaven

Who is God and Lord of all

And His shelter was a stable,

And His cradle was a stall. . .

 

For that Child so dear and gentle

Is our Lord in heav’n above,

And He leads His children on

To the place where He is gone.”

Even though I believe that the home God is creating for us will be the new earth, the point is the same. As Jen Pollock Michel points out in her beautiful book, Keeping Place, God is a homemaking God, a God who longs for us to be at home with him, with each other, and with ourselves, and is working to that end.

“The biblical narrative begins and ends at home. From the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem we are hardwired for place and for permanence, for rest and refuge, for presence and protection. We long for home because welcome was our first gift of grace and it will be our last.” (Jen Pollock Michel, Keeping Place, p. 33)

The longing for home has been stronger in me this Advent than usual as I’ve scanned Craigslist and visited possible apartments and waited to see where God will place me next. But that longing for home is not unique to this year, nor unique to me.

Could it be that, in one way or another, home is what we’re all longing for? In busyness, a place to rest. In the fuss and show, a place we can safely be ourselves. In a world where wildfires and war, illness and uncertainty remind us of our transience and vulnerability, a place to feel safe and rooted and at rest. Welcome. Intimacy. Security. Permanence.

Might this be why Christmas can be both so painful—because our longings for home won’t be met perfectly until we’re face to face with the One who is our true Home—and so poignant and beautiful—because we taste the beginnings of hope fulfilled in the One who came to bring us home?

As Michel points out, we can understand the whole story of the Bible as a home story: God makes for us a home, we take leave, and he makes a way for us to come home again. This, then, is Christmas: our homemaking God leaving his home to come and find us in our wanderings and bring us back to our true home. And I’m not just talking about heaven, or about the new earth, but about something much closer, much more now.

The Spirit overshadows and Jesus makes his home not just among us but within us, in the womb of a woman, in a body like ours. God knits himself into our flesh, beginning the life-death-resurrection process of knitting us into his body as surely and beautifully as he knit each of our bodies and souls together in our mother’s womb. God entwines himself into human cells to make us once more at home in him, in our own selves, and in fellowship with each other. We are in him and he is in us. We carry our home with us now wherever we go, because God is our home and nothing can separate us from his love now that he has woven that love, woven home—woven Himself—right into our flesh.

Why you can dare to enjoy the process

Painting and photo by Patricia Herrera
Painting and photo by Patricia Herrera

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)

The two step guide to running in the rain (and loving it)

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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.

Why?

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:

  1. What are you inviting me to take off?
  2. 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.

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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.

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