Category Archives: Defining Metanarratives

Photocopying Heaven, or Why Church Matters

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Why bother with church?

Millennials may be the sort with the audacity to voice (and act on) this question, but they certainly aren’t the only ones who have wrestled with it. Apart from that inevitable conversation one’s committed self has with one’s sleepy self every Sunday morning, the question lurks in the shadows for most of us each time we once again experience dissatisfaction with the worship, frustration with the preaching, or debilitating isolation from the fake fellowship.

Why keep going back for more?

Deep down we know that there is more to church than simply being encouraged in our walk with God. If we didn’t, we would have quit long ago. We toss arguments about the Bible commanding it, about us really needing it, or (least convincing of all) Christian tradition demanding it in the general direction of the question, hoping it will go away. But millennials aren’t settling for our lame reasons, and neither should we.

It should come as no surprise that we struggle to see the significance of going to church. We have lost the plot (quite literally) on what we are doing while we are there. Why all the music? The talking? The strange rituals with water and food? Why all together? Because we are ignorant (or perhaps simply unaware) of the metanarrative we are participating in, we fail to see the point.

The story of the church began long before hipsters, seeker-sensitivity, Fanny Crosby, or the Reformation. It predates the Desert Fathers, the Apostle Paul, and even the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In a sense, it began with Adam and Eve serving in God’s garden-temple, with Abraham filling the promised land with places of worship. But it really picked up when God commissioned Moses to build the first institutionalized structure for Him to meet with His people.

But why did they need a building to meet in? Wasn’t it enough that God was in their midst? Couldn’t each person simply have a nice prayer time or invite a few families over to their tent?

Those questions miss the point. They betray a fundamental assumption that the Church exists exclusively to meet the needs of its people, a fallacy almost as egocentric as thinking that God exists exclusively for me. Yes, this building would function as a visible reminder that God was with them (though the fire cloud that hung over their camp pretty effectively accomplished that purpose already). Yes, it would provide a central space where they could gather as a community and be taught by the Lord. But quite frankly, the architectural design of the tabernacle would be lousy for acoustics or visibility. It contained neither pews nor stadium seating!

The LORD said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering for me from everyone whose heart prompts them to give. …

Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.”

Exodus 25:1-2, 8-9

The point was that this first building project was to be a miniature replica of God’s temple in heaven. It was so important to God that Moses get it “right” that He not only spelled out in great detail how to go about making and assembling each part, He started out by inviting Moses up into heaven to show him the original. The dimensions, the spaces, the colors, and even the furniture were all carefully crafted to correspond with their heavenly counterparts.

The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.
Exodus 25:20-22

Sure, a wooden box with gold overlay was a meager substitute for God’s heavenly footstool. And one wonders how the majestic cherubim who surround His throne felt about their man-made replicas being hammered in gold and woven into curtains. But the ark, the altar, the table with bread on it, the lampstand with its seven lights, and the tabernacle itself were all physical representations of a heavenly reality. What happened with them and in them on earth was meant to correspond with what was happening concurrently in heaven.

In the same way, when we meet as the church, we participate in heavenly realities. The plot has developed a long way since the time of that animal skin tent in the desert with its smoky meat sacrifices and rigidly defined spaces. In Christ, the veil separating us from God’s throne room has been torn and the edges of His tent have been stretched to encompass the whole earth. But we are still acting out on earth the story that He is unfolding in heaven.

What’s more, we are participating in heaven by what we do on earth. When we gather to sing songs of worship, we are joining our voices with those of the saints and angels before His throne. The prayers we say, the praises we sing, and the money we drop in the plate all ascend to His heavenly altar and invite Him to come down. In response, He feeds us from His Word and meets with us at His communion table. And then He fills us with His Spirit and commissions us to go out, carrying His blessing to the messy society, needy people, and parched earth around us.

Whether or not we realize it, all this is happening when we go to church. Our services may not reflect it, we may not feel it, but our presence and activity at church changes things, both on earth and in heaven.

It also happens to change us.

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Messy Cosmology

Photo credit to https://www.flickr.com/photos/pauls_picx/15713110422/
Photo credit to https://www.flickr.com/photos/pauls_picx/15713110422/
My teenaged daughter (an avid Marvel enthusiast) dragged me to the second Avengers film this past weekend. As she took in the clever comments and creative combat sequences, I pondered the cosmological implications of the story line. Apart from revealing my overactive analytical tendencies, the film raised my ongoing questions about my place in the broader range of cosmic beings.

In a tense argument with his fellow avengers, Tony Stark pithily pointed out that they were not merely fighting the evil within a closed system. They were up against powerful external forces that they could neither predict nor control. “We’re the Avengers, we can bust weapons dealers the whole doo-da-day, but how do we cope with something like that?”

How do we cope with living in a world where we can’t see or intelligently predict the activity of beings that are bigger and stronger than we are?

When I stop to consider the reality of the spirit beings that inhabit our cosmos, I can’t help but echo Tony Stark’s sentiment. How do we cope with living in a world where we can’t see or intelligently predict the activity of beings that are bigger and stronger than we are? Who are we in the pecking order of created beings, and what’s our role in the overall story of the world?

what is man …? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.
Psalm 8:2-8

In the beginning God set us up in the garden, male and female, with orders to govern and tend everything (and everyone) in it. He put plants and animals, water and earth under our feet. And though His Spirit set us above the rest of the earthly creatures, He didn’t set us over the heavenly ones.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
Colossians 2:15-16

As much as our Enlightened assumptions and humanist culture may deny it, we are neither the center of the universe nor the top of the evolutionary chain. We were created lower than the angels, under the rule of spirit beings who were created by God for His good purpose. Call them angels, call them gods—whatever they are, they, like us, stand accountable to God for the way they govern and tend what He entrusted to them.

God presides in the great assembly; he gives judgment among the “gods”:
“How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed…
“I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler.”
Psalm 82:1-7

So far, they, like us, have done a pretty lousy job of performing their assigned role. Far from upholding justice and promoting peace on earth, many of these spirit rulers have used their position to pervert, oppress, and extort the peoples of the earth. And we thought the mess on earth was all our doing! But what goes on unseen by us has been keenly observed by God.

As adopted sons of God, we have been radically repositioned in the cosmos.

In response to the cries of His saints and in keeping with His own heroic justice, God came down to deliver humanity from bondage to these spiritual tyrants. No wonder the demons worried about what Jesus was going to do with them. They were the stewards who had been caught mistreating His servants, and He was the master who had come to judge them.

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking.
Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death…
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil– and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants.
Hebrews 2:5, 8-10, 14-16

The puzzling bit of the story, though, was why God showed up wearing human flesh. He didn’t have to become one of us to rescue us. But what no one had anticipated was what God would do with His unruly world. He hadn’t come simply to reestablish the cosmological status quo. He had come to mess it up.

In the new order of things, humans would no longer be stuck beneath the heavenly beings, completely vulnerable to their oppressive whims and dependent on their arbitration between heaven and earth. Instead we are being made one with His Son, raised from death but also raised in status.

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus…
…far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.
Ephesians 2:6; 1:21

As adopted sons of God, we have been radically repositioned in the cosmos. We are being given a seat along with our older Brother at the very top of the command chain, above all those powerful creatures that He had originally placed over us.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
Ephesians 6:12-13

Although our mortal bodies still dwell on earth, engaged in that age-old wrestling match with the powerful spirit forces that seek to enslave us, our heavenly status is sealed. We are the children Jesus came to raise up to glory. We are being groomed to become co-regents with Christ, reigning with Him over a new heaven and earth. This is the hope to which we raise our eyes, the ground on which we are called to stand.

Now that’s epic. Even Marvel couldn’t come up with a cosmic story ending this good.

From the Mountain to the Sea

IMG_3784It’s inescapable.

Living with an N.T. Wright student in a small university town, I am surrounded with discussions about temple language and imagery. Mountaintop meetings. Glory clouds. Cosmic elements. Sacred spaces. It seems my whole world is filled with words and symbols that point to God’s holy place.

And that’s just the point. It is.

The more I look around me, the more I have eyes to see that this world is in the process of becoming God’s temple.

Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground–trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food… A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters.
Genesis 2:8-10

In the beginning God planted a mountaintop garden, watering it with fresh water springs that then flowed downhill to the lands below. He made it a beautiful place where He would enjoy sharing life with the people He had created. And God made sure they had plenty of good food to enjoy while they hung out at His house.

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. …Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. …The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain.
Exodus 19:16-20

OK, so that place didn’t last too long. But that doesn’t mean that God quit finding mountaintops where He could get together with His people. He communed with Noah on the top of Mount Ararat and with Moses on the top of Mount Sinai. He even invited the elders of Israel up for a mountaintop feast there, eating and drinking with them as guests in His house.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings… And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
Isaiah 6:1-4

Though He didn’t need anyone to build a permanent structure for Him, God eventually allowed Solomon to build Him a palace on top of Mount Zion. Golden beams. Blue curtains. Glassy sea. Everything about this place was designed to match His heavenly house, with one exception. People could dwell there, too. And they did. Priests bustled about cooking up offerings day and night. People came and went, eating and drinking with God and chatting with Him about their failures and their needs, their past and their dreams.

When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the LORD filled the temple. …When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the LORD above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the LORD.
2 Chronicles 7:1-3

They never had to wonder if God was in His house. The same massive, fiery cloud that they had witnessed descending on Mt. Sinai had also come down to fill the Jerusalem temple at its inauguration. That glory cloud now stayed slightly hidden behind a curtain in God’s private chamber within His house, but everyone knew it was there. And once a year, a priest had the terrifying privilege of going in to the Holy of Holies to see it.

I looked, and I saw the likeness of a throne of sapphire above the expanse that was over the heads of the cherubim. …Then the glory of the LORD rose from above the cherubim and moved to the threshold of the temple. The cloud filled the temple, and the court was full of the radiance of the glory of the LORD.
The glory of the LORD went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it.
Ezekiel 10:1, 4; 11:23

But even that impressive structure was temporary. It went through several cycles of decline and renovation, death and resurrection. By the time Jesus showed up at the temple, God’s glory cloud had moved out and had stayed away for several centuries. But that didn’t bother Jesus. He knew it was time for God to come down off His mountain and claim more real estate on the earth.

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light…. While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
Matthew 17:1-5

In His days on earth Jesus still preferred camping out in mountain gardens, especially when He felt the need to be closer to His heavenly home. The Mount of Olives. The Garden of Gethsemane. He also invited thousands of people to sit and eat with Him on the mountainsides. And He let His disciples see God’s glory cloud descend on Him on a mountaintop. They recognized the significance of what they were seeing—the glory cloud entering a Temple–and immediately wanted to build something to capture it there.

But that wasn’t the point. Jesus’ body was only an interim temple, one which was about to be destroyed and rebuilt in a totally new form. He tried to explain this as they ate and drank together the night before His death. His bodily temple would be broken, suspended between heaven and earth on a barren hilltop outside Jerusalem.

Wooden beams. Torn curtains. Bloody rivers flowing downhill to water the earth below.

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. –Habakkuk 2:14

God was in the process of building a new temple, one which would fill the whole earth with His glory.

Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.
Acts 2:2-3

And it has. Those life-giving streams reach me each time I eat the bread and drink the cup. That glory cloud has descended to fill my fleshy temple, God’s Spirit alighting on me in an invisible flame that transforms my lowly body into His holy dwelling.

As you come to him, the living Stone–rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him– you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
1 Peter 2:4-5; Ephesians 2:21-22

But God doesn’t stop there, either. He has made me a part of a holy nation, a royal priesthood of believers from every tribe, tongue and nation. We are the Church, the massive, worldwide temple that God is building out of living stones. This sacred dwelling spans time and space, growing into a structure that will eventually fill both heaven and earth. God’s new temple is loftier than the heavens, and at the same time it is grounded in my daily reality.

Whoa. It is inescapable, and I love it.

St. Andrews, Scotland: My little corner of God's temple.
St. Andrews, Scotland:
My little corner of God’s temple.
The earth is as full of the presence of God as the sea is of water. Each cloud in the sky is a reminder of His presence. Each meal we eat is an act of communion. Each step I take is on holy ground.

God’s dwelling place has spread from the lofty mountaintop to my little town by the sea.


How lovely is your dwelling place, O Yahweh Almighty!
Psalm 84:1

When God Came Home

IMG_7992Seven Christmases ago I lay in a hospital bed, wondering if I would ever get to go home. Typhoid, brucellosis, and a host of companion infections had racked my body for months, reducing my frame to skin and bones and my consciousness to an unsteady state. The long battle with illness had finally landed me (literally) in an American hospital bed, transported on a stretcher through more ambulances and diagnostic labs, foreign ICUs and international flights than my semi-conscious brain could keep track of. Gazing out the sterile hospital window into the lonely darkness, I wanted nothing more than to be home.

But where was my home?

How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere
Psalm 84:1-2,10

The borrowed space where my children were being tucked into bed without me there to kiss them goodnight? The flat back in South Asia where our pictures hung on the wall and our smell lingered in the rooms? Or was the home I was longing for really in heaven with God?

For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life… We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
2 Corinthians 5:4-8

Under the circumstances, that last option seemed better than usual. And my theological assumptions nudged me towards it. After all, wasn’t this earth just a temporary stopping place, this life just a preparation period for the life to come? Other than the grief it would cause my loved ones, what still tied me to my earthly home? In my experience, it was a place of pain and sickness and suffering, one that I wouldn’t mind escaping in order to move on to my true heavenly home.

But Christmas challenges my dualist assumptions. Christ’s entry into our world makes me stop and question the low value I have placed on it. If the only place that is really important to God is heaven, then why would He go to such lengths to make His home on earth? The longer I ponder Christ’s incarnation, the more I am compelled to ask:

Where is God’s home?

The incarnation was God’s fullness
coming home to earth.

As I trace the story of God’s presence on earth, I begin to see that He has always maintained a bit of home here. In the beginning He dwelt with Adam and Eve in a hilltop garden. In the exodus He resided in a glory cloud, ever perched above the tabernacle. In the temple He sat at the top of Jerusalem’s mountain, enthroned between heavenly cherubim with the earth-ark footstool just below.

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:10, 14

But in the incarnation, God fully came home to earth. He stopped hovering above it and finally pitched His tent within it. He wrapped Himself in human flesh, an earthy, portable tabernacle, and used it to walk around in our dirty streets.

Contrary to my former assumptions, He didn’t do so merely to rescue souls out of the earth. He used His physical body to touch other bodies, to fix physical problems, to make physical food. These were not merely proofs of divine, existential power, they were also manifestations of God’s value on His physical creation. Jesus came to keep house, to perform some much-needed maintenance on God’s beloved earthly home.

Our bodies are the dwelling place of God,
His fleshy, portable temples.

The final nail in my dualist coffin comes when I ponder what Jesus did with His earthly body after He was done with it. Far from discarding it as a piece of used-up clothing that had outlived its purpose, He took it with Him, a piece of earth now resident in heaven, awaiting reunification with the rest of its redeemed kind.

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.
Habakkuk 2:14

So where is God’s home now? Yes, it is in heaven where Jesus sits on the right hand of the Father while everything in heaven and on earth is being put under His feet. But His home is also on earth, where the Spirit has been poured out into the physical bodies of His people. We are the dwelling place of God, His fleshy, portable temples. And He has sent us out into the whole earth, filling this physical space with His presence until eventually every inch of it is saturated with His glory.

I love the house where you live, O LORD, the place where your glory dwells.
One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.
Psalm 26:8; 27:4-6

I’m glad I didn’t die that Christmas. I’m glad I got to stick around and enjoy the delights of God’s house here on earth. Now as I run through sunlit forests and walk through people filled-streets, I relish the beauty of His dwelling place. I savor the sweetness of His house, decorated according to His unique taste and filled with His “mini-me’s”. Yes, the suffering and pain are still present here. And yes, I still long for heaven’s rest. But for now, I get to be part of God’s cosmic DIY project.

This earth is my home because God lives here, too.

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
…as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my (home).

Making Sense of Trauma

For the longest time I couldn’t understand what was going on in me. Why did my daughter’s little hands touching my throat suddenly make me panic? Why did my laughter now end in tears, happy moments suddenly dissolve into uncontrollable sobbing? Why couldn’t I respond spontaneously to the people and situations around me, instead feeling like I walked around in a daze, like I was watching my life from the other side of a glass window?

Our individual experiences of trauma are part of God’s bigger story.

It took a long time for my husband and I to recognize that I was experiencing the aftershocks of trauma. It took us even longer to understand what trauma is and how it works. Having emerged out the other side of those years of struggle and search to make sense of my nightmarish experience, I have come to see trauma as an integral part of God’s redemptive plan for creation. Far from being a recent psychological development, trauma is woven right through the fabric of the biblical meta-narrative. As shocking and inexplicable as the experience of trauma was for me, it was anticipated by God from the beginning.

So the LORD God said to the serpent, “…I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.
Genesis 3:14-16

Who else could have foreseen the cosmic repercussions of a serpent slipping quietly into the serene goodness of the garden? In an instant, the world as it had been was turned upside down. Death introduced. Life redefined. Intimacy shattered. Relationships fragmented. Fear and failure became ever-present companions, frustration and pain the new normal. And childbirth entered the scene.

I hear a cry as of a woman in labor, a groan as of one bearing her first child– the cry of the Daughter of Zion gasping for breath, stretching out her hands and saying, “Alas! I am fainting; my life is given over to murderers.”
We have heard reports about them, and our hands hang limp. Anguish has gripped us, pain like that of a woman in labor.
The voice of the Lord makes the deer give birth, And strips the forests bare; And in His temple everyone says, “Glory!”
Jeremiah 4:31; 6:24, Psalm 29:9(NKJV)

Throughout the story of Scripture, childbirth symbolizes trauma. When the prophets brought news of overwhelming disaster, they described it in terms of sudden pains seizing men and nations like a woman in labor. The overwhelming power of God’s voice is depicted as sending the deer into labor. And all of creation is described as groaning under the protracted, agonizing curse of childbirth.

Like labor, trauma seizes otherwise strong, stable men and causes them to uncontrollably weep and moan. It transforms intelligent, articulate women into incoherent, curled-up infants. Trauma overpowers everything else in our lives until it becomes our defining circumstance, the moment by which we count our time, the event that re-interprets all others.

Trauma is a horrific means to a desirable end.

But along with trauma’s devastation comes an opportunity for re-creation. Just as the overwhelming pain of childbirth prepares the way for a new life to emerge, the distressing blow of trauma can open the way for a new identity to be formed.

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.
…And again he says, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.”
Hebrews 2:10, 13b

Jesus’ experience of trauma was life re-defining, both for Himself and for all of us who cling to Him in faith. Through the agonizing pain He endured, He gave birth to a new family of people. And through the unspeakable horrors He experienced, He earned the right to be exalted over all of creation.

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.
Matthew 24:7-8

Jesus’ trauma was also part of a bigger story, the transition period in creation’s millennia-long birthing process. Ever since it was subjected to the curse, creation has been moaning, shuddering with the pain of bringing forth something new. Natural disasters. World wars. Like any woman experiencing transition in labor, the thought that this state of affairs might go on forever makes it unbearable.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. … We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Romans 8:18-23

But blessedly, the dark tunnel of trauma does not go on forever. There is an end in sight, one which is new and improved over the beginning. The events that leave us shattered and overwhelmed are making way for us, like the rest of creation, to undergo a complete over-haul. In the process we clutch ourselves in anguish and groan with the memory of what we have endured, but we also look forward in hope to a new, better day.

Our individual experiences of trauma are part of a bigger story, important pieces in a puzzle that God has been assembling since the beginning. Though it will never make sense to me on this side of glory, I have learned to see trauma as a horrific means to a desirable end. Damage bringing renewal. Death producing life.

Pentecost: Re-igniting Glory

“I’m not sure what to think about Gollum. He is so evil and disgusting, but I still feel sorry for him. I kind of wish something good would happen to change him back into the man he used to be.” My twelve-year-old son’s observations about Tolkien’s pathetic, twisted character match my own take on humanity.

How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame ? How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?
Many are asking, “Who can show us any good?” Let the light of your face shine upon us, O LORD.
Psalm 4:2, 6

Obsessed with the beautiful bauble dangling before us, we gave up life in Eden to pursue our deluded heart’s desire. We turned from the light of God’s face to gaze into the mirror of our own distorted reflections. Like the characters in Tolkien’s story, we turned from the glory of the Garden to the grey, lifeless towers of our own making. From Eden to Babel we chased after our own glory, and in the process we lost it.

We turned from the light of God’s face to gaze into the mirror of our own distorted reflections.

Decay. Corruption. Falling short.

Distrust. Isolation. Fragmentation.

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
Colossians 1:13-15

But God did not quit on us. He did not turn His back and leave us in our dark, lonely cesspools, chewing on bones and mumbling over our “precious.” He wrapped His glory in a soft, warm body and dwelt among us. He shone the light of His face through the eyes of a Man who looked beyond our faded facades and loved the remnant of His image within.

If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. … Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever–the Spirit of truth. … you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.
John 14:7-9, 16-17

For a brief time, God’s glory was once again visible in the face of Christ. When the disciples looked at Him, they saw the Father. His glory began to dawn within them. Glimpses of unity. Glimmers of love. But Jesus’ bodily presence was only a temporary, external solution. He prepared His disciples for His departure by promising them His Spirit, who would come and live within them instead of among them.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Acts 2:1-4

And so it happened, just ten days after His ascension. Gathered disciples, sitting enclosed within man-made walls. Wind and fire, moving freely the way they had when they parted the sea and led God’s people through the wilderness. God’s glory flame returned, blowing through their midst and settling on each of them the way it had once settled on the tabernacle and the temple.

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation– This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven…
Colossians 1:21-23

In one of God’s grand reversals, the ugly effects of Babel were overturned in a instant. Language barriers dropped. Alienating behaviors overcome. The church broke out of its walls and began to speak the love of God to everyone outside. The Spirit of God took His mobile sanctuaries to the world, connecting with each person in the language of his or her heart and gathering them into one glorious kingdom, one beautiful Bride.

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ…–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Ephesians 3:16-19

This is the story that we are living today. We are that Church, the living, breathing sanctuary of God’s Spirit. His glory has returned to us and is living within us, transforming our isolated, Gollum-like selves into a loving, nurturing, unified community. Sometimes our ugly wins out over our beautiful, but His Spirit will not quit on us until He has so filled us with His love that we overflow with it. Empty and distorted as we were, we are being filled with the Spirit of God until our lowly bodies reflect His glorious image. Our glory is back!

“Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Ephesians 5:14

Beyond Abuse: Becoming the Bride

Faced with a world full of ugliness and abuse, I want to run home to the garden. I want to recapture that time when the man and the woman existed lovingly with each other, at peace with God and with all of His beautiful creation.

God isn’t returning us to life in the garden. He is grooming us to live as His bride in Heaven.

But we left that garden behind long ago, and the way back has been barred ever since. Cut off from our Life-source, our former beauty has faded. The image of God within us is tarnished almost beyond recognition, its dim remains further broken down by the destructive ways that we treat each other. Abuse denies the remnant of God’s image within us, screaming to our souls that we are worth nothing more than the dirt from which we were created and to which we will return.

Abandoned. Beaten. Violated. Accused. We quiver and cringe, cut off from God, isolated from each other. Hagar weeps by a well in the desert, longing to be loved. Tamar rips her clothes, lamenting her lost purity. The concubine clings to the doorframe, pleading for protection.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Colossians 1:15, 19-20

And God draws near. His glory puts on flesh and walks among us. He sees the unwanted Samaritan woman alone by the well, and He loves her. He defends the accused adulteress standing before Him with her purity in tatters, and He restores her. He delivers the Magdalene woman from a horde of spirit attackers, and He opens the door for her to stay right by His protective side.

But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation …
To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
Colossians 1:22, 27

But His redemptive work doesn’t stop there. He isn’t content to merely fix the problems and right the wrongs. He doesn’t want to simply return us to the garden. He has been planning something much better from the beginning, a surprise that surpasses the goodness that we started out with. He is in the process of putting His glory into us, reversing the decay of our souls and raising us up to a life that is better than ever.

Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.”
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”
Revelation 19:7-8; 21:2-3

Unlike the king in Esther’s story, our King picks up the basin and the towel to wash away our impurity with His own hands. He then proceeds to oversee our beauty treatment, dressing and bejeweling us until we radiate with loveliness. And with a crowning touch, He will present us to Himself as the bride of His dreams, the helper suitable that He has been waiting on since there was none found for Him in the garden.

“Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he … showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.
Revelation 21:9-11

And we, with unveiled faces, will stand eye-to-eye with our Kingly Groom. We will perfectly reflect His resplendent glory, and He will adoringly gaze on our radiant beauty. We will dance and sing in His presence, bold, beautiful, and confident in the love of our Husband. Our home will be a place of healing and joy, of comfort and safety, of security and peace. And the best part is, we will live there happily ever after with Him.

Praise the LORD. Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints. …let the people of Zion be glad in their King. Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with tambourine and harp. For the LORD takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with salvation.
Psalm 149:1-4