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Releasing Arrows

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(c) Marvel. Available at Marvel Images

This week marks a major transition in our household. Not only are we preparing to dismantle our idyllic home here in the wee town by the North Sea to launch into the great unknown of a new chapter in South Asia, but we are also releasing two children from our family nest—one flying east to begin boarding school and the other going west to grow for a season under the mentorship of his uncle.

Even as I write a lump rises in my throat at the thought of it. These are my babies. How can I care for and protect them if they are on the other side of the world from me? These are my babies. Through all the terrifying transitions of our life of faith, the constancy of their presence under my sheltering arms has provided sweet security. I can’t count in how many different places my husband and I have met each other’s gaze over their sleeping heads and whispered to each other, “At least we still have them.”

Children are a heritage from the LORD, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.
Psalm 127:3-5

But the point of parenthood has never been to have or to hold them. During one of the heated debates of our courtship, I remember laying out my vision for wanting loads of children (which, my wise husband-to-be pointed out, was a wild impracticality considering the pilgrim life we knew God was calling us to). Our children would be arrows, gifts from God for us to hold near for a time but for the purpose of preparing them to be shot out into the world. If we did our job well, they would one day be equipped to go places where we were not and to fight battles that we could not. Their presence and their work in the world would be an extension of our own, just as our presence and work in the world are an extension of God’s.

And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.
Luke 1:46-49

While the Lord painfully blocked my ambitious dreams of a baker’s dozen, the longing, the waiting, the losing, and the miraculously gaining taught me to receive each of these gifts by faith. My heart found words in the prayers of Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary, who overflowed with gratitude in the kindness of God to remember His promise to His daughters and grant them seed. The ability to bear children went from simply being a given to being a gift.

They may be leaving my home, but they are merely spreading out into His.

And then the realities of parenting kicked in. Toddler tantrums and teenaged silence rattled my confidence, leading to despair that these arrows would ever fly straight. In fact, they seemed more bent on piercing my heart than putting a dent in the darkness of the world around. At the end of another seemingly fruitless day of teaching, disciplining, nurturing, and downright pleading, I have often unloaded my bedtime discouragement to my husband. But his steady voice repeatedly calls me back from reacting in fear to raising these children in faith. They are God’s from start to finish. He entrusts them to us for the process but at the same time calls us to trust them to Him for the product.

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Matthew 12:46-50

So now I find myself embarking on a new challenge of faith. Having received them by faith and raised them by faith, God is now leading me to release my children by faith. Far from the profound relief I imagined I would one day feel when they were finally ready to launch into the world, I find myself wanting to cling to them, selfishly unready to give up the joy of having them near and (dare I admit it?) the sense of worth that comes of their needing me. At a time when so much of my world is uncertain and in transition, I feel the urge to hold them back as a personal security measure. I could take comfort in the fact that I will always be their mother and that the time will come again when they fly home to me. But that misses the point.

When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Luke 2:48-49

Like Mary with her Son, I need to remember who their real Father is. How quickly I forget and try to exert my rights over them as if they were my own! They belong to Him; of course they need to be about His business! They may be leaving my home, but they are merely spreading out into His.

When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman,here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
John 19:26-27

Releasing my children is not a denial of their significance to me. Rather, it is an affirmation of my faith in our Father—faith that He who started a good work in them will be faithful to complete it, and faith that He who is doing His needed work in me will hold me to the finish.

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Identity, Purpose, and a Reason to Get Up

IMG_0795“Name one thing worth getting out of bed for.” It was one of those rare mornings (for me, anyway) in which I just couldn’t summon the motivation to wake up.

Actually, this has been one of those unusual seasons in which the immediate is less pressing and the eternal has more space to come rushing in. I’m not generally happy with anything less than an overfull diary and the adrenaline-inducing challenge to clear hurdle after impossible hurdle, awakening each day with a sense of urgency to get up and accomplish some goal. But removing some of those roles on which I hang my sense of importance has allowed me to gaze deeper into the question of identity.

When I teach on identity formation, I begin by asking learners how they introduce themselves. Inevitably, the answers cluster around kinship and roles. A second glance at the surnames our ancestors adopted confirms this is not a new phenomenon: John-son and Jack-son, the Mac’s and the O’s (meaning descendant of), and our many occupational names like Smith, Hunter, Barber, and even Clark (derivative of clerk, variant of clergy).

I remember once being led through the helpful exercise of listing all the ways that I identify myself, the point, of course, being to guide me back to my relationship with God as the bedrock of my identity. While cognitively I found this concept very satisfying, it has really been in the times of losing or struggling in those roles and relationships that I have been compelled to clear away the rubble that obscures the ever-present bedrock of my identity.

What does it actually mean for my identity to be based on God? Is this simply a cliché way of stating that I am nothing apart from Him or that I find my worth in belonging to Him? While all that is beautifully true, it doesn’t actually give me a goal to pursue other than investing in our relationship (which is of central importance to who I am). But surely there is more to life than simply sitting alone with God, loving and being loved. Surely there is a role that this identity entails.

This is the story that I have been searching for. It begins with a man and a woman in a garden, commissioned to fill the earth with babies and plants. Of course that would take time and work, but their goal was clear and satisfying. And their role bore far greater significance than simply clocking in and out each day as gardeners and caretakers. They were functioning as priests in the garden-temple of God. Eden was His home on earth, the physical space where He came to meet with His people. Their work of filling, beautifying, and tending it was a sacred service to Him. They were His holy homemakers!

As the story too often goes, these original priests misallocated the temple resources, taking for themselves a portion that didn’t belong to them and disqualifying themselves from ministry in God’s presence. The garden temple was desecrated and decommissioned, but God didn’t abandon His plan to create a physical space where He could dwell with His people. If anything, their failure made way for a bigger, better floor plan.

The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 
The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him. 
From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. 
Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.

Genesis 12:1-9

Abraham’s call to the priesthood came without a temple already provided. But he still understood his role as a mediator of God’s blessing to the rest of creation. He set about filling the land that God led him through with altars and worship, calling on God’s Spirit to come and inhabit that place. And he was meant to extend the presence and blessing of God into that sacred space, representing God in the way he cared for his family, his flocks, and the many “neighbors” with whom he came in contact. Though at times he failed to protect his wife or speak truthfully to neighboring kings, for the most part Abraham used his privileged position with God to intervene on behalf of his oppressed and even wayward neighbors.

And this is where I begin to catch a vision for the role we are playing, too. Though I am far from finished with tracing the themes of priesthood and temple through the Bible (shoot—I haven’t even made it out of Genesis yet), I already glimpse the significance of the seemingly mundane tasks that fill my day. That stack of essays I need to read and respond to, that neighbor I need to call, that mess in the closet I need to sort out—all of this is part of the high calling God has placed on me. As one of His priests living in the earth He has chosen to fill with His Spirit, the daily work that I do of tending, beautifying, and blessing my immediate surroundings is a sacred service to Him.

What finally got my identity-questioning, vision-lacking self out of bed the other morning was His gentle response to my search for purpose.

“Do it for Me.”

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).