Tag Archives: incarnation

Closer than You Think

Jesus_ascending_to_heavenWhere is God right now, anyway?

The atheist laughs at the question; the agnostic shrugs it off as irrelevant; but the struggling Christian grasps for an answer.

Her cries of “Forsaken?!” erupt from experiences that seem to deny the presence of a loving, protecting God.

His cries of “Abandoned?!” flow from deep disappointment over the ways God has not responded to prayer, has not intervened in a seriously messed-up situation.

Does God even hear? Is heaven so far away that it takes an earthquake or a massacre to get His attention?

Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O LORD. …For you are their glory and strength, and by your favor you exalt our horn.

How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all men! …O Lord, where is your former great love?
Psalm 89:15-17, 46-49

The Psalms seem to resonate with schizophrenic prayers of people grappling with messy earthly realities in the face of a pristinely perfect heaven. At one moment they can celebrate and affirm the tangible, even visible presence of God on earth, intervening and making things right. But the next verse over, they are calling out in disillusionment, feeling like God has slammed the gates of heaven and no longer hears or cares.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55:9

Sometimes the gap between heaven and earth seems infinite.

But is it really?

The great wonder of Christ’s incarnation was that, for a season, heaven came to earth. What a great relief to actually get to see God walking around with hands and feet, facial expressions and audible words! No more of this guess work, trying to figure out where God is and what He is doing—the woman about to be stoned heard Him absolve her, the father of a dead child saw Him bring her back.

Sometimes the gap between heaven
and earth seems insurmountable.

But what about when those painfully short years ended? When Christ ascended from the earth and sat down at the right hand of the Father, did the doors of heaven shut behind Him?

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
Acts 1:8-9

Thankfully not. Jesus blazed a path between the two realms, transversing the short distance with His physical body in tow. Rather than ditch it on the way up, he took a bit of earth along with Him as a keepsake from His visit, a memento of His return. And He left with the promise that He would soon send a bit of heaven down to earth.

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 thankfully, Jesus didn’t keep us waiting too long. A little over a week later He made good on His promise. A package arrived from heaven, not in the tiny, earthy form of another baby, but rather resembling the sort of phenomenon we would expect when a heavenly Being lands on earth: violent winds swooping from heaven, eerie flames dancing overhead, and gloriously strange manifestations in those with whom it came in contact.

Glimpses of heaven are all around us.

As inspiring as it is to rehearse these 2,000 year-old stories, it can still feel like heaven is impossibly far away. Why don’t we get to chat with angels reassuring us that Jesus will come back the same way He left? Why can’t we see the Spirit flame spreading and alighting around us as we trudge through days of frustrated labor and nights of unconsoled tears?

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Matt. 28:18-20

But if we take off our “It is only real if I can see it” glasses, glimpses of heaven are all around us. Each time the fruit of the Spirit manifests itself in us, God has broken through. Love? Peace? Patience? I know those aren’t native to my fleshly self. Repentance? Faith? Transformation? I witness the miracle of His powerful intervention in the most unexpected situations. And then of course there are those jaw-dropping evidences of God at work in the world when justice is served, when healing happens, when captives are set free.

…I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know–God knows. And I know that this man–whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows– was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.
2 Corinthians 12:1-4

Through all that, I am learning to see the very present interface between the heavenly realm and the earthly one, the one existing just above the other with constant interaction between the two. As a friend of mine recently said, it is as if a veil hangs over us, hiding the heavenly realm from our earthly eyes. Sometimes that veil gets momentarily lifted, like when Stephen was granted a glimpse of glory just before his death or when the apostles and prophets were shown the heavenly realities going on behind earthly events. And to be honest there have been times in my own life when the veil has been particularly thin or even, for a brief but breathtaking second, lifted.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. …Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.
1 Corinthians 13:1, 9-12

More often than not, though, heaven remains an invisible reality, perceived only through eyes of faith. I cherish those memories of when it has been less so, replaying them in my mind when my faith wavers and my current struggles cause them to grow dim. I actively pursue the fruit of God’s Spirit and the great commission through which He is bringing heaven down to earth. And I long for the day when the clouds will roll back, allowing us to gaze with unveiled faces on the heavenly reality we have been participating in all along.

It’s a lot closer than we think.

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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).

Fleshy Theology

"Christ Child" St. Martins-in-the-Fields Trafalgar Square, London
“Christ Child”
St. Martins-in-the-Fields
Trafalgar Square, London
What’s the point of having a body?

As a college student, I remember finding my body an inconvenient obstruction to being in all the places I wanted to be at the same time. I had a hard time accepting that it wouldn’t allow me to work through the hours of the night and then stay awake in class the next day. Somehow physical limitations didn’t register as a valid reason to lower my ambitions. After all, wasn’t my body simply a temporary vehicle for my soul?

Years of motherhood, physical challenges, and the inevitable experience of aging have forced me to listen to my body (at least with one ear). But only recently have I encountered a compelling argument for why I should value it.

Sitting in an N.T. Wright lecture a few weeks ago, I was introduced to an entirely new perspective (no pun intended) on the physical realm. Far from being the messed-up, spiritually devoid location where our souls are temporarily housed as they await their true home in heaven, Tom Wright challenged me to think of the earth and everything in it as an integral, ongoing part of God’s redemptive plan. The imagery of a delighted God walking through His garden in Eden and the promise of new creation have sparked my imagination to see how infused this physical earth is with the presence of God. What’s more, taking seriously the fact that God manifested His glorious image in fleshy, human bodies has caused me to reconsider my former assumptions about the significance of my own body.

Is it merely a temporary shelter to be minimally maintained? Is it a side-point to my spirituality, a distracting, limiting necessity along my journey to Christ-likeness, or is it, in fact, an integral part of my being re-created in and conformed to His image?

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ…
Colossians 1:15; 2:9–10

I suppose the starting point in answering these questions is to consider the significance of Christ’s body. It was the dwelling place of God, the physical space where God’s Spirit was located. But more than that, it was the visible manifestation of the invisible God. Looking at the face of Jesus was the same as looking at the face of God.

Looking at the face of Jesus was the same as looking at the face of God.

I admit I have to take a moment to let that sink in. I am accustomed to conceptualizing this in a spiritual sense but missing its physical reality. But if I have no trouble believing that God really was born of a woman and took a fleshly form, why do I get hung up on thinking of Jesus as a physical replica of God? Perhaps this is where I get caught with my dualist, Neoplatonic slip showing. Has my Western worldview really kept me from appreciating the full meaning of Christ’s incarnation?

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay…We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:6–10

And yet there it is. Not only is Christ’s body a physical manifestation of God’s image—mine is too! My body is a visible representation of God, the eating, sleeping, moving, breathing, touching, seeing image of its Creator. But more than that, it has become a sacred space in which His Spirit lives. The eyes that I would prefer to be bluer and the wrinkles that are setting in despite my best effort are part of a face that is being transformed to look more and more like His.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
2 Corinthians 4:16

True, the image I see in the mirror is a far cry from the Original. Ugly expressions, dark circles, and sagging cells betray the fact that this face has been cursed. But there is hope! My body is going through the same process that Jesus’ body did. I can see its weakness, decay and eventual death setting in, but at the same time I experience a renewing force bringing light to my eyes and a smile to my lips. I treasure the fact that my mortal body is the place where Jesus’ life is being currently revealed. Better than that, I look forward to the day when this very body will be raised up from the dead, a new improved version of the same old me.

Our faces are being transformed to look more and more like His.

It may sound silly, but I think that is the beginnings of a theology of beauty, a little extra motivation to care for my body and make it as true an image of its glorious Lord as is possible this side of the new creation.

Godly makeup. Fleshy theology.

Renovating Fatherhood

“I can’t call Him Father.”

God entrusts His image to frail human fathers.

I looked across the table at the emaciated young woman whose life had been destroyed by the double whammy of a manipulative, molesting father and a violent, abusive husband. For as far back as she could remember, the men in her life had treated her with anger and contempt, violence and disapproval. As I listened to her story, I marveled at the fact that she could still relate to God at all. After years of having Him so misrepresented to her by her father and her bridegroom, how did she now conceptualize Him?

“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
Matthew 7:9-11

The Scriptures tell all kinds of stories about messy human fathers. Adam blew it. Noah got drunk and made a fool of himself. Abraham sent his son away empty-handed; Isaac got his kids mixed up; Jacob played favorites. Judah broke his promises. Eli spoiled his boys. Samuel did more with other people’s kids than his own. Saul was violent and verbally abusive. David was negligent and aloof. But the Scriptures also tell the story of the perfect Father whom human fathers were designed to represent.

Then the LORD came down in the cloud … And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
Exodus 34:5-7

It amazes me that God would entrust His image to frail human fathers. No wonder He constantly has to come in behind them and set the record straight. When He explained to Moses what He was really like, He emphasized how much He loves all of His children, explaining that He prefers to treat them with grace and compassion, not anger and retribution. That being said, He also sets clear expectations for them, standards which He lovingly but firmly enforces.

…who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, … who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed…
He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
Psalm 103:3-5, 9-14

Despite his shortcomings in demonstrating the Father’s love to his own children, David did an excellent job of describing it. Fixing our problems and satisfying our desires, this Father takes great delight in caring for His children. He doesn’t look down on us for our limitations or resent us for our neediness. He understands our genetic disposition and our emotional hardwiring, because He designed us that way. Rather than hold our weaknesses against us in anger, He compensates for them with His love.

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. … Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.
John 14:8-10

Jesus took up the role of showing us what the Father is really like. His actions and His words perfectly reflected the heart of the Father. Welcoming the prodigal. Forgiving the delinquent. Challenging the self-satisfied. Empowering the weak through the gift of His Spirit. His Fatherly love does not lower His standards for His children; it compels Him to stoop down, take us by the hand, and help us up to meet them.

…go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. …your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
Matthew 6:6, 8, 26

But it wasn’t enough to Jesus to merely mediate an accurate picture of the Father. He repeatedly prompted people to go directly to His Father and relate to Him as their own. Turn to Him. Talk to Him. Ask Him for anything. He’s already tuned in to you. He values you. He anticipates your needs. He delights in giving you good things. That’s the kind of Father He is. That’s the kind of Father He wants to be to you.

Our heavenly Father throws open His arms to His kids in a gesture of delighting, nurturing, all-consuming love.

For better or for worse, our experience of our human fathers informs our perception of our heavenly Father. Some of us have been blessed with fathers who beautifully portray the heart of God, enabling us to tangibly experience His unconditional love. Others of us have had our picture of God horribly distorted, wrinkled, twisted, or shredded by frail mortals who conveyed a very different message about who we are to the Father.

But despite the strength or weakness of the messenger, the message stays the same. God throws open His arms to us with a delighting, nurturing, all-consuming love.

And we get to call Him Father.

The Gain in Pain

“What is the benefit of my having this cancer?” My mother voices the question we have both been struggling with over the past few days together. I look over at her weak, post-operative body and wonder why she has to go through this. What is being accomplished through her pain? Where is the value in her suffering, or for that matter, in the suffering of the abused, the poor, the sick, or the relationally miserable?

Suffering deepens our bonds with God and with each other.

When I consider the suffering of the young concubine who was tossed out the door by her cowardly husband, gang-raped to death by a violent mob, and then carved up and distributed to the twelve tribes of Israel, I want to shake my head in disgust over such horrific, unnecessary suffering. What was the point of her going through all that? And yet God’s response to her suffering compels me to take a second look at its significance.

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed.
And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”
Luke 22:7, 15-16

Jesus entered into her experience. Hundreds of years later He completed her story, walking through the same experiences of rejection, betrayal, physical and sexual abuse, and brutal, unjust death. But the night before He was slaughtered as the Passover Lamb, He explained the significance of His own death with a ritual that re-enacted hers.

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” …
“You are those who have stood by me in my trials.”
Luke 22:19-20, 28

Body broken into pieces and distributed to the twelve. Blood poured out in the place of others’. A solemn charge to remember His sufferings. A sacred call to walk with Him through them.

Jesus communed with that unloved woman by sharing in her suffering. In turn, He invites us to commune with Him by sharing in His sufferings.

For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
1 Corinthians 11:26
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings…
Philippians 3:10

Each time we eat the bread and drink the cup, we relive His experience, and in so doing we enter into deeper relationship with Him. Each time we ourselves suffer, we are afforded the opportunity to walk a mile in His shoes, to be further bonded to Him through shared experience.

For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.
And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.
2 Corinthians 1:5, 7

Temptation. Exhaustion. Loneliness. Rejection. Physical pain. Emotional distress. Each time we experience these, another layer is pulled back in our understanding of Jesus, in our ability to truly know Him. And as His sufferings overflow into our lives, so does the comfort of increasing intimacy with Him. We share in His sufferings and He communes with us in ours. But the cycle of fellowship doesn’t stop there.

Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.
Colossians 1:24

Our suffering becomes a bridge that spans time and space, connecting Jesus’ past ordeals with others’ current misery. As we live out His experiences, we incarnate Him before the people around us. Through us they witness His sufferings on their behalf, and through us they receive His comforting love. And in the process we bond with each other in a deep, meaningful relationship, one that we will share with Him and each other for eternity.

So as I watch my mother hunched in pain, as I witness the scars on her body, I see a bitter-sweet story playing out in front of me. Pain leading to comfort. Agony leading to glory. Her suffering is connecting her to Christ. His suffering is being completed through her. This doesn’t downplay her struggle or alleviate her pain, but it does infuse it with a profound significance. Her suffering is allowing her to participate in the divine, to be brought into perfect unity with God. Sacred suffering. Holy communion.