Longing for family, groaning for home

It seems only fitting to end this year thinking about longing. Advent season is dedicated to intentional longing, cultivating disciplines that bend our hearts toward the longing we feel for the world to be made right rather than trying to ignore it. I have longed for many things this year, but as Christmas approaches, I find myself longing for family and longing for home. 

For my two-year-old daughters, family and home are the center of their universe. This year has afforded us more family time than we ever imagined, but because of this I have been able to hear them articulate their beliefs about home again and again. We have a small room that serves as our work from home office, and my husband and I take turns working while the other watches the girls. Without fail, when my husband or I open the door to come out of the office the excitedly say, “Daddy’s home!” as if Daddy had been away for hours. The same goes for when I get up in the morning after Andrew has been up with them for an hour, “Mommy’s home!”, or when Andrew joins us at the park after we have been playing for a while, “Daddy’s home!” For them, home is not our house; home is where we are all together. It doesn’t matter if it is the park or the brewery where we ride scooters or just in our living room when someone has been in the bedroom. Home happens when the four of us are together. 

But they also exist in their world creating family systems. When we see a woman and a child, they immediately say “Mommy! And baby!” While this might not seem unusual, they also designate parent-child relationships to people walking their dogs, “Doggie! And Daddy!” Anyone with a noticeable age-gap is designated the parent and child, any man and woman together are Daddy and Mommy. They make sense of the world by assigning family relationships, even more than that, they understand that family relationships create a baseline of identity. Family is central to who we are and they see that only a couple years into life. 

For them, and for most of us, home and family will always be connected in ways we love and probably in some ways that are difficult. But this year, as we approach Christmas, a holiday season that exalts being home with family, these foundations of identity feel shaky. Even those who are able to be with some of their family members, probably have many others who will be particularly lonely and isolated after an already brutal year. But for the Christian, family and home extend beyond our earthly nuclear family and our home is not found in a place, but in a person. 

Groaning for our eternal home

Our girls envision home as any place that they are. And theologically this isn’t untrue. As people in Christ, our home is not a place, a building or house, it is in Christ—wherever we are. But at the same time, here, wherever we are today, is not our forever home; we have an eternal home with Christ. Scripture teaches us that as we wait and live in a world that is marred by sin, we should both pray for the in-breaking kingdom of God to come, but we are also invited to simply groan. In Romans 8 Paul says, 

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. -Romans 8:22-26

We are not told that we must simply be joyful or pretend to enjoy this hard time, we are invited to groan.

The year after I graduated from college, I moved in with a girl I didn’t know who quickly became a close friend. One Friday night we found ourselves lying in the hallway of our apartment crying because our life was so hard. It was, at the time, but remembering that night always makes me smile. I had no idea what the Lord was doing while I was groaning on the floor with Maggie. We were lonely and wondering how to navigate life post-grad, but the Lord was at work. Groaning sounds a bit pitiable, but sometimes words fail, and all we can do is sigh loudly. And scripture teaches us that this is okay, good even. Paul says that all of creation groans as if it were in the pains of childbirth. There is the hope and signs of new life coming, and yet our present experience is painful. All of creation has been groaning until now, so as we lament sin and suffering, we find ourselves in good company, groaning with the very fibers of creations, every saint that had come before us, longing for earth to be renewed. We are not told that we must simply be joyful or pretend to enjoy this hard time, we are invited to groan. 

But more than that, the Spirit joins us in our groaning, a godly affirmation that it is ok to feel overwhelmed, distraught, sorrowful. When we don’t know how to pray or what to even ask for, God himself intercedes for us. God joins us in our pain, hearing our sighs and knowing our hearts and minds perfectly. In our groaning we have this promise; God meets us in our pain and prays for us, groaning with us in ways that we can’t even comprehend, bringing our requests to the Father who delights to provide for his children. He doesn’t leave us alone to fend for ourselves, he comes to commune with us, to dwell with us, to know our sorrow and suffering, and to promise in the pits of dispair that he will one day make all things new. 

The family of God

Though my daughters already understand the centrality of family, they have yet to understand the power of the family of God. Almost two years ago, they were baptized at our church, adopted into a covenant family. Though they could not take vows, everyone else did; Andrew and I promised to raise them to know and experience the love of God, and our church family promised to support us, to teach and encourage them, and to become their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters in Christ. My daughters see family everywhere, but they do not yet understand the power of the family to which the belong. 

Jesus, when told his mother and brothers were nearby, replied “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Then he pointed to his disciples and 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” (Mt 12:48-50). Jesus was telling us that the ones who believe in and follow Him are his brothers and sisters, co-heirs with Him and adopted sons and daughters of God. Nuclear family typically refers to parents and their children, the core of each family unit. But if we are in Christ, he becomes our nucleus, the center of our lives, the core of our beings, and the building block of our new family. But even more than that, we become members of his very body. He is our head, and all who believe in him are his body, all members of a single unit, closer even than our natural born family. 

In this season of being far from parents and siblings who we might typically spend Christmas with, we must remember that our family is much larger than we think—we belong to the family of God. When Paul is imprisoned in Rome, he writes a letter to his friends of the Philippian church. In the first sentences he exclaims that he thanks God with joy every time he remembers them because of their partnership with him in the gospel. Everytime Paul thinks about his family in Christ, he is filled with joy. But Paul isn’t spending time with his church family each week, he is isolated, alone in a prison cell awaiting potential execution. And yet, he rejoices. His letter is all about rejoicing and contentment because of the fellowship he enjoys—fellowship with other believers and fellowship with Christ. 

This year, if you find yourself missing family and home, remember Paul and press into the truths that your family in Christ rejoices in and remembers you, an important member of the body. You are not forgotten. Your home in Christ and your eternal home is in heaven, towards which we groan. This year, if you find yourself longing for family and longing for home, remember that the family of God is praying with you and for you, groaning with you as you groan, and that our God draws near to the broken-hearted, feels our pain with us, bears our burdens for us, and gives us the most important thing we can have in challenging times: his promise. This year, hold fast to the promises of God. 

Zoom calls and identity exposure

Theology for the Pandemic

Though Zoom has become a necessary evil during the pandemic, it has also provided an unsolicited view into one’s home life. Perhaps you take the Zoom mullet approach– business on top and party (pajamas) on bottom like my husband, or you embrace jumping on a video call after a lunchtime run (not me), Zoom has created a virtual gateway from your work life into your home life. 

While the videos of little kids crashing their dad’s meeting are entertaining, they are also exposing. I feel exposed when I have two kids fighting over who gets to wear the box on their head outside of my office door. I feel exposed when their antics reveal my impatience and lack of graciousness. We tend to keep certain parts of ourselves tucked away, hidden from the view of our coworkers, friends, even a spouse. But now, a portal into your real self has been opened and everyone is peeking through. We find ourselves exposed; you are not always who you present yourself to be. A dual identity, no matter how slight, has emerged, and maybe you aren’t quite who you thought you were. 

If you are a Christian, you have probably felt this tension before. Being a Christian affords a unique kind of identity paradox, a particular kind of exposure. I claim to be a saint, a new creation, holy, imitator of God. And yet, at the same time, neatly disguised, I am sinful, selfish, unloving, driven by desires, hard-hearted. The paradoxical identity of wholly redeemed crashes against the rocks of sinner-in-need-of-grace every single day. Who am I to call myself holy when I sin? Who am I to declare myself accepted by God? Am I really who God says I am? 

Paul presents and explores the Christian identity in Romans 6 and says some drastic things about who we are. We are dead to sin (11). Our old self was crucified and we walk in newness of life (6). We are no longer slaves to sin but have been set free to be slaves to righteousness (16). We live in obedience to God from the heart (17). 

Is this how you describe yourself? After teaching Romans to college students a few times, the response I heard most was, absolutely not. I think most of us vacillate between overconfidence in our holiness and self-condemnation in our sin. But Romans is a direct challenge to this kind of living, an ode to the depths of Christ’s righteousness and grace that supersedes all else. It is here, in the righteousness of Jesus, that we must understand our identity.

Changing the Zoom background. One of the strange things we do on Zoom is to change the background. I’ve met with people in massive libraries, on sunny beaches, even in Times Square. Changing the background is the easiest way to pretend we are somewhere or someone we are not, but in Christ, we don’t have to. Romans 6 (and 7 and 8) are all about our relationship with Jesus (union with Christ) and how this relationship allows us to stop pretending.  

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. – Romans 6:3-5, 8, 11 (emphasis added)

Christians don’t need to pretend to be righteous because our righteousness comes from our union with Christ. Union with Christ means that we participate in Jesus’ death by dying to our sin, and are resurrected–made alive– to God in Christ Jesus. In Christ, we are presented before the Father as accepted, forgiven, and righteous children of God. Union is a legal status change that allows us to be adopted as children of God because of Christ. 

Paul goes on in chapter 7 to compare the death of our sin and new life in Christ to a woman whose husband died (sin) and she married a new person (Jesus and his righteousness). She was once legally bound to sin, but now she is now freed from that relationship and legally united to Christ. The illustration of marriage also reminds us that marriage is not dependent upon the bride’s perfection, only her willingness to love her husband (Jesus) and to remain in their union. If you ask my husband if I am perfect in our marriage, he will laugh and say no. But perfection is not the groundwork of Biblical marriage–covenant is. A promise between husband and wife to be faithful and to love one another. It is founded on promise and grace, and this is the relationship we enter into with Jesus.

Seeing the whole picture, embracing imperfection. On the other side of being exposed is finding out you are loved in the midst of imperfection and mess. Though exposure is uncomfortable, it forces us to develop an integrated view of ourselves–the view that God already has of us. Romans 8 tells us that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. John reiterates the same concept when he says in 1 John 3:20, “For whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.” There is no condemnation for those who abide in Christ’s righteousness, and when we feel condemned by our hearts, God is greater than that feeling. God knows us perfectly and sees everything. He sees the impatience and anger and greed in my heart, and he still loves me. He remains faithful to his covenant with me. 

It is in this reality that we are freed to embrace the paradoxical identity of being both sinful and righteous. We don’t have to pretend we are one or the other. We don’t have to hide our sin or put on false righteousness. Our sin and our righteousness are not opposing forces, we are both. I am both righteous on the basis of Christ as I am united to Him, and I am sinful as an imperfect human. And as I live in this relationship day by day, he promises grace and forgiveness, but also that he himself will undertake my sanctification. Our gracious Savior provides everything we need to be reconciled to God and to grow into people who look more like him. So the next time you feel like a fraud, exposed, or like your sin defines you, remember that your identity is not founded on your actions; it is rooted in the righteousness of Christ and his grace is without end.