Dwelling Place

July 29, 2018

Series: July 2018

Category: Faith

Speaker: Bethany Nelson

Ephesians 3:14-21 - For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.  Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

A Dwelling Place

I want to start by sharing a joy from my family. My sister had a baby last week!  I have a new nephew named Cooper.  She also has a son, Austin, who will be 3 years old in a couple months.  I think the question that caused sleepless nights for both my sister and her husband throughout the pregnancy was, how will Austin respond to his new sibling?  Austin is a major creature of habit.  He loves his routines!  As an example, my dad was recently with Austin at the park, and one of the things Austin likes to do is play with an empty yogurt container in the water feature.  My dad handed Austin an empty yogurt container, but he would not use it.  The reason?  It was not a strawberry yogurt container.  Unbeknownst to my dad, Austin only plays with empty strawberry yogurt containers.

This is a boy of routine, and a new baby means routines are going to be massively interrupted. What will Austin do when the baby arrives?  Well, here are the pictures of Austin meeting his baby brother for the first time last Tuesday.  (He has big smiles, and is full of hugs and kisses.)

Now, time will tell how well the brothers will really get along, but what an initial welcome into the family. Hi little brother, I’m so happy you are here!  Welcome to the world!

I was thinking about these pictures as I read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In his letter, Paul prays that Christ may dwell in their hearts.  What a beautiful image that is, the idea that Christ dwells in our hearts.  I love the thought that Christ is dwelling in me.  That comforts and uplifts me.  However, I realize that I have a role in this as well.  Do I welcome Christ into the dwelling place of my heart?  Or do I fight him kicking and screaming?  This is where I return to the images of my two nephews.  Cooper is a part of the family now – there is no turning back.  But Austin had a choice of how to welcome his new brother.  He could have welcomed him with a temper tantrum, but instead he welcomed him with hugs and kisses. 

Do we welcome Christ into the dwelling place of our hearts with a temper tantrum, or with hugs and kisses? Presbyterian pastor Karen Chakoian describes it like this – “Having Christ dwell in our hearts is akin to having a new person move into your household.  If they’re just visiting, it is all rather easy; you simply offer hospitality or try to practice good manners.  But if someone moves in to stay, everything changes.  At first you might try to hold on to your familiar patterns and routines, and the new member may work hard to accommodate you and stay out of the way.  But eventually they make their mark.  Conversations change.  Relationships realign. Responsibilities shift.  So it is when Christ moves into the hearts of Christians.  This isn’t merely tweaking old patterns; everything changes.”[i]

So what does this look like, when Christ moves in? In the very same sentence, Paul gives us an idea of what it means for Christ to dwell in our hearts – as that dwelling happens, says Paul we are “being rooted and grounded in love.”  That, too, is a beautiful image. Think for a moment, what your life would look like if it truly was rooted and grounded in love.  That means it is not rooted and grounded in fear.  It is not rooted and grounded in hate.  Or in self-preservation, or in achievement, or in grief, or in shame.  Certainly all of those things are a part of life, but when we welcome Christ into the dwelling place of our hearts, our lives become rooted and grounded in love.  Love is at the center of our relationships.  Love is at the center of our decisions.  Love is at the center of our conversations.  Love is at the center of our actions. 

As I think back over the last few days, weeks, or months of my life, it becomes quickly clear to me that I have not necessarily been living as rooted and grounded in love as I would like. I have made decisions out of fear rather than love.  I have acted out of self-preservation in ways that have not been loving to others.  I have said things that have been more filled with hate than with love.  And this shows me that I have not yet made my heart the dwelling place for Christ that it could be.  I have not welcomed Christ into my heart in a way that truly roots and grounds my life in love.

I think of the first Harry Potter book, where it describes Harry living with his aunt and uncle – the Dursleys. They clearly aren’t happy about their nephew being a part of their household, and they certainly do not welcome him into their family.  Harry has to wear ill-fitting, hand-me-down clothes from their son, and work basically as their servant.  They lavish gifts on their son, but offer nothing to Harry.  And perhaps worst of all, his bedroom is a little cupboard under the stairs.  The Dursleys make no effort to welcome Harry.  They make no effort to change their lives or behaviors because of his presence with him.

And that is too bad. By not welcoming him, they miss out on the joy and love that Harry could have brought to their lives.  They miss out on the relationships that could have been formed.

I think that is one of the reasons Paul writes this prayer. He doesn’t want the Ephesians – or us – to miss out on living a life rooted and grounded in Christ’s love. He wants us to know the breadth, length, height, and depth of that love.  He wants us to be filled with all the fullness of God.  He has experienced the joy and the grace and the hope of Christ dwelling in his heart, and he wants the same for everyone else.

For me, making my heart a dwelling place for Christ has two pieces – first, the realization, recognition, and acceptance that Christ actually wants to dwell in me. In me!  In you!  In each one of us.  We are each chosen by God.

Author Anne Lamott shares a story in her book Traveling Mercies about going through a very difficult time in her life, and choosing to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.  She says she reached a point where she “could no longer imaging how God could love me.”

She then writes about a night following a particularly hard day when, she says, “I got in bed, shaky and sad and too wild to have another drink or take a sleeping pill. I had a cigarette and turned off the light.  After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner.  The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there – of course, there wasn’t.  But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus.  I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this … just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.

“This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition. But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in.  But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever.  So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my houseboat door when I entered or left.

“One week later, when I went back to church, the last song was so deep and raw and pure. I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in it bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling – and it washed over me. I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along at my heels, and I walked down the dock under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and I took a long deep breath and said out loud, ‘All right.  You can come in.’”[ii]

That is certainly one way to welcome Christ into our hearts and lives! I’m guessing not all of us have had quite that memorable of an experience, though some of you probably have.  But this experience of welcoming Christ in to dwell in our hearts is not just a one-time moment.  It is a process of recognizing and realizing that God loves us and wants to dwell in us just as we are.  Lamott writes about her continuing struggle to understand her belovedness.  A full three years after her conversion experience, on the morning of her baptism, she called her pastor and told him, “I really don’t think I’m ready because I’m not good enough yet.  Also, I am insane.  My heart is good, but my insides have gone bad.”  Her pastor then tells her, “You’re putting the cart before the horse!”[iii] 

Christ longs to dwell in our hearts not because we are good enough or have proven ourselves, but because we are God’s beloved children. This is such good news, it is difficult to comprehend.  Paul acknowledges that as he prays for us to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge – he wants us to know the unknowable.  The love of Christ is beyond our knowing and understanding.  We are simply called to accept and receive that love which we can never fully know.

The second piece of making my heart a dwelling place for Christ is allowing myself to be changed by his love. Christ is not a visitor in my life, but a permanent resident.  This is hard work, and certainly not instantaneous.  It took Lamott two years following her conversion experience to learn to love herself enough to make the effort to get sober.  I like to think I have been welcoming Christ into my heart my entire life, and still I struggle to remain rooted and grounded in love.  It is not easy to see our lives changed by Christ.  Sometimes we really want to relegate him to the cupboard under the stairs.  But here we can draw inspiration from the Psalmist who reminds us, “God upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.  God is kind in all the God’s doings.  God is near to all who call.”  May we make our hearts a dwelling place for Christ and live rooted and grounded in love.  And when we stumble, God will uphold us.

Another Presbyterian pastor, Tom Are, tells a story from his high school years. He says, “I was driving home from my part-time job selling shoes at a local mall.  It was spitting rain, as it had all day.  The way home required a ten-minute trip on the interstate.  As quickly as these things always happen, two cars in front of me collided, resulting in a collection of swerving and braking, and a few horns honking.  I ended up number three in a four-car pileup that brought the interstate to a halt.  Thankfully, no one was hurt.  Soon we were surrounded by flashing blue lights and officers with notepads.  These were the days before cell phones, so I asked a police officer if I could walk down the exit ramp to a gas station and call my mother.  I walked to the gas station and put a dime in the pay phone.  She answered.

“’Mom,’ I said. That is all I said.  I do not know how moms can tell, but with no more than one word, they can tell that trouble has come.  She said, ‘Tell me where you are; I will be right there.’ I do not know what I expected her to say.  Perhaps she would tell me to be more careful.  Perhaps she would remind me of what was going to happen to my auto insurance.  Perhaps she would rehearse how the weather conditions meant that I should have been driving more carefully.  But it was not time for those conversations.  She simply said, ‘Tell me where you are; I will be right there.’”[iv]  God upholds all who are falling.  God is near to all who call.

One of our tried and true church songs for kids is “Jesus Loves Me.” “Jesus loves me, this I know.”  Do you know it?  Do you know the breadth, length, height, and depth of Christ’s love?  Do you know that when you call, God will be right there?  According to Paul, this kind of love surpasses knowledge.  But, whether or not we understand this amazing, radical love, let us welcome Christ into the dwelling place of our hearts, and let us lead lives that are rooted and grounded in love. 

 [i] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, pg. 280.

[ii] Traveling Mercies, pg. 42, 49-50.

[iii] Ibid, 52.

[iv] Feasting on the Word, pg. 275-276.