Swimming with the Spirit

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We are told that the Holy Spirit is in us.
Holy Spirit
We are told that He is transforming us into Christ’s likeness, into who we were created to be from the beginning.
If we cannot do this work, then how does this renewal come about?
If we are saved by the blood of Jesus, before the metamorphosis takes place, how do we become like Christ once we have accepted God’s saving grace?
become like Christ
Do we sit back and let the Holy Spirit do all the work in us? Do we have to take it all upon ourselves and make our own selves into someone worthy of God?
A bit of both, actually. The first alone makes a mockery of the cross. The second alone makes an idol of our own selves.
Christianity is hard and requires constant work and watchfulness, but we do not have to walk this path on our own.
walk with Jesus
walk with the Spirit
Paul tells the Colossians, May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy.
The word for ‘according to’ in the original Greek is the word we would use for something going down stream – according to the current of the river. The current carries the swimmer along with it. He or she has to swim too, of course, but with the help of the current the swimmer can go further and faster, and with less effort, than by his or her own power. And so it is when our weakness swims in the stream of God’s almighty power. ~ N.T. Wright in Small Faith-Great God
swimming
God's current
This is well-illustrated by a story that John tells in his gospel. After the resurrection, the disciples (not knowing what in the world else to do) went fishing. Keep in mind that John uses light and dark, night and day as a way to express truth.
John says that the disciples went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach…
fishing with the Spirit
Jesus tells the disciples to put their nets out on the other side of the boat and immediately their nets are filled to the breaking point.
Do you see it?
that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach…
…and we can feel instantly, behind those simple words, the whole weight of the knowledge that the church in the person of Jesus, has come through the night of condemnation and impossibility into a spring morning of joy and hope. Then, of course, the whole scene comes to life. What the disciples had been unable to do without Jesus they can do easily and highly effectively at his bidding. ~ N.T. Wright Small Faith-Great God
And so it is with us. We must obey, but what we are unable to do without Jesus we can do easily and effectively at His bidding. We must go through the motions, but with the Spirit inside of us we can progress further and faster, and with less effort than by our own power.
So swim with the Spirit. Swim in the current of God’s almighty power.

Holy Spirit

God's grace

See what beautiful things He makes of your life.
See how wonderfully He transforms you into His likeness.

Art credits: photo of Holy Spirit dove and photos of the rivers by Kirk Sewell; Road to Emmaus by Robert Zund; Risen Christ by David Teniers the Younger

links to N.T. Wright’s book, Small Faith-Great God, are Amazon affiliate links. Purchases through these links allows you to help support this blog through no added cost to you. Thank you.

How to Seek God’s Will

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I have to give my two year old a lot of specific instructions throughout her day.
Two year old
I have to tell her which arm to put in which arm hole, how to get a blanket pulled over her legs, where each toy should go when cleaning up.
Needs lots of help
And she’s two, so I’m okay with this.
My seven year old, however, I expect to have a general idea of what I want from her.

Seven year old

More independent
I would feel disappointed if I had to give her as many minute directions as I do her younger sister. As my eldest matures and as our own relationship grows, one of my hopes is for her to know me well enough to know what I want from her without me having to detail it out.
Age gap
Help each other
I have spent much of my life wanting to know God’s will for me.
Seeking God's will
I wanted to know what college to attend, which career I should pursue, whom I should date, whom I should marry. Much of my relationship with God was consumed with begging Him to tell me what He wanted me to do.
I told myself that I was seeking God’s will in order to please Him and bring Him glory, but in truth I wanted to know His will in order to protect myself. I wanted to be sure that I would be successful, that I wouldn’t make any mistakes that would cause me lasting pain.
I am learning.
I am learning that God’s relationship with me is much like my relationships with my daughters. The more I know God, the more our relationship grows and the less He has to direct my every move.
Only asking God to tell me about His will does not constitute a growing relationship. That amounts to not much more than a dictatorship.
When I am with my husband, I don’t want either of us to order the other about. I want us to understand each other deeply so that orders are not necessary.
And so it is in our union with God, a person both loving and beloved. He does not delight in having to always explain what His will is; He enjoys it when we understand and act upon His will. Our highest calling and opportunity in life is to love Him with all our being. ~ Dallas Willard in Hearing God
In recent years, rather than seeking God’s will for my life, I’ve spent my time seeking God.
I seek to know Him, to understand Him, to love Him more. In that loving, I trust that He will let me know if there is something specific I need to hear. I trust His Spirit in me to guide me when either I am beginning to head in the wrong direction or there is a specific thing He wants me to do.
And He does. He fulfills that trust.
I have a long way to go. I have not yet grown to the point of having an easy, conversational relationship with God throughout every day. But I want that. Oh, how I long for that kind of relationship with the One I love.
Rather than praying “God, help me to know Your will so that I can do what you want me to do”, my new prayer is “God, help me to know You more so that I can love you more.”
Seeking God
That is a prayer I believe He delights in answering.
And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will cast you off forever. I Chronicles 28.9

edited from the archives: the daughters mentioned in this post are now four and nine. Time, slow down! Just a bit.

The Mystery of Prayer

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So much of this kingdom-living life is mystifying.
We are given a magnificent vision of being made priests and kings. We are told to go out into the world and live in a way that brings God’s rule to earth and creation’s praise to heaven.
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So much of the time we wander around, having no earthly idea what to do.
Yet here we are.
This is our mission whether or not we understand it completely.
This is our goal whether or not we can perceive the next step.
This is our purpose and we may not set it aside every time we fail to discern the way forward.
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Part of the answer to finding our way is in prayer.
Prayer itself is a mystery, however central to our lives as Christ followers. Perhaps it wouldn’t be prayer without also being a mystery.
Yet it is a mystery we can, in our own fumbling way, find the shape of. This mystery of prayer has the shape of heaven and earth joining together in Jesus and our sharing in that joining through the Spirit.
The very act of prayer says that we stand in the space between heaven and earth. Prayer says that, in some mysterious way, we are called to stand for God on earth and to stand for creation in heaven.
But again the very practice of prayer, before we even begin to think about the content, says in and of itself: we are people who live at the interface between God’s world and the life of this present world. We are people who belong in that uncomfortable borderland. We are called to stay at this post even when we have no idea what’s actually going on. ~ N.T. Wright, After You Believe
Remaining at our post even when we have no idea what’s actually going on takes humility and patience. It takes faith and hope. It takes the living out of virtue, as I discussed recently.
Yet doing this, remaining at our post, continuing to pray even when you don’t understand how any of it works or what on earth you are supposed to say, trains our hearts.
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Even if we gain no clarity at all, our hearts are being trained in humility and patience, in faith and hope.
Prayer changes us. It is a piece of what transforms us into the people God created us to be.
Prayer is one of the disciplines which, when practiced regularly both in public and in private, builds our character, habit by habit and virtue by virtue, into the royal priesthood through which God will restore the world.
But it means that we come to prayer knowing that we’re to reinforce the heart habits that make us, by second nature, who we are. And we rise from prayer with the heart formed that bit more securely in its settled second nature of trust and obedience. ~ N.T. Wright, After You Believe

 

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How We Can Live the Kingdom of God Right Now

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The in-between is hard.
This time and space between our first step towards Jesus and coming face-to-face with Him is difficult and often confusing.
Following Jesus
Do we buckle down and learn to follow all the rules?
Do we throw rule-following to the wind and learn to live authentically?
Following Jesus
How in the world, how in this very world, are we supposed to live out this God life?
Jesus speaks often of the Kingdom of God. It is coming, it is near, it is breaking through.
The Kingdom of God is His rule, His will being done here on earth as it is in heaven.
He taught us to pray for this to happen.
Now.
Praying for the Kingdom of God
Paul speaks of living now as though we were already perfected. One habit leads to another which leads to another which suddenly leads to hope and love breaking through into our world.
Perhaps it is a little of both the rule-following and the living authentically.
When we try to obey God’s beautiful law, His law which shows us how life works best, we slowly become the sort of person who naturally and authentically follows after God.
It takes work, it takes choice by painful choice to build these habits, but the more work you put in, the more natural it becomes.
Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. ~ C. S. Lewis
Living in the Kingdom of God
It is as though we are planning to move to a distant country and are trying to learn the language of that country before we go. It takes work to learn a language, but the more we work at it and the longer we practice, the more that language becomes a part of us.
After awhile, we begin to think in this new language; even, perhaps, to dream in it. If we work steadily on, when we finally move to our new home we may even be mistaken for a native.
Isn’t that our ultimate goal, our telos? To be mistaken for a native of the Kingdom of God?
Suddenly, after years of following the rules, we find that the character of Jesus is becoming authentically our own character. When we do the work, with the power of the Holy Spirit inside of us, we find that love and peace and patience are becoming our natural response.
We also find that as we become more like a native of God’s Kingdom, we are bringing pieces of God’s Kingdom to rest all around us.
We are doing the work that allows God’s Kingdom to break through to our homes, to our workplaces, to our churches, to our relationships.
And so we find that at the same moment we have been praying Christ’s prayer of Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, the Spirit has been working within our very selves to transform us into the answer to that prayer.
God’s ways are as beautiful as they are mysterious.
It is an astounding idea that He would allow a partnership between these frail jars of clay and the Holy Spirit’s death-defeating power.
Yet He does allow it, even command it.
Through us, through our weak and cracked selves, the Kingdom of God is breaking through to heal and restore our broken world.
Let us continue our labor to obey God’s law, to choose His habits, to learn His language,
so that one day we might be mistaken for a native of His kingdom.

The Eighth Day

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It is finished.
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A cry in which is heard echoes from the beginning of time.
The cry of God on the cross is the same cry proclaimed at the end of creation.
The finished work of the old creation pushes toward the finished work of the new.
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John crafts his gospel with great care, word by word putting the story together.
How does he begin? In the beginning. A bold start, echoing the start of all things.
He weaves his signs of God’s glory throughout. Seven signs, of course.
On the sixth day, on a Friday, Pilate declares Behold the man.
The culmination of creation, the culmination of God’s created glory.
On the sixth day, on a Friday, God declared that it was finished.
On the seventh day, on a Saturday, on the Sabbath, God rested.
He rested from His work. He rested in the heavens and He rested in the tomb.
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And then?
What happens after the Sabbath?
On the first day of the week…early, while it was still dark…
The new creation begins.
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Just as new creation followed the original seventh day of rest, so does new creation follow God’s day of rest after the cross.
New creation on this earth, heaven breaking in to the old to bring God’s kingdom here and now.
God’s kingdom come, His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
It is the eighth day once again.
Rejoice and get to work.

Art credits: all photography is copyright Made Sacred 2017

The Theory of Life that Brings Value to our Suffering

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Where in the world but in Christianity?
Where in the world could you find a premise about life that ekes value out of suffering?
Beginning
Beginning
Suffering happens. There is no denying this. But to find value in this suffering that is common to us all?
The ancient Jews had come to understand this.
Isaiah. Jeremiah. Daniel. The Psalms.
This theory of the way life works finds its fulfillment in Jesus, of course.
…He learned obedience through what He suffered. And being made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.
To be made perfect.
This is our goal, our telos, or vision of life toward which our whole being is aimed.
To bring glory to God and to be God’s rulers on earth.
How? By being made like Jesus.
And it is our obedience in the middle of our suffering that brings this about.
Whether we are suffering from what others have done to us, whether we are suffering from grief or pain, whether we are simply suffering because our faithful lives are out of step with the people and powers of this world, when we are obedient in this suffering, we are made like Jesus.
Middle of Suffering
Middle of Suffering
Obedience in little things, every day, is practice for the urgent things, the catastrophes.
Obedience daily prepares us, is the only thing that can prepare us, for obedience in suffering
We celebrate in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces patience, patience produces a well-formed character, and a character like that produces hope.
Middle of Suffering
Middle of Suffering
Our hope is for the glory of God.
His glory is both the divine stewardship of this earth entrusted to us and the return of His presence to His people after our long exile.
Our hope is to be made like Jesus.
To be made perfect, as He is perfect.
End as it was created to be
End as it was created to be
This is the value in our suffering.
This is what makes it all worth it in the end.
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.

Art credit: All photographs are mine, copyright Made Sacred 2017

Capturing our Sacred Imagination

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We become what we worship.
Cathedral inside
I’ve written of this before:
When we spend our lives focused on and chasing after power, money, sex, adoration from others, we become like those things. We become shallow, insatiable, discontent. Yet when we, here in this glorious temple of creation, spill our very lives in worship to God, we become like Him. We become joyful, content, full of peace.
We are, in the deepest places of ourselves, lovers. We are not primarily thinkers, we are not essentially believers, we are first of all imaginative, desiring creatures defined by what or who we love.
Trinity Lutheran
All of our thoughts and actions spring from what we desire, from our vision of what we see as the good life.
The secular world has this figured out.
Busch_stadium
Shopping Mall
Walk into any mall, step into any sporting arena, and you are immediately drawn into an experience that seeks to change you at your deepest level into someone who wears only Gap clothing or who is a die-hard Cardinals fan.
No one is holding classes on the reasons you should purchase from Gap or handing out pamphlets about the top ten reasons to root for the Cardinals. Rather, an immersive experience is created using all of our senses, an experience that sets in front of us a vision of a good life and then shows us how to pursue that life.
It is incredibly effective.
We in the Church, however, seem to be convinced that humans are primarily thinkers. Brains on a stick, if you will. We seem to think that if we can just teach the correct doctrines, if we can only put forth enough convincing arguments in favor of Christ, people will change their lives, our  children will never leave the Church, and the world will fall to its knees in worship.
Clearly, this is not working.
What if we sought to discern not the essence of Christianity as a system of beliefs (or sumarized in a worldview) but instead sought to discern the shape of Christian faith as a form of life? ~ James K. A. Smith
St Peter altar best
We become what we worship.
The things that we do, the practices in which we participate, shape our desires and thus direct our thoughts and actions.
In other words, to become people of the Kingdom, we must practice being people of the Kingdom.
Lived worship is the fount from which a worldview springs, rather than being the expression or application of some cognitive set of beliefs already in place. ~ James K. A. Smith
If we want our children (and our own selves) to fall in love with Jesus, we must put practices into our days, our months, our years, that work to aim their desires toward God’s Kingdom. We must use all of our bodily senses to pursuade our hearts that God’s will done on earth is the best vision of the good life.
There is a reason God commanded the Israelites to celebrate all of those festivals throughout their year.
There is a reason the Church followed a holy calendar.
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Notre Dame rose window inside
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We see this happening some in the liturgies of our churches: the sounds of the music, the colors of the spaces, the feel of the baptism waters, the taste of the Eucharist, the scent of the incense in some faith traditions. These bodily experiences train us to be the humans God created us to be, to be lovers of God and lovers of each other.
Yet once a week for an hour and a half is not enough.
How often during the week do you shop or watch sports events? How many hours do you spend relaxed in front of the television or iPad?
We must put more of these practices into our days. We must weave God and His Kingdom all through our time and space in order to aim our desires, our children’s desires, toward the Kingdom.
1 Dome St Peters
Imagine.
Imagine praying with our families or friends multiple times a day.
Imagine opening our homes to others once a week.
Imagine serving with our families or friends regularly.
Imagine meeting with another family once a week to do life together.
Imagine following the Church holy calendar with your family or with a friend, adding sights, sounds, and tastes to the various feasts and celebrations as you follow the liturgical calendar.
Let the Spirit capture your imagination.
Make no mistake, this is a war. It is a battle for our desires, for our sacred imagination.
You only have to look around at how similarly Christians live compared to those who do not follow Jesus to know who is winning this war.
Let the Holy Spirit give you a vision for what life could look like when we are aware that we are lovers rather than thinkers. Allow Him to give you ideas for capturing your heart and your children’s hearts for Jesus.
Cathedral inside
Ask Him to help you weave practices into your life that aim your desires at their deepest level. Ask Him to help you avoid those secular practices that are currently shaping your desires.
We become what we worship.
We worship what we love.
Shape your life in a way that will aim your love toward God and His Kingdom.

The ideas in this post come from Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith (affiliate link)

Art credits: Busch Stadium photo by Rick Dikeman; shopping mall photo by Jakub Zasina; all cathedral photos by Kirk Sewell

Echoes of Creation

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He is risen!
He is risen
He is risen from the grave and He is alive!
He is alive
We rejoice in knowing that our debt is paid, that we will one day be with the God we love.
Yet perhaps you sometimes wonder. Is Easter only for our someday? Is there no piece of Easter that gives purpose for our today?
In the beginning…
In the beginning
John the Apostle begins his gospel with echoes back to Genesis.
In the beginning…
As he tells his gospel story, you can hear the reverberations of creation all throughout.
On that first day of creation, God spoke and there was light.
In the beginning was the Word…and the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
Skipping ahead, on the sixth day of creation, God created man.
Michelangelo
On Friday, the sixth day of the week, Pilate brings Jesus out before the people and declares, Ecce homo!
Behold, the man!
The new man. The new Adam. The man who was as we were created to be, who shows us what it means to be human and then offers himself as a sacrifice, thus making it possible for us to become like him.
On day seven, God rested.
On Saturday, the seventh day, God is in the tomb.
And then.
Listen to the way John tells what happened next.
Early on the first day of the week…
Early in the morning
Do you hear it?
John is so deliberate with his words.
The first day of the week.
This is what Easter brings to our today.
The first day of the week. The first day of new creation.
On the first day of the week
Christ, his death and resurrection, has made a way for us to begin again. The old is gone away, the new has come. God’s kingdom is come to earth bringing restoration and healing in its wake.
As we obey Jesus’ instructions to love each other, to feed his sheep, we are allowed to help bring God’s kingdom to earth.
This is what Easter gives.
A chance to be a part of the new creation as it happens.
new creation
Rejoice!
He is risen!
He is risen indeed.

Art credits: Space photo by NASA; Creation of Adam by Michelangelo; light photos by Kirk Sewell; all other photos by Elizabeth Giger, copyright 2017.

The Sharp Edges of Christ

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We all prefer the softer side of Christ.
The Jesus who blessed the children rather than the Jesus who bade us pick up our cross.
Christ Cross
We often desire to blur the sharp edges of Jesus, to make Him a more comfortable sort of person.
A softer Jesus is easier to live with, easier to fold into our busy lives.
Yet we are called to be God’s image bearers to and for our world and Christ shows us that in a world that is broken and full of violence, “the shape of such image-bearing will be cruciform”. (James A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom)
cross
Jesus comes as the new Adam, the God-man who perfectly bears God’s image not by a “triumphant conquering of the world but submissive suffering for the world”. (Smith)
Following Jesus means following the crucified Messiah.
Rembrandt The Three Crosses
(We) are summoned to follow a leader whose eventual goal is indeed a world of blessing beyond bounds, but whose immediate goal, the only possible route to that eventual one, is a horrible and shameful death. N.T. Wright
The reality is that Jesus demands all of us. Not pieces of us, not most of us, but all of us.
And what does He want with our selves? He doesn’t only want to trim off the bad bits, He wants to kill the entire self. He wants us to die to ourselves completely.
Jesus doesn’t say that we must deny and cut out those pieces of us that are sinful. He said, “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself.”
Even the good pieces. Often it is the parts that are right and good from the world’s viewpoint that are the hardest to surrender. Yet it is that very good that stands in the way of God’s best.
deny self
And while it is true that God, in return, gives us Himself, places His own self into us and makes us into the self we were created to be, the surrender must be for the sake of Christ, not for our own benefit.
Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Many love Jesus while they are satisfied with life or as long as they receive comfort from Him in the middle of hardship, yet when Jesus hides Himself for a time, they (and, let me be transparent, I) begin to complain or even to turn their face from Him.
Would that we could love Jesus for His own sake rather than for what comfort He can give us! We would, I think, find power in that kind of love, a love that can praise Him in anguish of heart as well as in the satisfaction of abundance.
The ability to love Christ for the holy, beautiful, God of love that He is would contain within it the power to die to our natural selves. The power to take up our cross and follow Jesus and, in return, be allowed to share in His triumphal resurrection.
pick up cross
If you willingly carry the cross, it will carry you. It will take you to where suffering comes to an end, a place other than here. Thomas à Kempis
The whole life of Jesus was a cross, and what in this world filled with crosses gave us the idea that we could escape what God Himself took on?
Realize that to know Christ you must lead a dying life. The more you die to yourself, the more you will live unto God. Thomas à Kempis
We cannot be a person who has the capacity to enjoy heavenly things unless we have surrendered to God and allowed Him to kill off our natural self completely, giving us a new self in its place, a self that looks strangely like Jesus Himself.
follow Me
You will never enjoy heavenly things unless you are ready to suffer hardship for Christ. Nothing is more acceptable to God, nothing more helpful for you on this earth. When there is a choice to be made, take the narrow way. This alone will make you more like Christ. Thomas à Kempis
May God give us the courage to take the narrow way and to be made more like Christ.

Art credits: photographs of Christ statues by asta kr; The Three Crosses sketch by Rembrandt

How can Jesus be with us while also in Heaven?

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He says I am with you always and then disappears from sight.
Ascension
He promises never to leave us, yet we cannot touch His hands and feet.
It can seem like a painful hoax sometimes, this promise of Jesus to remain, especially in those times when we would give up everything just to have Him hold us in His arms.
Yet if we trust that He is not a liar, not given to cruel jokes, there must be some way in which this is true.
If God is three-in-one, if three are God and God is three, then when the Holy Spirit comes to take up residence within, it is, in some mysterious way, also Jesus Himself living in our hearts.
God in us
Jesus speaks interchangeably about Himself and the Spirit in John.
You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you.
Jesus is God and the Spirit is God and God abides in us for eternity.
Yet I think there are more layers to this.
heaven and earth
The Bible seems to teach that heaven is right here, separated from earth only by a veil just as the Garden of Eden was separated from the temple of the universe, just as the Holy of Holies was separated from the rest of Solomon’s temple.
Jesus is in heaven and Jesus is right here with us. It is just that we cannot see Him until that day, that beautiful, glorious day, when heaven and earth will be one again, when the veil will be lifted and He who is our very life will appear.
And we shall be made like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
May it be so. May we trust that it is so. Amen and Amen.

Art credit: All photographs this week are by Kirk Sewell