How to Be a Friend of God

I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal about making and sustaining friendships in middle age.
Girls2 copy
Girls copy
The article included advice such as just ask, create a routine, schedule time, and even try a friendship matchmaking site.
It made me think of my own friendships, the new ones and the old ones, the ones were good for a season but then faded away and the ones that have lasted over many seasons of life.
Jesus called us friends. Did you know that? I had been a Jesus follower for an embarrassingly long time before I knew that.
No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.
Friendship with God, however, does not mean comfort and ease. True friendship, even earthly friendship, does not mean that you indulge your friend or always give him or her what they want. A true friend will sometimes tell you things you don’t want to hear, will do things that seem painful to you because they want to help you be the best you you can be.
When I look in Scripture at those who have been called a friend of God, this is the kind of friendship I see.
friend of God
friend of God
Who in Scripture has been called a friend of God?
Abraham and Moses.
What do we see when we look at the lives of both Abraham and Moses?
Definitely not comfort and ease.
I see uncertainty, hardship, loss, sacrifice …
God didn’t call Abraham to go lie in a hammock under a palm tree but to leave his home on an uncertain, dangerous journey towards an already occupied land.
God didn’t call Moses to continue living a life of ease in the palace, secure in his position of power, but to challenge that power and then leave on an uncertain, dangerous journey (while leading a gaggle of cranky, complaining people) towards an already occupied land.
God demands a lot of his friends.
In the verse before the one where Jesus calls us friends instead of servants, he says that we are his friends if we do what he commands us.
Expectations color our experience, and we need to know what to expect as friends of God.
Jesus warned us to expect trouble in this world, and we need to be careful not to expect things of God that he has not promised.
Scripture is so important. We must know what God means when he says that we are his friend.
It is a dangerous thing to be a friend of God.
And at the same time, even while God demands everything of us, he also has given us everything.
The verse before Jesus instructs us to obey his commands?
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.
Before he demanded anything of us, before we were friends of God, while we were still set against him,
Christ died for us.
What do I see when I look at the lives of Abraham and Moses?
I see intimacy, companionship, purpose, hope, …
And that is what the friendship of God and Abraham is all about. Abraham was in touch with the God who was in touch with him. He accepted God’s concern for him as the reality of his life, and he returned it by making God the center of his life. (maybe end quote there or maybe this bit too:) He obeyed, he journeyed, he prayed, he believed, and he built altars. He did none of this perfectly. But perfect is not a word we use to describe friendship relationships. Perfect is a word that refers to inanimate things – a perfect circle, say, or a perfectly straight line. With persons we talk of response, growth, listening, and acting. Abraham did all of that in relation with God, whom he was convinced was determined to be a good friend to him.”~ Eugene Peterson in As Kingfishers Catch Fire
It is a glorious and beautiful thing to be a friend of God.

Art credits: Abraham Visited by Three Angels by Jacques Gamelin; Moses with the Ten Commandments by Rembrandt

God With Us In Beauty

When we are hurting, when we are grieving, when we are stumbling in the dark, God doesn’t usually come down in a blaze of holy fire.
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He doesn’t usually appear with trumpets blaring to take away what hurts us.
God with us
We can feel as though he is silent, feel as though we are thoroughly abandoned by our Maker. Yet I have discovered that God does answer us in the darkness.
He answers us, as Sarah Clarkson puts it, in the language of presence.
Our Father comes to us in our world through his Son, he is closer than our breath through his Spirit,
and also he comes to us through beauty.
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Sometimes it is the way the light falls across a fragile petal.
Sometimes it is a bar of intricate music.
Sometimes it is a stroke of color in a painting.
God with us
This beauty catches my breath, it startles up tears, it pulls an ache and a longing up from the depths of my heart. It is God himself, “clothed in countless tangible moments of beauty.”
What beauty reveals is the intimacy of the divine in our grief. God gives us beauty … as his offering — a gift that immerses us in something that allows us to touch hope, to taste healing, to tangibly encounter something opposite to disintegration and destruction. ~ Sarah Clarkson
Beauty reminds us of what we hope for.
God with us
Beauty reminds us that even though we still walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even though we live in a fallen world and reside in frail bodies, we have not yet arrived at the end of the story.
Beauty reminds us of what we hope for and beauty tells us about this God who made us.
Beauty teaches us not just that God exists but that he is lovely and good. Beauty tells us that we were created for joy and summoned to healing. ~ Hans Urs von Balthasar
When we experience moments of beauty in our darkness, we are experiencing a reality that is deeper and truer than our darkness.
beauty
In those moments of beauty we experience the nature of God’s created reality, and it is oh so lovely.
So very often I am unable to imagine any way out of my darkness other than God swooping down in his mighty power.
What I need in these times is for God to heal my imagination.
God with us
I need is God to heal my imagination so that I can picture a slow and quiet, but no less mighty, power, a power that does not discard the brokenness but makes of it something beautiful and new.
What we need is the healed capacity to imagine and believe the profound goodness of the future, to stand in the light of a happy ending whose power reaches into our present and draws us forward in hope. ~ Sarah Clarkson
beauty

All photographs copyright Made Sacred

Pulling Us Into God’s Story

God promises in Scripture that the struggles of this life will somehow be redeemed, that the ugliness in our world will be molded by the hands of a loving, powerful God into a thing of beauty.
suffering into beauty
In the face of the horrors this world can hold, this promise is hard to trust. It is difficult to imagine or even hope that it might possibly be true.
Like Abraham, we are asked to keep trusting in the face of apparent impossibility. Trusting that what God said to Abraham is truth for all: “is anything too hard for the Lord?”
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One of the ways I learn how to trust is gazing at the way God fulfilled this redemption promise once before in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Practicing the story of Lent leading into Easter is one way to do this. Practicing the story is a way to catch a glimmer of how this promise could be true. Lent fills us with the sorrow of this broken world and leads us in a physical way through the story of that sorrow into the story of the glory of resurrection, of new creation.
God created us as physical beings and he knows how much we need physical rhythms and habits to ground us in what is true. The Old Testament is full of feasts and festivals, sacrifices and rituals, to keep reminding Israel of who she was and who God is. There is an embodiment to the Lenten practices that has done much to steep my heart in the theological truth of God’s promise to restore our locust-eaten years.
fasting
One of the habits that has pulled me into God’s story is fasting.
I know it is popular lately to fast from any number of things — social media, sugar, screens — but there is something deeply good about embracing our given physicality and fasting from food.
The practice of fasting from a substance you truly need for life roots your entire being down into the reality of brokenness, both the brokenness of our world and the brokenness of our own selves. It tugs me back into the reality of my utter dependence on God, reminds me that the control I think I have over my life is really just an illusion.
Fasting reminds me that God is the only one who truly controls anything.
Fasting reminds me that I am safe in his hands.
Another reason for fasting is to practice Christ’s command to deny ourselves, to die to ourselves. It is a way to build up our spiritual muscle in a small thing so that when the more consequential temptations come we are strong enough to resist.
… misuse of food is an equal-opportunity temptation available three times a day to everyone from nine to ninety. Those who overcome this most basic temptation gain spiritual strength to battle all the rest. Of course, almost no one does. Frederica Mathewes-Green in At the Corner of East and Now
Of all the spiritual disciplines, fasting is probably one of the least talked about these days. It didn’t used to be so. There were regular times of fasting in the Old Testament, times when fasting was commanded and times when it was voluntary. In the New Testament, when Jesus spoke of fasting he didn’t say if you fast but when you fast.
Normally fasting is a private discipline, one you don’t go around talking about. When Jesus taught about fasting, he specifically told his followers not to go around with ashes on their heads and mournful looks on their faces but to live their outward lives as normally as possible.
As I have thought about the way fasting has faded into the background these days, however, I have felt the Holy Spirit nudging me to fast in community during Lent this year. If you would like to join me, we can humble ourselves together before God, encouraging each other and allowing the Spirit to teach us how to use this discipline to grow in our dependence on him.
Here is what I will do: I have committed to fasting for a 24 hour period each week during Lent, from Thursday after supper to Friday supper. I will set up a Facebook group for anyone who would like to be in that kind of community while practicing your fast. If you would like to join, just send me an email at elizabeth@madesacred.com, telling me so.
You could also just join on your own, knowing that there is a community who is fasting with you. There is strength in that kind of knowing. You can send me an email, letting me know that you are joining us. Or you can not.
Whether or not you join me in this specific fast, I hope you will spend time praying about and studying fasting. Tell God what you wonder about fasting. Ask him what he wants to say to you about fasting.
“Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Joel 2.12-13

What Is Gospel Anyway?

 Our culture is passionate about the importance of the individual.
We believe deeply that each person (especially our own person) should have all they need to be happy.
Pursuit of Happiness
We are also quite certain that anything which claims to be good news must primarily be about benefiting us as individuals.
Even the Good News.
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Many of us in the church were taught that the word gospel means good news.
It does.
The word gospel is translated from the Greek word evangelion/evangelizo which means good news or one who brings good news.
But what is the Good News?
Rembrandt
Many of us in the church were taught that the Good News is that Jesus died to rescue us.
It’s not.
Don’t get me wrong; Jesus dying to rescue us is good news, indeed.
But it’s not the Good News. It’s not the best news.
The Good News of the Gospels is not that Jesus saved the world; it is not that He died so that we can be with Him forever, although these certainly are pieces of very good news.
Cross
The Good News of Scripture, rather, is that the Jesus who died and rose from the dead is Lord of all.
He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and because of this He has power over all of creation, even death itself, power over Satan.
Within that is a personal good news, of course, but a personal good news is not the primary Good News.
The primary Good News is not just good news for the individual person. It is not even good news for all of mankind. The primary Good News is good news for all of creation.
This is so much bigger than us and is so much more excellent than our attempts to confine the Gospel by our tiny definitions of what is good for me.
The news that Jesus is Lord of all is news that can be celebrated by the singing of mountains and the clapping of trees.

mountainstrees

This is true Good News for all.
To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

Art credits: page from a 1769 German Luther Bible; Rembrandt’s The Three Crosses; final photo of mountains and trees by Kirk Sewell; all other photographs copyright by Elizabeth Giger

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The Way God Comes to Us

God is easy to miss.
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Every once in a great while he comes in the earthquake, the fire, the lightning flash of glory.
Which is, is it not, the way we most often pray for him to show up? We pray for him to reveal his presence in a miraculous, unmistakable way.
We plead for the glory of a healing, not the glory of a sunrise.
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The miraculous presence is not usually what any of us receive, and when he does not show up in the way we hope desperately for, we feel abandoned.
Sarah Clarkson writes of this feeling of abandonment in her struggles with mental illness:
But he never arrived in the shattering display of strength that I thought was the only way he could answer my prayer. So I felt betrayed. … I assumed God was absent because he didn’t come in the way I thought he would. I didn’t yet have an imagination that was healed enough to picture a power that could cherish and heal me as I was — not discarding what was broken in me, but making of it something precious and new.
Jesus is God enfleshed, the perfect image of the invisible God, and when I read the stories of Jesus after the resurrection to find out how God comes to us, I most often see him coming into life in its real and inescapably common places.
I see Mary at the empty tomb desperately pleading with a gardener.
I see two men meeting a stranger while walking down the road.
I see Jesus making breakfast on the shore after a night of fruitless fishing.
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Jesus doesn’t approach from on high, but always in the midst of people, of real life. He approaches in the midst of the questions that come out of real life.
The sacred moments, the moments that pull back the veil and reveal God with us, are often the everyday moments.
God most often comes to us not on high, but in the fragile and often hidden beauty of our everyday moments.
It is these very everyday moments which,
if we do not look with more than our eyes or listen with more than our ears, reveal only … the gardener, a stranger coming down the road behind us, a meal like any other meal. But if we look with our hearts, if we listen with all of our being and our imagination — if we live our lives not from vacation to vacation, from escape to escape, but from the miracle of one instant of our precious lives to the miracle of the next — what we may see is Jesus himself. ~ Frederick Buechner
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This is my prayer for you as you read this: that in the glimpses of beauty that come to you in your darkness, you will be able to see the kindness of God who does not often zap away the bad pieces of your life but who instead died to bind them all up in his love.

Our Beloved Enemy

There have been times when my hurt and grief overwhelmed me and turned my face away from God.
Times when sorrow turned my inmost thoughts to darkness and I “blamed God for it with fierce, hot breath and yet ached for his touch at the same time.”
Wrestling with God
We all wrestle with God at times, shoving against him in the darkness of our pain and doubt.
We wrestle like Jacob by the river. We wrestle, hurling our accusations while at the same time refusing to let go until he blesses us.
And isn’t this what most often happens? We fight against God without being able to let go of him.
I strike at him with my pain while being unable to rid myself of my anguished desire for his love.
He was the cause of my grief, the opponent, and the peace I craved all in one enigmatic, awful Beloved. I could no more walk away from his existence than I could walk away from my own desire for breath. ~ Sarah Clarkson in This Beautiful Truth
Wrestling with God
Do you know the story?
Jacob, deceiver, heir to God’s covenant promises, is heading home after twenty years in exile. Home to the land God promised him.
He sends his family and servants across the river Jabbok, but stays behind to spend the night on the shore alone. We don’t know why.
Suddenly, out of the darkness, a stranger leaps at Jacob and they fall to the ground, wrestling through the darkness. All night they struggle until just before dawn when Jacob realizes who it is that he has been grappling with.
God.
God is the enemy whom Jacob fought there by the river, of course, and whom in one way or another we all of us fight — God, the beloved enemy. ~ Frederick Buechner in The Magnificent Defeat
In the realization that it is God who is wrestling with him, Jacob refuses to release his grip, just as he has refused to release his grip all night, but in his pleading for a blessing, his grip of violence becomes a grip of desperate need.
Wrestling with God
God is our beloved enemy because he promises us everything, but before he gives us everything, he demands of us everything. “Before giving us life, he demands our lives — our selves, our wills, our treasure …” Buechner
Will we give them, you and I? I do not know.
Only remember Jacob, limping home against the growing light of dawn, a shadow of one to come.
Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God. ~ Buechner

Art credits: Jacob Wrestling by Gustave Doré; Jacob Wrestles by Gerard Hoet; Jacob Wrestled by Charles Foster

How to Solve All the World’s Problems

I’ve been reading a book of Wendell Berry’s essays, and I came across one that hasn’t let go of me.
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Family Love Color 3
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In his essay, “Think Little”, Berry compares the major movements that have occupied our nation in recent decades — civil rights, the peace movement, the environment — and makes the claim that they all stem from the same root.
War and oppression and pollution are not separate issues, but are different aspects of the same issue.
Greed.
Exploitation.
The mentality that exploits and destroys the natural environment is the same that abuses racial and economic minorities, … that makes war against peasants and women and children with the indifference of technology …
He goes on to say that we would be fools to believe we could solve only one of those problems without tackling all of the others.
Part of the problem we have historically run into when trying to solve these issues is that we tend to turn them into a Cause.
When we turn a problem into a Cause, we simplify a complex matter and attempt to power our response by impatience, guilt, and short-term enthusiasm.
When we turn a problem into a Cause, we turn it into something that is “served by organizations that will self-righteously criticize and condemn other organizations, inflated for awhile by a lot of public talk in the media, only to be replaced in its turn by another fashionable crisis.”
Public responsibility is absolutely part of the solution — we should continue to bother the government and not allow them to be comfortable with easy solutions — but we must go beyond protest and political action.
Rather than attempting to increase government, reaching for change through a program or a law, we could do a completely crazy thing.
We could first begin solving the problem ourselves.
If you are worried about the damming of wilderness rivers, join the Sierra club, write to the government, but (also) turn off the lights you’re not using, don’t install an air-conditioner, don’t be a sucker for electrical gadgets, don’t waste water.
It is easier to protest, easier to contact our representatives, than to give up our own comforts for the Cause.
Of course we need better government, but more than that we need better minds, better friendships, better marriages, better communities. We need people and families who don’t have to wait for an organization to lead the way, but can make necessary changes on their own.
When we turn the brokenness of this world into a Cause, we are pushed and pulled from one new focus of outrage to another.
When we root our understanding of what we see in our culture in the reality given by our Creator, however, even “amid the outcries for the liberation of this group or that, we will know that no person is free except in the freedom of other persons, and that our only real freedom is to know and faithfully occupy our place — a much humbler place than we have been taught to think — in the order of creation.”

Art Credits: Black Men Praying by Aymara Mejia; Mortar Men photo by Ustinov

Good Work

I’ve been thinking about work lately.
good work
good work
The idea of work has changed a great deal over the centuries, but more recently (relatively speaking) it has undergone a more dramatic change. In the beginning, we were created to work.
good work
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.
We were made to do significant and meaningful work and we were made to do it well.
Mankind moved from the practice of each person or family creating all that they needed themselves to the practice of families gathering together in villages and having specific people working to make what was needed for everyone (the metal smith making tools for the hunters, the potter making jars to hold water, etc.). Yet now, in our modern age, we have moved even farther down this road. Now we have work that is solely for the purpose of earning money.
work for money
No longer do we consider whether a work is good in itself, nor do we consider whether an unnecessary work is done well. It has, in fact, become necessary that work is not done in a way that is good. How else would people continue to consume, and workers therefore continue to have work, if the products being made were not designed to wear out quickly?
There is still plenty of work that is both good in itself and that is good to do well: agricultural laborers, doctors, teachers, artists, and many others do work which they would do even if there were no pay to be had in it. Yet there is another whole category of work that has no significance and no importance. It was only created to allow the maximum number of people to be employed.
work for efficiency
Employing people is not an evil, of course.  It was an act of love that led from talk of reducing the “surplus population” to talk of reducing unemployment.  The danger is that this has led us to forget that unemployment is not an end in itself.  We want people, as C.S. Lewis put it, to be employed only as a means to their being fed – believing that it is better to feed them even for making bad things badly than for doing nothing.
Perhaps this view is correct, but it should not lead us into forced appreciation for work that is not good.
I, of course, have no comprehensive plan or brilliant strategy for ending this sort of endless cycle of meaningless jobs producing poor quality products that are consumed briefly and then discarded, requiring a new replacement product.  Yet perhaps it is something just to recognize the problem and the insanity of the idea of meaningless work.
Just as the Christian has a great advantage over other men, not by being less fallen than they nor less doomed to live in a fallen world, but by knowing that he is a fallen man in a fallen world; so we shall do better if we remember at every moment what Good Work was and how impossible it has now become for the majority.  ~ C.S. Lewis
One of the areas in which I see this most clearly is in Christian art.  It is another topic for another essay to discuss whether or not there even IS such a thing as Christian art but, as Madeleine L’Engle said, if it is bad art, it is bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.  When art is done well it testifies to God, even if the artist does not know God.
good work
Provided he is an artist of integrity, he is a genuine servant of the glory which he does not recognize, and unknown to himself there is ‘something divine’ about his work. ~ Madeleine L’Engle
In the same way, work that is done well, even if the worker does not personally believe in God, testifies to the glory of God. It is not an insignificant instruction of Paul’s that whatever we do, we should work at it as if we were working for God rather than only for men.
Whatever we do, whether we are leading a meeting or scrubbing a toilet, whether we are painting the sunrise or designing a bookshelf that will be put together by a young father, we are to do good work.
We may have to earn our living by taking part in the production of objects which…would not be worth producing – the demand or ‘market’ for them having been simply engineered by advertisement. Beside the waters of Babylon – or the assembly belt – we shall still say inwardly, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning.” ~ C.S. Lewis
In this way we will testify to the glory of God and will draw others to Him so that they, too, may bask in His presence.
What do you think? Should anything be done about work that is unnecessary or of poor quality? Can anything be done? What about your own job: would you still do it if you did not need the income to survive?

Art credits: photo of factory by Henno Jacques; Ford assembly line photo from Wiki Commons; The Water Lily Pond painting by Claude Monet

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Suffering Gladly for the Sake of Something Greater

suffering gladly
suffering gladly
My first inclination is to avoid suffering at any cost.
I cringe a little when I read Scripture passages about embracing suffering in order to reach a desired end:
we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance …
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory …
For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ … to also suffer for his sake …
Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
One earthly shadow that has recently helped me to better understand this truth is childbirth.
I suffered labor pains willingly, even gladly, for the sake of birthing my babies. Even when it came time for the fourth baby, even when I knew what lay ahead of me, I suffered gladly for the sake of something much greater.
I have a suspicion that if I only knew what eternal glory was waiting for me I would bear my sufferings much more gladly.
 I claim I trust God’s love for me, trust that his end purpose for me is good and beautiful, beyond anything I could have asked or imagined, yet when it comes to his methods, I push back and fight, unwilling to be still and trust.
The fruit we are given is not always what we expect or want; it may even be bitter, but we are secure in knowing that it is given to us out of love. ~ Kathleen Norris in Acedia and Me
It is easy for me to be attracted to the idea of becoming like Jesus, to the idea of the grace of God bringing me into eternal glory.
It is much harder for me to recognize that grace when it appears in my life as suffering.
In the depths of our confusion and anger, we ask: ‘How can this be God’s love? Where is God in this disaster?’ For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed and take us to places we didn’t want to go. As we stumble through the crazily altered landscape of our lives, we find that God is enjoying our attention as never before. ~ Kathleen Norris
My deep desire is to be able to trust in the reality of God’s providence and love enough that I will suffer willingly, even gladly, in order to gain the purpose for which God created me.

The Real Is the Thing You Would Never Have Guessed

One of the great scourges of our time and place is the idea that what is real is predictable and governable.
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The real is what we can wrap our minds around and wrestle into submission.
The real can be measured and understood.
The real is able to be repaired and manipulated.
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I would assert (along with most Christian theologians) that, in fact, the opposite is true.
The real is the thing you would never have guessed.
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Almost everyone would agree (there are always a few truly dedicated relativist philosophers who might not concur) that birth is real. The process by which humans procreate is a thing that is real.
C. S. Lewis asks us to consider this way of creating new life, writing that it is
a very curious process, involving pleasure, pain, and danger. A process you would never have guessed.
This is never more true than when considering the first reality to exist.
The same God who is terrible to gaze upon is also good.
The same God who couldn’t allow Moses to look upon His face lest Moses die submitted Himself to a humiliating death out of love for us.
The same God who is the King of heaven and earth became poor for our benefit.
Mr. Beaver, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, says of Aslan, the Christ figure in the Chronicles of Narnia, “He’ll be coming and going. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild you know. Not like a tame lion.”
God is not safe, but He is good.
The real is the thing you would never  have guessed.
This is important to remember when life is out of control, when circumstances are spiraling downwards.
When life seems more than we can bear, safety is not what we need.
A “wild, terrifying, powerful” goodness is what we want and what we need.
He is somehow perfectly self-consistent and yet altogether unpredictable … (able) to love in ways that nobody could have guessed. ~ Jonathan Rogers in The World According to Narnia
There is nothing predictable or safe about God. But He is good.
And in the end, omnipotence turns out to be the same thing as infinite love. Who would have guessed it? ~ Jonathan Rogers