The Romance

by Tim Isbell, January 2019

During my first 15 years of adult life, I enjoyed many conversations that started with someone asking questions like: Is the Bible true? How can God be good when there's so much evil in the world? And so on. While such conversations were intellectually stimulating, I eventually started having more profound questions of my own. These would lead to an intimate romance with God. For the past few decades, the bulk of my spiritual conversations circled around the romance. About a month ago at a local Panera Bread, a friend asked, When did you start thinking about this romance concept?

Lacking a ready response, I researched old teaching and sermon notes and reflected on my spiritual journey. That identified the starting point as one autumn in the early 1980s when I worked in the semiconductor business. The initial question was, "What's the big deal about Christmas and Easter?" For me, they were not much different than any other Holy Day. But Christian leaders and writers whom I respected taught that Christmas and Easter were a much bigger deal. So I decided to use the time from Thanksgiving through the following Easter to reflect deeply on the New Testament Jesus story in hopes of grasping the bigness of Christmas, and especially of Easter.

I especially struggled with Jesus doing this crazy thing of descending to earth to live a self-donating life, even to the extreme of allowing his crucifixion. Sure, there was the resurrection, but still - I couldn't comprehend why the Creator of everything would put up with such humiliation, trauma, and betrayal. I had long been impressed with people who show restraint in the use of their undeniable power. But Jesus took this to a wild extreme, apparently just to enable a relationship with us humans. That led to a new question, "What is so valuable about humans that made God condescend so far?"

As Easter approached, a light turned on for me. Today I’m sure God's Spirit turned it on, but at the time it just seemed to turn on. The best I can articulate the insight is that Jesus is a part of the Trinitarian God who created everything: the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. This God created humans in his own image to, in some sense, extend God's internal loving relationship beyond the Trinity! Later I came to think of it sort of like when a loving husband and wife choose to have a child into whom their love will overflow. Such fecundity, the ability to produce an abundance of offspring or new growth, is the natural result of truly loving relationships. Husbands and wives do this despite the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that the child someday will reject them and get into all kinds of trouble. When the rebellion occurs, even earthly parents do extreme things, even condescending into their children's messes in an effort to "save" them. So the Trinity is like the parents, and we are like God's children. Over time, I came to accept that God's desire for a relationship with me - with all of us - is indeed wildly passionate enough to endure the humiliation and trauma of the New Testament story. 

This led to another question, "How can I possibly respond to such a passionate heart as God's?" I realized that I had no item of equal value to proffer. Even killing myself wouldn't work because it would destroy the very thing God sought in the first place - an intimate relationship with me. Ultimately, I realized that the only reasonable option was to give whatever remained of my life into this relationship. It didn't seem like much of a gift, but by then I realized it was the best that I had to offer. Somewhere this thought intersected with Romans 12.1-2 where Saint Paul pleads with readers to give themselves as living sacrifices to God out of their gratitude for all God has done for them. Paul calls this "a living and holy sacrifice - the kind God finds acceptable." Over time, I realized that giving whatever remains of me was all God wanted from the very beginning. And, according to Saint Paul, it satisfies God's desire.

That six-month season from Thanksgiving to Easter guided me into a growing intimacy with God that I have shared countless times - and still do. From my experience over the past few decades, people find more hope and value in these conversations than debating whether the Bible is true or God is good.

Despite all the conversations, I had never found a satisfactory way to help others on this journey. I wanted to write about the romance for the last few years, but first I needed an answer to one last question, "What roadmap can I offer others that will guide them into the romance?

Last week I discovered that roadmap in Steve Bell’s Pilgrim Year Christmas season meditations1 Steve writes that the way God provides for humans to discover this romance is the same way I found it: reflect on the Jesus story, slowly, deeply, and from many viewpoints. Here are some excerpts quoted from Steve Bell’s meditation that helped me:

I love one dictionary’s suggestion that the word “incarnation” means “the embodiment of the abstract in extreme form.” A Christian understanding of God’s incarnation - the birth and life of Jesus - suggests the impossible possibility that what is immeasurable, ineffable and utterly incomprehensible has been expressed in an extreme form and therefore can be apprehended and experienced in time and space. What moves and astonishes me is the wonderous implication that God so profoundly appreciates our limited capacity to know him that he humbly condescends to our limitations so that we might behold and adore the One who beholds and adores us.

… Socially speaking, Jesus was low born, conceived in the womb of an unwed woman whose people were the despised and disposable underclass of a powerful empire. This is how the God of the Christian scriptures first chose to self-identify: in solidarity with the vulnerable, obscure, and lowly. Any gospel proclamation of the “who” and “where” of God that doesn’t begin with these particulars is out of sync with God’s chosen self-revelation. This DNA of God’s self-revelation is seen consistently throughout Jesus’ life, which ends thirty-three years later in humiliation and death at the hands of the same occupying power, in collusion with those of his own people who haven’t yet made peace with these particulars.

In a nutshell, Steve is saying that the way to a romance with the Trinitarian God is to stare long and hard at Jesus. I will add this advice to Steve's meditation: Read what Christian writers who have experienced the romance say about it.2 Invest heavily in times of meditation and prayer - conversing with God; not just presenting lists or making speeches to God. Fully engage in a worshipping community, a local church. And if at all possible, join with a spiritual peer on the same journey, or with someone who is already on this intimate journey with God. 

I don’t know why it took me 35 years to work through these questions. Perhaps God's Spirit will use this webpage to help you make the journey in a fraction of my time.

Blessings, Tim


Notes:

1. Pilgrim Year Series. This is Steve Bell's collection of 7 booklets, one for each season of the Christian calendar. These provide his meditations and links to the audio files of his music. Currently, I am using this Pilgrim Year material as a resource for my devotional times. You can buy these as a set, or individually (by season). Also, there is a 2-disc CD with Steve's songs for each season. In my case, I organized the songs into a playlist for each season so that I can soak them in throughout that season while driving or walking or just living around the house/office. That, coupled with Steve's meditations and the Revised Common Lectionary scriptures for the upcoming Holy Day frame my personal devotional life this year. 

2. Here is a list of the authors who helped me on the romance journey: Dallas Willard's Hearing God, Timothy Keller's Prayer - Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, Henri Nouwen's, Lifesigns and The Life of the Beloved, John Ortberg's Love Beyond Reason, Dennis Kinlaw's Let's Start with Jesus (see especially chapters 4 & 5), John Piper's Desiring God, C.S Lewis' The Weight of Glory (the essay within the book of essays by the same name), and John Eldridge's The Sacred Romance.

3. Here are some relevant Christian teachings that I wrote: Biblical Metaphors (see especially the part on the Nuptial Metaphor), An Invitation to Romance (notes from a talk Robin and I gave to the Stanford University graduate school chapter of their InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in answer to their question, "How can we fall in love with Jesus?")

4. And here are my notes from a few sermons I preached on the topic: The Romance (Cupertino in 1993, it was my fifth sermon in my first, and only, pastorate). Holiness - Romance in the Christian Life (Cupertino in 2002 and revised for Monterey, CA in 2011). Intimate Ally (Cupertino in 2008). Also in 2008, a 6-sermon series called "Desiring God," using material from John Piper's book of the same title. But I do not have those notes polished enough to provide. Hope to get to this in 2019.) Also, I have few other stand-alone sermons on the romance which I hope to polish up and publish in 2019.

5. Acknowledgments: I didn't take this journey alone. Thanks to George Larsen for sharing 40 years of spiritual conversations that drilled deeply into all the resources listed above. And thanks to Chris Trevisan for introducing me to the writing of John Eldridge, the songs and writing of Steve Bell, and engaging with me in well over a hundred spiritual conversations over 25 years. Finally, nobody taught me more about romance than Robin, who joined me on a roller-skating date in 1961, married me in 1967 - and remains my romantic, intimate ally. These and many more continue enriching my life. So, thanks to God for all these blessings.


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