Few things are as satisfying as returning home after a long trip. Though I enjoy the exhilaration of travel, I’m usually glad when it’s time to unpack my suitcase and inhabit my own space again. I savor the sweet comfort of being at home.
To abide is to dwell, to be at home, to rest in utter and complete acceptance. In John’s Gospel, Jesus uses this image to describe the intimacy into which we are invited as his followers: “Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4). Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century mystic and theologian, describes abiding as being “oned with God.”
Love is the foundation of such intimacy, a communion that surpasses even the closest human relationship imaginable. Jesus’ name for this experience is “friendship” — a word that may surprise us because it suggests mutuality. “I do not call you servants any longer,” Jesus insists (John 15:15).
In other words, the parent/child or master/servant relationship is not where God is leading us. Instead, we are drawn into a deeper communion, like the flow of reciprocal self-giving and eternal love of the Trinity. God invites each of us into perfect friendship.
It’s possible, however, for even the most intimate friends to drift apart or to wound one another. The prophet Joel reminds us that even though God’s steadfast love does not fail, we humans may prove unfaithful. Life apart from God is depicted as a dark, dismal landscape — a desolate wilderness, a quaking planet, stars that withdraw their shining (Joel 2:3, 10).
In the midst of chaos and gloom, the prophet’s stirring call to repentance is proclaimed: “Rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:13). Even today these words are repeated in churches around the world on Ash Wednesday, inaugurating the season of Lent in which we are summoned to take a long, deep, truthful look at our relationship with God.
Just as it’s valuable to examine other intimate relationships periodically — marriage, family, spiritual friendships, small groups or even a congregation — it’s useful to turn our attention to what is really happening between us and God. Do we long for deeper union with God? Do our hearts beat with God’s compassion? Do our lives reflect God’s passion for justice?
Jesus says the evidence of loving intimacy with God is fruit. If we abide in God and love one another, then fruit is born. It is a natural outcome.
Interestingly, Jesus never commands us to bear fruit. Instead, he asks us to cultivate the soil in which love flourishes, nurturing its potential. And then, because love is generative, it reaches beyond itself. It overflows; it bears abundant fruit.
What does abiding in God look like for you? I believe it looks remarkably similar to the ways we tend our ordinary human relationships: It takes time, presence and honest willingness to share both the joys and struggles we face.
The same habits that weaken human friendships will damage our relationship with God and cause fruit to wither: inattention, dishonesty, flouting the desires of the other or just not showing up.
A refreshing resource for re-discovering paths to intimacy with God is Barbara Brown Taylor’s fine book, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (HarperOne, 2009). She opens our eyes to the most ordinary places where God can be found day in and day out — in our kitchens, offices, gardens, public transportation, grocery stores, a homeless shelter, even in church.
Turning our face toward home is all it takes. God is more than ready to welcome us.
Marlene Kropf is retired from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Mennonite Church USA. She is the author of Faith Travels: Trusting God in Life’s Transitions (MennoMedia, 2016). In retirement she leads retreats, offers spiritual direction and enjoys hosting guests with her husband, Stanley, at their home in Port Townsend, Wash.