To be with or not to be with… that is the question

Harmony was on her fourth placement in three months, and on day 10 I was just about wrung out.

I’d never known a child who needed so much from me. My presence. My attention. My interest. My every thought, word, glance, movement – she needed it all.

Since coming in from school (I’d been asked, again, to pick her up early – she’d picked two fights, bloodied an older boy’s nose and torn the pocket off a girl’s blazer) we’d played nine games of Uno, half a dozen rounds of Dobble and a couple of Fluxx (she found this one harder – there were more and more attacking cards that I didn’t dare put down, the fallout wasn’t worth it). She’d been out in the street with Jessie and Calum – poor little Calum hadn’t coped with the rough play for very long and Jessie had gone home crying after scraping her elbow when Harmony pushed her too hard to learn to cartwheel. I’d been required to watch their efforts – looking down at the washing up I was trying to clear caused them to charge back in through the kitchen door demanding a verdict on the progress being made. So then we’d played the keyboard together. She’d played while I watched. And then while I sang. And then while I didn’t look away… not for a second.

I really needed a cup of tea.

She bounded ahead of me into the kitchen, put the kettle on (without checking there was any water in it), crashed a couple of mugs onto the counter and spilled a significant amount of sugar onto the floor. I shut my eyes. Briefly.

“Hey, Bob! Look what I can do!”

She was in a handstand part way down the hall. How on earth were her trainers muddy, it had been dry for days? Well, the wall was muddy too now. Better to leave that and clean it once it was dry. I got her to take her shoes off and to put them away – Harmony style – thrown high and landing somewhere in the vague vicinity of the shoe rack. She saw my face and – for once – complied without being asked.

I went back to the tea.

“Hey, Bob! This is so funny! Look what I’ve done!”

Yeah, hilarious… now all the shoes were piled up together, my summer hat perched on the top with my (relatively) expensive sunglasses just about to slide to the floor…

Only another four hours till bedtime. Not for the first time in ten days, I had no idea how we’d get through them.

Harmony wanted to be with me. Or more accurately, Harmony wanted me to be with her. She was totally, wildly out of control – neglected for years at home, fending for herself in settings no teen should be exposed to, hurtling from one carer to another over the last three months – nothing was familiar or safe or settled. And in the chaos she was desperate. Someone had to be there with her.

“Hey Bob! Bob! BOB!”

We all need to know there is someone with us. Individually, collectively, even as the people of God – the search for withness is recorded throughout our stories.

In the beginning, God walks with Adam and Eve in the cool of the garden.

After it all goes wrong, and they are thrown out of the garden, hiding behind clothes and blaming each other – God still finds ways to be with his people. He eats with Abraham, he wrestles with Jacob, he is with Joseph in the prison.

When Moses brings the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, his prayer is that God will go with them. And God does – in a pillar of cloud and fire, in giving them his commands, in setting up the Ark, so that all the earth will know: this is the people who walk with God. The people whose priests bless them, ‘the Lord make his face turn towards you.’

God’s withness appears as a blaze of overwhelming glory when the Temple is consecrated – and centuries later, after rebellion and idolatry and exile, when God-fearing Israelites are thrown into the fiery furnace God comes and walks with them there, among the flames. Withness is celebrated in the Psalms and promised in the Prophets; and Song of Songs leaves us in little doubt as to just how close God desires to be.

And then, Jesus – Emmanuel, God with us! – demonstrates his withness in ways that are blasphemous to the God-fearing Jews of his time, to the God-fearing Muslims of today – blasphemous to any of us if they weren’t true. For in Jesus, the fullness God dwells with men, he tabernacles among us, and we see his glory.

We actually get to be with God.

Withness was what Harmony needed. But it wasn’t easy for me. Harmony’s need for withness left me exhausted.

I wasn’t the only one. Friends who tried to stick with her were hurt by the fickleness of her affection, the cruelty of her rejection when they fell out. Teachers who tried to get alongside her gave up hours of their time but were let down when she continued to behave in ways the school could not condone. Her social worker couldn’t keep up with the constant demands to see her. Even her sisters, struggling with the same upheaval in their lives, often asked to go home early from ‘family time’ get togethers.

It hurts to get close to people who are hurting.

How much more does our Emmanuel know this truth?

Christmas – withness – incarnation – for Jesus meant cold, hunger, loneliness, pain. For the first time ever, the creator of all things became part of his creation – and felt the full force of its hurting. It surrounded him, even in his childhood.

His teenage parents sometimes misunderstood his cries. He knew cold and thirst and needed a clean nappy (or whatever the 1st century Palestinian equivalent was).

His family were too poor to afford the standard birth offering. He knew poverty and hunger and stigma.

His country was ruled by a jealous tyrant, forcing the family to flee as refugees. He knew instability and danger and hostility.

His siblings and his friends were normal kids. He knew arguments and taunts and bullying.

He got tired and hungry and skinned his knees and caught sickness bugs.

Withness is what we needed. But it wasn’t easy for Jesus.

And I guess it wasn’t easy either for the Daddy who had loved him from all eternity, loved him in perfection and splendour and glory and perfect unity – now watching him cry when his first tooth came through, and go to bed hungry, and hear a friend taunt him, and struggle with his homework.

All this, because what we needed was withness.

And this withness Harmony needed… boy, was it complicated.

Sometimes she couldn’t decide if she wanted to pull me close or push me away.

She’d sit close by me, even rest her head on my shoulder – but then reach over and pinch me so hard it bruised.

She’d plead to go out somewhere nice in the car – and then kick my seat as I drove, call me names and make up abusive lyrics for the songs on the radio.

She’d tell me how rubbish the bedtime book was I had chosen to read for her – and then pound the wall between our rooms in the middle of the night, bloodying her knuckles, demanding that I read the next chapter.

She’d reluctantly agree to go for the immunisations she’d missed as a child – and then sit in the treatment room, screaming abuse at me for taking her, and holding my hand so tight I thought she’d break a bone.

And sometimes she simply didn’t want me there. But couldn’t cope if I went away.

She’d have a bad day at school, get home, and sit on the kitchen floor with a blanket over her head, hiding from the world – but bang her head against the cupboards, knowing that I couldn’t leave her alone to hurt herself. She’d be seething because I’d told her off earlier in the day and offer sweets round the family, but leaving me out, shooting me glances out of the corner of her eye to check that I’d noticed. She’d slam her bedroom door – three or four times, just to make the point – then if I didn’t come to tell her off for that, she’d appear a few minutes later with a note, written in pencil so black the paper was torn, telling me she was going to kill me if I went near her room.

They call it the push-pull dance of attachment. It happens when kids are desperate to be seen and known and held and loved – are also scared of being seen or known or held or loved. The world has taught them that to be seen is to be abused; to be known is to be reviled; to be held is to put yourself in danger and to be loved? Love means getting hurt.

They still want all these things. They can’t help it. They are humans, and these are universal human needs, placed into the core of our being by the Daddy who created us to live interdependently, to need each other, to need him.

But boy do they fight them.

Surely we don’t do that too. Do we?


Adam and Eve hid from God.

The Israelites were afraid of Moses’ shining face.

The Ark – the very presence of God! – was left on Obed-Edom’s threshing floor for years after someone unconsecrated touched it and died on the spot.

Sometimes being with God feels scary.

David preferred Bathsheba.

The Israelites wanted to be like the other nations.

Jonah didn’t like the message he was given to preach and set out in the opposite direction.

Sometimes being with God feels demanding.

Jesus got turned down by people who were too busy. He got thrown out by villagers who were scared of his power. He got dismissed by religious experts who didn’t like his standards. He got misunderstood by crowds who just wanted miracles. And he got crucified by leaders who put their own interests first.

And deep down surely we know we’re the same.

Sometimes we don’t know if we want to pull him close or push him away.

We worship him with our songs – but tune out the teaching we find difficult. He’s not getting that little part of our lives.

We pray for other people – but deep down we’re bitter about the prayer he never answered for us, the situation that stayed bleak… so we don’t ask for anything else for ourselves. Just in case he doesn’t hear that one either. He’s not getting the chance to reject us again.

We turn up for church meetings and sign up for rotas and get super busy – but there’s pain inside us we won’t let him come near, emotions we’ve stuffed and denied and squashed as far away from him as we possibly can. That bit of us is private. He’s not coming in there.

And sometimes we just want him to go away.

Stop telling us about that ugly sin we’ve so successfully hidden from everyone else.

Stop asking us to reach out in forgiveness where we have been hurt so bad we can still hardly breathe.

Stop promising life and freedom and joy and fulness – when we know life always serves us death and chains and tears and a crushing emptiness we’ll never be able to fill.

Stop asking for more. We’re stretched so thin we’re almost breaking. We’re doing our best, giving what we can, running on fumes… Can’t you just leave us alone?

They call it the push-pull dance of attachment. It happens because we, too, are desperate to be seen and known and held and loved – and we, too, are also scared of being seen or known or held or loved.

In the world, we’ve been seen, and we were laughed at, or hurt, or told to go away.

Can we really trust our Daddy to see us and to smile?

In the world, we’ve been known, and we were criticised, or rejected, or compared to someone better.

Can we really trust our Daddy to know us and to smile?

In the world, we’ve been held, and we were pinched, or pushed away, or it just didn’t satisfy.

Can we really trust our Daddy to hold us – and to keep holding us – forever?

In the world, we’ve been loved, and it caused us pain.

Can we really trust our Daddy to love us – to really love us – to love us as we really need?

The only way to know is to let him in.

To let him be with us.

But perhaps there is a clue. A way to see if we can trust this withness that we so long for, that we pull towards, that we push away.

What exactly is this withness that he offers?

The withness of Christmas – the withness of living among us, of sharing our life – was costly enough. But the withness of Easter?

The withness of Easter did so much more.

The withness of Easter clears our debt. It cleanses our guilt. It takes away all the shame and hurt and angry words and hateful deeds and dumps them on the far side of the sea. The withness of Easter takes the times I’ve cursed God and burns them to ash. It sets me free. It lets me lift my head. It crowns me as a beloved child of the King.

The withness of Easter is the withness of living in us, of redeeming and restoring and recreating our lives.

And the withness of Easter cost so much more.

At Christmas, the firstborn son of the King became a pauper, a baby, a refugee.

At Easter, he stooped still lower. He became a curse, a scapegoat, an offering. He who knew no sin became sin for us. He who had never done wrong bore the shame of the world. He who defines justice endured betrayal, a sham trial, bribed witnesses, a weak judge and an unfair verdict. He endured torture. He suffered death. He was damned. And he was abandoned by the Daddy he had known from all eternity.

Amazing love! How can it be

That thou, my King, would die for me?

Oh! but our hearts are a mess. We don’t even know what we want. Our feelings contradict, we believe lies, we pull him in and push him away and trust and hide and submit and run. It doesn’t make sense. We can’t even understand it – how can we possible change it?

But nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not even the mess in our hearts and heads. Paul said it, it was pretty clear: ‘Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God’ (see Romans 8v38-39).

Our Daddy has paid for our withness. It cost him the very best that he had. And he did it.

I tried to pay for Harmony’s withness – I paid in exhaustion, and bruises, and desperate effort. And in the end, it wasn’t enough. One day she convinced her social worker to end her placement. She was moved – yet again. And there was nothing I could do about it.

Our Daddy is different.

The price he paid was the full cost. Remember what Jesus said as he died? “It is finished.” Done. Complete.

Sure, our hearts have some catching up to do. The messiness inside us doesn’t vanish overnight any more than Harmony’s did the first time she charged through my front door. But the full price has been paid. We’ve been redeemed. We are totally, utterly, fully brought into our new status – adopted as our Daddy’s kids. And now we are learning – slowly at times – how to live with him.

Adopted. Forever. We are never getting moved again.

Why though?

I knew Harmony needed withness. And so I tried to give it. Partly out of love. Partly out of determination. Partly in compassion for her, partly to prove I could, partly because God had asked me to, partly for the vast audience of professionals who scrutinise all you do in foster care. Partly out of pride. So many bits and pieces of reasons.

Our Daddy just wants us with him.


Because he does.

But why though?

Because he does.

See his explanation in Deuteronomy 7:7-8: “It was because the Lord loved you…”

Because he does.

Because he does.

Before anything was created – before time was created – our Daddy wanted to be with us. And he has done everything since then to make it happen.

Jesus says it in John 17:24: “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am…” His idea of home improvement is to bring us there (John 14). The thought of being with us gave him enough joy to face the cross (Hebrews 12:2). His parting gift to his friends is his presence with them forever through his Spirit (Matthew 28:20). At the climax of the Revelation to John, the disciple Jesus was closest to, we read, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21:3).

So we can bring him our fears, our doubts, the lies that haunt us, the deep down desires we sometimes have to push him away. He knows. He will sort it out, will sort us out, in his time, his ways. And he is full of joy, because it is finished. We will be with him forever.

We can never end the withness of God.

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