Emmanuel, Our God With Us

The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.”

(John 1:14, The Message)

We highlighted this passage on our Christmas cards this year. It seemed to fit. This fall (and now into the winter) we have seen that glory with our own eyes, the glory of the Word made flesh and blood and moved into our neighborhood, into our house even.

On Sunday, as we sang, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, I reflected on this profound reality of Emmanuel, our God with us. He chose to become flesh and take up residence with us, not in the flesh of a king or emperor, rich or powerful. Instead He chose the flesh and blood of a baby, tender and needy, born to the scandal of an unwed mother. Yet here was the Messiah, our Savior, Emmanuel with us, and the whole earth trembled at the profound greatness of His coming.

And now here we are, sharing a house with another young unwed mother and her two beautiful children, born to that same scandal, yet full of the grace of Christ. I can see His face in these little ones. Emmanuel. God with us.

Last week we took in another young mom, just sixteen years old, and her new baby for several days while she worked out some things with her family (I’m finding that any sort of plan I have for ministry collapses into the simple plan of saying yes to the doors God opens and trusting that He’s going to meet us there). The house churned with life and I spent hours each day just sitting and talking, eating together, playing games together (a new and profound experience of family for Ashley), just taking it all in. And there He was in the midst of us again. Emmanuel. God with us.

In the turmoil of scandal, in the face of the outcast, in the eyes of a child who needs everything, there You are. Emmanuel. God with us, right in my own home, running down my hallways, sharing my food, greeting me as I come and go, leaving sticky fingerprints on tables. Oh so very much with us. Emmanuel living in our house.

Isn’t this what He promised, when He said, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18) and “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40)? This is where Emmanuel dwells and here He invites us to join Him at His home, to meet with Him there.

Of course, this Christmas rolled in with a short (and mostly sleepless) night and some drama that filled me with about as much “Christmas spirit” as Scrooge (bah humbug!), the sobering reminder of our still-present brokenness, even in the midst of that revelation of the reality of God’s presence with us. Even in the wrestling, though, God is still present. Emmanuel is with us. Yes (and I repeat this as much for myself as for anyone else), Emmanuel IS with us. We still carry this treasure in jars of clay and the work isn’t complete. We still need Him, so much more of Him. And so we both mourn and rejoice as we sing:

“O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.”


A Return to Sabbath

I’m still working my way through Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning. In the most recent chapter I read, he talked about the spirit of the Pharisees and how that attacks our identity as Abba’s child. He had a lot of good things to say, but what struck me the most in the chapter was actually his description of the traditional Jewish Sabbath celebration.

Manning wrote that the Sabbath was meant, first and foremost, to be “a memorial of creation” (p.78), a remembrance of God creating the world and seeing that what He made was good. Isaiah referred to it as “a day of delight” where “fasting and mourning were forbidden. Special festive white clothes were to be worn and joyous music was to permeate the Sabbath observance” (p.79). It was a day to rejoice in what God has made and also a day to remember that we owe our lives to the Creator. “The Sabbath was a solemn recognition that God had sovereign rights, a public act of appropriation wherein the believing community acknowledged that they owed their life and being to Another. As the memorial day of creation, the Sabbath meant a worship of adoration and thanksgiving for all God’s goodness, for all the Jews were and had” (p. 78). For Christians, this Sabbath remembrance also foreshadowed our celebration of the resurrection each Sunday where we remember our re-creation in Christ through His death and resurrection. In all this, “worship remained the essential element of the Sabbath celebration” (p. 78).

Manning also points out that as we remember our Creator, we re-focus our perspective on our lives. He writes: “A rest from preoccupation with money, pleasure, and all creature comforts meant getting a proper perspective in relation to the Creator. On the Sabbath, Jews reflected and put the events of the past week in a larger context of saying to God: ‘You are the true Ruler, I am but Your steward.’ The Sabbath was a day of rigorous honesty and careful contemplation, a day of taking stock, examining the direction of life, and rooting oneself anew in God. The Jew on the Sabbath learned to pray: ‘Our hearts are restless all week, until today they rest again in Thee.’” (p. 78). The Sabbath was also a memorial of the covenant between God and His people, a day for the people to renew their dedication to His service and rejoice anew in the promises of God: “‘If you obey my voice and hold fast to my covenant you of all the nations shall be my very own for al the earth is mine. I will count you a kingdom of priests, a consecrated nation’ (Exodus 19:5-6).” (p. 78).

But what was most interesting to me was how Manning tied Sabbath observance to the health and stability of a family. He even goes so far as to say that “the Sabbath is considered the chief foundation of the remarkably stable home life and close family spirit that has characterized orthodox Jews through the centuries. All the members of the family were to be present along with invited guests, especially the poor, strangers, or travelers.” (p.79). He goes on to describe the Sabbath celebration: “The Sabbath celebration started at sundown Friday with the mother of the family ceremonially lighting the candles. Then the father, after saying grace over a cup of wine, laid his hand on the head of each of his children and solemnly blessed them with a personal prayer.” He said this practice of blessing the family every Sabbath helped make the home “a miniature sanctuary in which the parents were he priests and the family table was the altar.” (p. 79).

He went on to use this observance of the Sabbath as an example of how a religious spirit makes “primary matters secondary and secondary matters primary” (p. 80), in this case by the Pharisees emphasizing the need to refrain from work on the Sabbath rather than focusing on the heart of what the celebration was supposed to be. But I was really captivated by his picture of the heart of what Sabbath was meant to be.

I’m captivated by this picture of a family coming together – and opening their doors and hearts to others to join in – to joyfully celebrate the goodness of God, His goodness in His creation, in His enduring covenant with His people, and in His new creation of us through Jesus, and to reflect on and refocus their lives in light of that. I want to practice Sabbath like this in my life, not just observing a day of rest, but learning to rest in the goodness and faithfulness of God, weekly celebrating that truth, and learning to re-orient my life according to it.

A Glimpse of Jesus in My Life

Recently I’ve started reading A Glimpse of Jesus; the Stranger to Self-Hatred by Brennan Manning (I’ve always been impressed and convicted by any quote I’ve heard from him, but have yet to read one of his books). In the second chapter he issues the challenge:

“Who is the Jesus of your journey? How would you describe the Christ who is the still point of a turning world for so many people and an irrelevancy or embarrassment for countless others…The challenge, so keenly put in the New Testament – ‘Who do you say that I am?’ – is addressed to each of us. Who is the Jesus of your own interiority? Describe the Christ that you have personally encountered on the grounds of your own self?

Only a stereotypical answer can be forthcoming if we have not developed a personal relationship with Jesus. We can only repeat pious turns of speech that others have spoken or wave a catechism under children’s noses if we have not gained some partial insight, some small glimpse of the inexhaustible richness of the mystery who is Jesus Christ.” (Brennan Manning, A Glimpse of Jesus, p. 24-25)

I read on a little further, but eventually had to stop and close the book so I could ponder this question. Who is Jesus in my life? “Who do you say I am?”

I feel like I’m still just beginning to truly know Jesus and make Him known in my life, that I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of the fullness of life in Him, but I’m encouraged by Manning’s words:

“Perhaps what is decisive is not how much we see, but how much we trust and follow Jesus of Nazareth, however sketchy the portrait, how ever sketchy the glimpse,” (A Glimpse of Jesus, forward).

That said, here are few glimpses of the Jesus I’ve come to know in my life:

He is the one who shifted the priorities in my life by showing me what is most important to Him (time with Him and our relationship with Him). He is beautiful and captivating. He draws my heart like nothing else. Everything else that I pursued and anything else that I could pursue pales in comparison with time spent in His presence. He is fullness of life that satisfies me in a way that chasing after my own desires and glory never did.

He is the one that gives me hope by His promises. He gives me hope for continued transformation in my own life, but also hope for the transformation of people and communities around me, hope for broken people to be healed, shattered foundations rebuilt, new life from death, and redemption from failure. He is the picture of who we will be and the face of God’s love and mercy towards us.

He is my first Love, my faithful friend. He is always with me when I cry to Him. He pushes back the despair and lifts the loneliness. He tells me who I am and reminds me of His plans for me. His love never fails. He is always there and always sufficient.

He is my compass, who reorients my life and points me in the direction I need to go. He is the nourisher of my soul who feeds me with His words, corrects me, gives me wisdom, who draws the depths of my heart (both the dreams and the filth) to the light of the surface.

He is my Redeemer, who makes sure that nothing in my life is wasted. He brings light and growth out of even my deepest pain or sharpest failing.

This is still such a partial picture of all that Jesus is and promises to be in our lives, but I hope and pray that I will continue to come to know Him more. I pray that as I come to know more about Him, that the things I know about Him will become more and more evident in my life and I will truly know Him more. And for now, I strive to be faithful to what I do know.

Ash Wednesday and the Assurance of Grace

(Written last night)

I am so struck by the grace of God tonight.

It’s been four years since I celebrated Ash Wednesday. When I left the Catholic Church, I shied away from nearly all of those familiar observances, unsure anymore what I believed about them. But tonight Washington Church had an Ash Wednesday service with three other area churches and I went. So now I have that familiar gray smudge on my forehead, but I was struck by the stark difference between this Ash Wednesday and all the Ash Wednesday of my past. And the reality of the grace of the cross in my life is that difference. It changes everything about how I view repentance.

In the past, I saw Ash Wednesday – and all of Lent, really – as a season to recognize my sinfulness and to get on my knees and beg for forgiveness from God. I knelt and prayed and fasted, and wondered if it was enough to make up for my sins, enough to turn God’s mercy toward me.

After all, our sin is a serious thing, especially in light of God’s immense holiness. The Old Testament is full of references to the holiness of God and all the precautions and ceremonies the Israelites had to go through before entering the presence of God because of His perfect holiness. There are even stories of people struck dead because they entered the presence of God unworthily. I never knew much about all that, though; I just had a sense that God was vast and distant and that I could only hope to ever work my way to being good enough for Him. It made sense that we should have to beg and do penance and hope that He might hear us and grant us grace.

But we don’t have to.

Because of the cross, we don’t have to grovel or beg or wonder if it will be enough to appease our Most Holy God. Even in our sin and weakness, even in our brokenness and filth, we don’t have to wonder if God will accept us back. We don’t have to wonder if we’ve done enough. God sent His only Son to die on a cross and take the full weight of our just punishment on His own shoulders. He took it upon Himself to cleanse us, to wash away the scarlet stain of sin and make us whiter than snow. And He said, “It is finished.” It is enough. He is enough.

Yes, we’re still sinful and need to repent. Yes, we turn away and have to turn back and rely on the favor and grace of our Savior. But when we repent and ask for forgiveness, we don’t have to hold our breath and question whether it will be enough. When we fall at His feet, full of the weight of our failures and filth, we don’t have to wonder if we’ve earned back His love. Instead we are confident of His everlasting love and mercy towards us. We know that at His feet we will receive the gentle touch of His hand, washing us again, lifting us back on our feet. We are assured that He is always enough.

So tonight I bear that familiar mark, but it means something different to me now. I wear it as a sign of my mourning over my sins, for the ways that I’ve fallen short of what God deserves. But at the same time, I wear it as a sign of my joy, my redemption, my assurance that the door of God’s grace and forgiveness is always open to me. Tonight I asked for mercy and forgiveness – as I’ve had to many times before – but I also celebrated by singing about the cross, even singing “Hallelujah!” because “before the throne of God above/ I have a strong, a perfect plea:/ A great High Priest, whose name is Love,/ Who ever lives and pleads for me.”

Before the Throne of God – Shane and Shane

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong, a perfect plea:
A great High Priest, whose name is Love,
Who ever lives and pleads for me.

My name is graven on his hands,
My name is written on his heart;
I know that while in heaven he stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart
No tongue can bid me thence depart.

When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see him there
Who made an end of all my sin.

Because a sinless Savior died,
My sinful soul is counted free;
For God, the Just, is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me
To look on Him and pardon me

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Praise the One,
Risen Son of God!

Behold him there, the risen Lamb
My perfect, spotless righteousness,
The great unchangeable I am,
The King of glory and of grace!

One in himself, I cannot die
My soul is purchased by his blood
My life is hid with Christ on high,
With Christ, my Savior and my God
With Christ, my Savior and my God