Immanuel: When God Was One of Us

Although I grew up celebrating Christmas, it was not until recently that my family and I began to observe Advent more in earnest. During the last several years, we began reading through the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament throughout the month of December. Our church annually held candlelight Christmas Eve services. We bought our own wreath with pink, lavender and white candles. We struggled year to year to find a devotional that seemed right for us.

I was eager to write down my own thoughts around the profound gospel message of Advent and Christmas. While my kids worked on math or grammar at the kitchen table during our home school year, I stole fifteen or twenty minutes here and there, delving into Scripture and the unfathomable idea that God would love us so much that he would become human.

This idea of incarnation from a God who loves us and longs deeply for us seems rich with meaning and significance far beyond the scope of one holiday season. It has been a spiritually rewarding experience to attempt to articulate the implications of God being one of us. In living a small, specific life, Jesus shows us he understands, he loves, he walks alongside us. There is so much comfort and challenge in that!

Immanuel: When God Was One Us is available through Amazon both in paperback and Kindle editions. I pray it may be a help during these times of chaos and stress and distraction.

from the Preface:

Christmas is a favorite time of year for many people, and for many, it is the most stressful or depressing. My desire is that this book may be an encouragement to both. In acknowledging both the joy and anguish of the season, we honor our dependence on God in a genuine way. It is my hope that this daily devotional will help quiet and focus our minds and hearts to celebrate and worship the Savior who came down to be one of us….In whatever way you participate, I pray you experience the truth of his presence, and eagerly await with me his final Advent.

For more information, please go to

www.amazon.com/April-Bumgardner/e/B08GX3Q9N5?ref_=pe_1724030_132998060

A connecting bridge or a dividing wall

Last week my husband took some vacation time from work, and although we didn’t travel, we spent more time outdoors with our guys. One day we hiked at Turkey Run State Park in central Indiana. Now, if your image of Indiana is of cornfields, you are imagining something accurately. However, if it is exclusively of cornfields, you might be surprised by the lushness and other-worldliness of this picture.


It is our favorite place in Indiana. I have a sense that a hobbit hole is around the corner or a pointed elfin ear will emerge above a rock.

Here stands one of the largest species of trees in Indiana. The solidness of this growing thing is always so humbling and impressive to me. This giant American Sycamore reaches her massive arms heavenward recognizing her dependence on the Creator. It is a sure reminder of how much I rely on God’s graciousness. It is a specific embodiment of so many of the psalms that describe trees growing strong “planted by streams of water,” (Psalm 1:3) or even the gentle reminder that “all the trees of the forest sing for joy.” (Psalm 96:12)

As our path narrowed and followed closely alongside Sugar Creek, the red slats of this bridge built in 1883 caught our eye. We backtracked a bit in order to get a better view of it downstream. We usually cross the suspension bridge at the beginning of our hikes here. It was interesting walking across this one as well. I thought about different times in my life when I have been a connecting bridge. I have a history of connecting different types of people together. This is a good thing and sometimes a lonely thing. Many of you may understand this. If you are often bridging the gap between groups, it may mean you never fully belong to any one place. The bridge is not on any one side of the creek but straddles it.

I thought about how the apostle Paul describes Christ. Not as our bridge exactly, but as our reconciler, our peace, the one through whom we have access to the Father. (Ephesians 2:11-18) And we are not only reconciled to God, but also to one another. Bridging any distance, foreignness, and animosity, Jesus brings us closer to one another.

Lately, however, I feel I have pushed people away, not brought them near. I have fought hard against it. I feel I have unintentionally added bricks on to that “dividing wall of hostility.” It is a sobering thought. If Christ destroyed the wall, why do we continue to put up barriers? Walls and bridges can both be lonely things, but I would rather sit back and admire the role I play in connecting rather than dividing.

“In the breaking of the bread”

This is my final post on my thoughts from Luke 24:1-35. With a simple meal, surprisingly hosted by Jesus, we read how the gospel story ties those of us in the modern world to antiquity, as well as to eternity. Christ is with the disciples who were traveling on to Emmaus after his crucifixion and resurrection. Hurt and scared, discouraged and uncertain, the disciples are struggling for meaning in these new events.

They came near the village where they were going, and he gave the impression that he was going farther. But they urged him, “Stay with us, because it’s almost evening, and now the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

It was as he reclined at the table with them that he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts burning within us while he was talking with us on the road and explaining the Scriptures to us?” That very hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem. They found the Eleven and those with them gathered together, who said, “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!” Then they began to describe what had happened on the road and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24:28-35, CSB)

Bread and wine, photo taken by my son A.

For whatever reason the disciples did not recognize Jesus. Was his post-resurrection body so much sturdier? Was it altered like an old friend appearing after ten years clean shaven when he had previously worn a beard? Did they see him from some new perspective? Did the Holy Spirit simply prevent them from recognizing him immediately?

As they walked along with him, he trained them in preaching the gospel. They spoke of the facts and events that led to their grief. They shared their past joys and aspirations. They did not get the ending right. They just didn’t understand. Not yet. But Jesus, patient, loving, author of their stories, gently corrects them.

Can you imagine having the experience of retelling the gospel story to God? How did it help them improve it the next time they told it? And the next?

Jesus deepened their understanding using Scripture, that is the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. He spoke authoritatively but also endearingly, for they did not want him to leave. His message “burned in their hearts.” Did it ignite in them because of its beauty, or its truth, or both?

The Christ appeared to them as a hitchhiker along a country road, but soon they accepted him as their host. It was not until they sat down to a meal together that they knew who he was. When he broke the bread they saw him. Finally, as he picked up the loaf of bread – and broke it -(had they previously witnessed the miracle with the five thousand?) they saw Jesus, their Lord and Friend. Was it sight given by the Holy Spirit? Was it the ordinariness of the daily bread that helped them to connect the dots? How many times must they have relived that moment in their minds and through their stories to others! Would we ever stop retelling such a story? Do we ever tire of encountering his presence in the breaking of the bread? Do we recognize him there? Whether we partake daily, weekly, monthly, do we ever have enough of his presence?

Tucked away in a quiet room at a small meal, Jesus’ once-broken body broke the emblem of his body and shared it with those who would soon also be referred to as “the body of Christ.” Is it any wonder this is the moment his identity and the gospel became clear to them?

If we look around our ordinary homes, churches, lives, we see ordinary people. It might be easy to see the Eucharist or communion as just a ritual. We eat bread or a cracker and drink juice or wine bought at a grocery store. It seems too ordinary to have real meaning. Do we recognize Jesus with us? He is here. In the bread, in the brother and sister next to us, in, and through, and among us. If we do this every Sunday will we recognize that Jesus is real and present and powerfully with us, among us in the breaking of the bread?

He is here.

***

After jotting down these thoughts, a song I have not recently sung has floated back into my mind with its beauty and mystery. And now I realize it retells this part of the gospel story in a much more beautiful way. I invite you to read or sing the words with me. Simply follow the link.

Come Share the Lord.

But we were hoping

Hope is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

– opening stanza of poem by Emily Dickinson

“Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 10:23, CSB)

In my last post we imagined what it might have been like for the women visiting Jesus’ grave early in the morning. Before the world was turned upside down, when death still held irreversible sway, the angels proclaimed a disquieting message. “He is not here.”

Sometime later that day, two different friends, traveling a country road, quietly conversed and struggled through all the “what-could-have-beens.”

Now that same day two of them were on their way to a village called Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem. Together they were discussing everything that had taken place. And while they were discussing and arguing, Jesus himself came near and began to walk along with them. But they were prevented from recognizing him. Then he asked them, “What is this dispute that you’re having with each other as you are walking?” And they stopped walking and looked discouraged.

The one named Cleopas answered him, “Are you the only visitor in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that happened there in these days?”

“What things?” he asked them.

So they said to him, “The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet powerful in action and speech before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they cruciifed him. But we were hoping that he was the one who was about to redeem Israel. Besides all this, it’s the third day since these things happened.” (Luke 24:13-21)

These followers shared loyalty to the Nazarene. Had one of them been healed by Jesus? What did that matter now since he had been executed? Were they awaiting the retaking of Jerusalem, the Roman dispersion? Could a prophet be defeated? Did they belong anywhere anymore? How to make sense of a world in which your hopes had been utterly destroyed?

“But we were hoping…”

We all have disappointments, either personal or collective, either recent or suppressed deep in our past, that have shaken us and our beliefs. On that road to Emmaus, Jesus’ friends were devastated and lacking in confidence. At this point in the narrative they grappled with what to do. Not only had the Passover ended, but their plans for a new future. I wonder how you feel this morning? this evening? Have we lost hope? With so much brokenness and disillusionment around us it is difficult to see where that country road might lead. Obviously things are not happening as we might have expected. The way seems discouraging and we quietly talk with one another (or is it resentfully) about how things were supposed to be different.

Have we forgotten the promises of Jesus, that he will always be with us? Are we tempted to throw away the narrative in exchange for a harsher, grittier, more jaded one? Or can we stick with him to allow the Christ to redefine for us what it means to “redeem Israel?”

Unemployment, COVID, sickness, spiritual and social isolation, political strife, racially-based and economically-based injustices. Our world is hurting and desperate for hope. How could Jesus redeem our situation?

Can we hope in something we don’t understand? We may not be able to retell the story’s climax or predict the resolution, but the reason for our hope has been told to us once before. Two friends on the road to Emmaus held on to a ragged hope. We don’t understand where we are in our story, but we hold firmly onto the one in whom we have placed our hope, our confession, our beautiful inheritance.

Lord, you are my portion

and my cup of blessing;

you hold my future.

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;

indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance. (Psalm 16:5-6)

Using Parables

“All human nature vigorously rejects grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”

-Flannery O’Connor

In a time of profound polarization, when we automatically write people off for their looks, or their geography, or their background, when we feel justified for excluding someone or fearing someone, Flannery O’Connor is good for us. In a time when we congratulate ourselves for being American, or Republican, or open-minded, for thinking the label “Christian” can be pasted on at whim to mean morally decent or “nice,” the southern Gothic writer still holds up a relevant mirror for us.

Flannery recommends her stories be read as parables. Narratives full of spiritual depth and earthy grit with shocking conclusions. If we grant her this request, then we might read “Revelation” as we would Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, (Luke 18:9-14) searching through our hearts hoping to find purity, wincing at our hubris and duplicity. This is not to say we take Flannery’s words as the inspired Word of God, but we honor her efforts as she employs similar medium to Christ’s teachings.

Jesus began with the familiar, the typical, the understood, and by the end of his story, his listeners were either hit between the eyes, or deeply offended and scandalized. We, who are religious and well-read, have become comfortable and de-sensitized to the parables of Jesus. Both familiarity with the stories and the strangeness of ancient culture can make them feel somewhat safe. Yet “Good Country People” and “The Displaced Person,” though now already sixty-five years old, are yet modern and relatable to us in startlingly interpretive ways; they slap us across the face so we can ultimately listen to Christ.

Jonathan Rogers, author and host of The Habit blog and podcast, is offering a six week online course, Writing with Flannery O’Connor beginning June 4. Rogers, though now in Nashville, originally hails a short drive from Milledgeville, Georgia, O’Connor’s home town. He has authored The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor.

I signed up. My family and I are currently going through some significant changes, some good, many not. We are dealing with different kinds of losses and sadness. This course comes at a good time for me. A writer whose themes are racism, bigotry and gratuitous violence may not seem an obvious way to extricate myself from emotional upheaval. However, grace is surprsing like that, whether it hits you in the hillsides of Galilee, the deep South or the morally tame Midwest.

There should still be time to sign up if you are interested. Find out more information here.

He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command, GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY. The words were as silent as seed opening one at a time in his blood.”

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The Difference

Yesterday was Orthodox Easter, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead as commemorated by Eastern Orthodox Christians. Their observance of this most significant Christian holiday is often differentiated from Christians in the West by a week or two as they liturgically follow the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian. Even so, we remember the same event, the rejuvenation of the body and life of Jesus. We celebrate and hope in our eventual resurrection because of his sacrifice and promise and triumph.

Good Friday is a day of mourning and loss and confession. The world is not what it should be. Our hearts are not what they were meant to be. Saturday is a day of sitting with this loss in uncertainty, learning to grieve before we can experience the joy of Easter. Saturday is painfully remembering Friday, but hopefully looking toward Sunday.

Yesterday I posted these photographs on another social media site. My own backyard demonstrated the process and change the resurrection makes in our lives.

Saturday

As we sit with his mortality and our own, Saturday provides us with flickers of hope and the beauty in his promise. We will not always know death and sickness and pain and sadness. A day is coming when all of creation will be full and new. It will perpetually refresh and bloom, and it will defy the laws of entropy and ennui.

Sunday

Sunday, the day of his resurrection, we fully acknowledge his eternal nature. We are glad because he is alive and has restored life to us. We can now live with the faith that he will perfect us and guide us into the flourishing life he longs for us all.

Happy Easter, happy spring, happy Resurrection day!

He is risen, and he is coming.

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.”
‭‭Romans‬ ‭8:18‬ ‭CSB‬‬

“For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
‭‭1 Thessalonians‬ ‭4:14‬ ‭CSB‬‬

Public Discourse

For those of you who have experienced Christians as hateful, tight-fisted, paranoid, selfish, self-serving, power hungry or callous, I express regret. Here I am referring to politics and to comments on the internet. I am talking about the conversation you overheard in line to buy your coffee, and the relative at the last family event. I hope this impression has never come from me, or the people with whom I am closely connected. If it has, however, I am sorry. Please allow me time to reflect on that and to make the difficult but appropriate changes.

This is not the Christ we follow. Sometimes people professing his name miss the mark or get it wrong. Always, Jesus is better than the people who serve him. This is what we want to be able to do – look to him and model his example of love and service. I know we fail. Our full intention, however is genuinely to emulate him.

We recognize that many of you who are not Christians, or are not religious, are also striving to attain to the ideals you believe in. We know you fail at times, like we do, but we also see diverse people working together to create goodness for thriving communities. I am so grateful when this happens. Please know the hateful speech and the bitter accusations do not reflect the Christ we love.

 

Sighted as not before

Today, I would like to share a Christmas poem with you. It is by one of my favorite contemporary poets, Wendell Berry. I am not sure it is really a Christmas poem in the most traditional sense, for I think part of the poem speaks to the ordinariness of the moment. So much of the time we want Christmas to be extraordinary.

I appreciate authors who remind us of the holiness and the beauty in daily routines. I love when someone can effectively point and say to me, “Look. Don’t forget to notice this. Here is the divine thumbprint right here in the middle of your day.” Berry does this beautifully with his suggestions and anticipations of the holy family appearing in an ordinary barn.

So much of the time I fight against compartmentalizing holy things and ordinary things, spiritual and earthy. But Berry’s poem here showcases what the Gospels also do in extraordinary ways: it points out that we are not unreasonable to think that the most marvelous things can appear on a Tuesday, in the middle of a routine we have encountered countless times before.

Berry’s caution is that we be ready to see the holy.

Remembering that it happened once,

We cannot turn away the thought,

As we go out, cold, to our barns

Toward the long night’s end, that we

Ourselves are living in the world

It happened in when it first happened,

That we ourselves, opening a stall

(A latch thrown open countless times

Before), might find them breathing there,

Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,

The mother kneeling over Him,

The husband standing in belief

He scarcely can believe, in light

That lights them from no source we see,

An April morning’s light, the air

Around them joyful as a choir.

We stand with one hand on the door,

Looking into another world

That is this world, the pale daylight

Coming just as before, our chores

To do, the cattle all awake,

Our own white frozen breath hanging

In front of us; and we are here

As we have never been before,

Sighted as not before, our place

Holy, although we knew it not.

From Sabbaths VI, 1987

Back to school

With the exception of a few of us homeschooling parents who stubbornly persist in a twentieth century school calendar, all of the teachers here in Indiana are back at school welcoming children, teaching multiplication tables, listening to and reading stories, encouraging learning and helping develop character.

Back to school is also back to the business of loving your neighbor as yourself. Whether your neighbor is an elementary school student, middle schooler, high schooler or even a college student, if you are a Christian your focus is to love the one before you as Christ would love them, as, indeed, he loves them.

Beloved children’s author Katherine Paterson, creator of The Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved, after a speaking engagement was once asked by a teacher for a piece of advice he could share with his class. In her speech, “The Child in the Attic” delivered at The Ohio State University Children’s Literature Festival in February 2000, she gives the following response:

“I’m very biblically oriented,” I said, “and so for me the most important thing is for the word to become flesh. I can write stories for children, and in that sense I can offer them words, but you are the word become flesh in your classroom. Society has taught our children that they are nobodies unless their faces appear on television. But by your caring, by your showing them how important each one of them is, you become the word that I would like to share with each of them. You are that word become flesh.”

Twenty years later, the only difference is that children are tempted to see their value not necessarily by way of television, but by YouTube.

I write these few words to teachers, administrators, custodial staff, bus drivers, counselors and cafeteria workers: your light shines. Your smile matters. Your compassion changes hearts and futures. Your influence may be incalculable.

And, really, this is the charge Christ gives to all of us, whether we are a teacher, student, neighbor, friend, employee, manager or stranger on the street. We are the light of the world. We are his ambassadors for a different life possible. We are his love incarnate. We are that word become flesh. We take on Christ both in the insignificant gestures and the grandiose ones, because they all reflect his movements.

To all to whom this may apply,

Welcome back to school.

The Church should be like a library

My husband always give me books as presents. He’s good that way. Although I talk with him frequently about my reading interests and maintain an up-to-date GoodReads list, he still might present me with something under the Christmas tree that is completely off my radar. He is good that way, too. This year he surprised me with a book I had never even heard of previously.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean not only details the circumstances surrounding the April 1986 fire which devastated the Los Angeles Central Library, but also chronicles the history of the California library. Orlean has completed painstaking research following Harry Peak, the accused, his life and the years after the fire, while providing juicy tidbits on the early head librarians from the late 1800s onwards, most of whom were women. Her book jumps from a detective whodunnit, to a work of archival history, to an homage on the nobility and malleable nature of the library’s role in society and its identity. The last section gives credit to library and library-inspired innovations like OverDrive, book mobiles, the Biblioburro in Columbia, Little Free Libraries across the world, and more.

However, toward the end of the book something caught my attention. A description of the library as a safe, public place, welcoming to all reminded me of something even more beautiful than a library. When speaking to the issue of homelessness most city libraries face, Orlean writes,

“The library’s commitment to being open to all is an overwhelming challenge. For many people, the library may be the only place they have to be in close quarters with disturbed or profoundly dirty people, and that can be uncomfortable. But a library can’t be the institution we hope for it to be unless it is open to everyone.”

p. 245

As much as I love libraries and all they do for communities, what if this section were instead speaking of the church? Certainly, church buildings can be important places to meet, organize charitable events and gathering places for community outreach. Church buildings have hosted AA meetings. They have held marriage seminars, opened their doors with food pantries, and threw neighborhood block parties. But I am thinking of something more than the building. I read the above quote with a specific eye on the church as the PEOPLE.

What would our communities be like if we, as a church, were open, welcoming? What if we accepted all unconditionally? The public library may be nearly viewed as a sacred space for the very reason that it enfolds the prosaic and unwanted, the lonely, the unemployed, the retired and the graduate student. Even though we all deal with problems in our lives, the church cannot be the people Christ expects for us to be unless we are loving and open to everyone.

Of course, I need to begin with myself.