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

Arianna’s birthday

This was Labor Day weekend. More than grilled hamburgers or hotdogs, more than backyard games or time off work, I hope you shared moments with people you love. I hope this past weekend you were able to enjoy beautiful weather, but even more I hope you were able to breathe slowly and exhale in gratefulness.

This weekend was also Arianna’s twenty-fourth birthday. She is the eldest daughter of some wonderful people we know. Arianna is sweet-spirited, compassionate, strong in her faith, organized and dependable. We had lunch at the family’s home and I had decided to make a cake for her. Her brother has been on a gluten free diet for several years now, but I found a good recipe using almond flour. It would have been an excellent cake, but I was hesitant about using cooking spray on the cake pans, not knowing if it was a good gluten free option. Here is the birthday cake.

Happy Birthday?

I attempted to frost the first broken layer thinking I could sort of spackle it back together. It obviously didn’t work. In the end, we brought ice cream and ate it scrambled.

No one really seemed concerned. The cake still tasted good. More importantly, however, these are people full of grace. They care about being together more than whether everyone has it all together or not. We all need those people in our lives, don’t we? Some days (or maybe most days) I feel like this cake. A big mess. Scrambled. Certainly not anything I would want unfamiliar people to see.

Jesus is like that too. Full of grace. More likely to be concerned about us spending our time together with him than about us having it all together. He knows we don’t anyway. Some things we bring to him and we can see their beauty. A kind word in an interrupted day. Something sacrificed out of love. Others look like this cake. Impatient words. Petty attitudes from pride. Jesus sees them all through his heart of grace.

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Luke 5:31-32

I hope the next time I bake a gluten free cake I will do a better job. Maybe I will just use the baking spray. It is reassuring to know, however, that I was able to bring what I had and it was good. It was made good by the company. What is it that Jesus does with our contributions? How much better is he able to use a scrambled life! Our efforts are made good by his graciousness.

And, by the way, I also brought a small, round bakery cake beautifully decorated with white chocolate curls. But that had nothing to do with me.

Happy Birthday, Arianna!

He is not here.

Sundays look and feel different right now for our family. If you have maintained the habit of attending church, I bet they do for you or your family as well. Even if you are physically back meeting together, there are surely fewer people present. The attendees are spaced further apart. People may be wearing masks; you may forego congregational singing or even the partaking of the Eucharist or communion. While some of us balk at tradition and habit, most of us, admittedly or not, lean on it as a stabilizing force in our lives. Particularly when it relies so heavily on relationships.

Our family has been meeting in homes on Sundays. We alternate with a few families hosting. It is not the same. We miss so many people, but it provides us with the fellowship and encouragement we would otherwise be lacking.

This past Sunday we read Luke 24. We read about Jesus’ followers grieving his brutal death on the cusp of the marvelous discovery of his resurrection. As a reader, I know what happens on that early Sunday morning, but as a character in a narrative, I am like one of the disciples confused, grieving, misinformed and misunderstood. I find some strange comfort in these stories of wounding and pain. We called out three phrases in the text from Luke 24:1-35.

“He is not here.” (Luke 24:8, CSB)

“But we were hoping…” (Luke 24:21)

“…he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” (Luke 24:35)

I would like to write some notes on each of these phrases from the text. I might spread them out across three blog posts. I hope you’ll stay with me. If you are hurting and lonely, too, you will find comfort in these stories along with his presence.

“Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” asked the men. “He is not here, but he has risen! Remember how he spoke to you when he was still in Galilee, saying, ‘It is necessary that the Son of Man be betrayed into the hands of sinful men, be crucified, and rise on the third day’?” And they remembered his words. (Luke 24:5-8)

These women, to whom the angels appeared at the tomb of Jesus, were only trying to show respect and express their honest grief. They had cared for him, financially supported him, and had been spiritually and physically healed by him. They were not being illogical in showing up to the tomb. The man had died, had been buried. They were returning to the place they had left the body. Only it wasn’t there.

When Jesus was twelve years old visiting Jerusalem at Passover, Mary and Joseph looked in the wrong place, too. (Luke 2:41-50) He was not in the caravan returning to Galilee with family or friends, but in the synagogue “in his Father’s house.”

“He is not here. He is not here.” After each uncle or cousin denied knowing where the adolescent Jesus was, Mary must have panicked. How could you lose God?

Where am I searching for him? Am I making the wrong assumptions about where he needs to be? Of course God is everywhere, but is he moving me in ways I cannot see? Am I at the tomb when he has already resurrected?

What are we grieving right now? Sickness and death? Loss of friendships or relationships? Have we buried dreams we thought could never be realized? Jesus’ death was gut-wrenching, but it opened up possibilities to so much more.

“He is not here.”

The grieving women were being reasonable and logical in making heir way to the tomb, arms laden with spices. Jesus had died; he had been buried, so that’s where they expected him. But God is not reasonable or logical; he is extravagant. He is gracious.

In his extravagance he sends out messengers to tell us, “He is not here.” And with our arms laden with our unnecessary burdens we earnestly search for him.

Receiving Grace: with Jonah and Flannery

All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.”

– Flannery O’Connor

In the last post I discussed some comparisons in O’Connor’s short works with Christ’s parables. I suppose outside of Jesus’ pointed stories, Flannery O’Connor owes the greatest debt to the life and story of Jonah, son of Amittai. Just as the protagonists in her Southern Gothic tales are hardly likable characters, so the prophet Jonah is far from the amiable hero. Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation,” the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and Hulga in “Good Country People” are self righteous, graceless figures devoid of compassion, but full of ferocious retribution. In other words, in them we see ourselves. Any grace which breaks through in the story comes in forcefully, unwelcomingly. It knocks them off their feet and, in at least one instance, quite literally hits them upside the head.

In commenting on her best known story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” O’Connor says, “There is a moment of grace in most of the stories, or a moment where it is offered, and usually rejected.”

We are meant to judge these characters as pig-headed, small-minded, bigoted and hateful, and then, with a sudden shock, realize we might be looking into our own heart.

Jonah, the largest recipient of God’s grace in his story, is commanded by God to warn the Ninevites of their wickedness and urge their repentance. Jonah, however, truncates the message from God by simply announcing certain doom and damnation to the Assyrian capital. God, in his bounteous grace and mercy, sends a storm, a great fish, a vine and a worm all to save Jonah from his judgemental attitude. Even by the end of the question dangling at the end of the book Jonah never understands the depth of grace God has offered him. He never see himself in need.

In his half-repentant and desperate prayer, Jonah preached against his own soul from the belly of the undetermined fish. “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” (Jonah 2:8)

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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NEW

New

Jerry destroyed Oval. He ripped his seams wide open and pulled out all his stuffing. Jerry is our miniature labradoodle, and Oval is our eight-year-old’s favorite stuffed animal. He got him when he was about three years old on a trip to IKEA. He named him in the parking lot on the way to the car. He looks like this.

This is not how he looked after we stitched him back up. He was disemboweled beyond repair. This is the new Oval who appeared peeking out of my son’s stocking this Christmas morning. He was purchased via Amazon Prime. I might have thought that he would refuse this new imitation, that he would protest that this wasn’t the real Oval, but he didn’t. He was excited and reintroduced him to all his other stuffed friends. Here’s the thing- although the tiny bear was manufactured with thousands of others by the IKEA corporation, my son actually created him. His imagination is rich enough for him to realize that although his friend was given a new body, his essence, the one he created in his imagination and games and thoughts, was one and the same.

And this is what the Father wants for us. Every morning. Every year. When we are chewed up and destroyed, when we have nothing left to offer, he wants to make us into something new.

“Behold,” asserts the Son, “I am making all things new!” (Revelation 21:5).

And what is so spectacular is that he continues to do it over and over and over, never growing weary of his promise, never tiring of the work of creation, never wavering in his commitment to us and our relationship with him. He loves us and will always reintroduce us to his people.

As G.K. Chesterton notes in Orthodoxy,

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

He promises us a new heart (Ezekiel 11:19)

He promises us a new vision and purpose (I Peter 2:9-10).

He promises us a new authority, a new master (I Peter 2:16).

He promises us a new allegiance, no longer tied to a political empire nor economic securities. (Galatians 6:14-16).

He promises us we will be a new people, in a new type of place, full of joy (Isaiah 65:17)

He promises us a new home and a place of belonging (Hebrews 10:39)

He promises we will have a new attitude, eager for love and inclusiveness (Colossians 3:12-14, Romans 12:13-16).

He promises us a new attitude of mind and new identity of holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24).

He promises us his very self (Ephesians 1:13).

It will all be new, replenished, a continual renewal, a life lived in constant rejuvenation, not fettered by our fatigue, nor contingent upon our confidence.

When things are new they are shiny. A penny. A new bicycle. Even metaphorically, new things shine- a marriage, a new career. But what happens when the Christmas tree is taken down, or when the ornaments are packed into the basement, or when the marriage has lost its sparkle, or the job has its annoyances? What happens to the beauty of the new? It fades, doesn’t it? It dissipates. It sags and withers. Sometimes it is beyond stitching or repair.

But Christ desires to be there with us. His Spirit whispers and firmly suggests we might be ready now for him to work in us. Then, he hovers and does what he does best: creates something new. He recreates us, reshaping us to look more like his Son, though in his infinite imagination, maintaining our essence.

Happy New Year. May each new day shine forth revealing his glory. Each day is newly created for you. The new year will be just as new and fresh and full of grace in March and September and November as it will be on January first. His mercies are new every morning. They are continually replenished and created anew, because he loves to create. He does not grow weary. It is who he is.

Dutch apple means grace

This Thanksgiving I baked three desserts: a pumpkin pie with whipped cream, a gingerbread cake with a warm vanilla sauce (ok, the sauce was from IKEA) and a Dutch apple pie. If you are like one of my children, you might ask what is a Dutch apple pie? What does Dutch apple mean? Well, Dutch apple means grace.

Officially, I am not sure where the term came from, but for me it basically means there is no need to roll out a beautifully latticed top crust. You simply mix a bit of flour, a generous scoop of brown sugar, oats and cinnamon and mix with pats of butter and dump on top. Like most things I make I have no real recipe. And most people bake more delicious pies than I do. As I mixed this one up for the holiday I was struck how similar this pie is to the grace of both Christ and his community.

It doesn’t look nearly as pretty as many apple pies I have eaten. I have tasted more warm and delicious desserts than the ones I make. However, when butter and brown sugar, cinnamon and apples all bake together it is hard to mess it up. There is grace in that.

Even my crust cuts corners. My mom’s sweet friend Willene in Big Spring, Texas gave us her recipe years ago when we were living in Vienna. I am confident she would not begrudge me sharing with you the fabulous and simple recipe that you mix and press out IN THE PIE PLATE! It comes out flaky and delicious each time. I have used it for cream pies, fruit pies and even quiches.

Miracle Pie Crust

1 and 1/2 C of flour

1/2 C vegetable or canola oil

Dash of salt

4 T milk

My pie doesn’t have to be the most artistic to be appreciated. My family will have no trouble putting away the baked apple-y goodness even without a well-executed lattice top.

The cinnamon and oatmeal crumble hides the fact that there is no proper finish on this pie. It is its grace. It covers my flaws as a baker. And when I am unsure of the quantities, I just add extra butter to it. And there is probably grace in that.

Faithful

IMG_0536

Your children are certainly a credit to you.”

We have all heard these words of encouragement, either spoken to someone who has carefully parented and trained their children into impressive adults, or perhaps these words were even spoken to you at some point. Mostly they are said with all good intentions, giving honor to whom it is due, recognizing the hard-work and patience that is required in parenting. But it leaves me fearing that the inverse may also be true. What does it mean when your children make poor choices? What if they are not where they should be spiritually? What does it mean if life is hard and we are still in the trenches, losing battle after battle? Then, is the inverse true? Are the parents to be held responsible for rebelliousness or disobedience? Does it mean we are failing?

I don’t believe so. And yet, it doesn’t change my fear and sorrow and worry over my children. I began this blog over five years ago partly due to the encouragement from a friend, and partly out of a desire to record the daily ebb and flow of home schooling, as well as the spiritual struggles of parenting, particularly one on the autism spectrum. In five years they have grown, and not surprisingly, more quickly than I had anticipated. Out of respect for their privacy and to protect their dignity, I have written selectively and sparingly on any specifics regarding our struggles. This blog is likely to be from hereon a place where I come to confess my own shortcomings, to seek answers, and to share any morsels of grace.

In the middle of the trenches you just don’t know how things will turn out. Often, it seems I am failing. What if my children are not a credit to me? What if I am not a credit to them? What if the inverse really is true that I have failed in some way?

But I know this not to be true, even if I fear it. I know life is hard. And it’s not yet over. Christ has not called me to exact change on anyone, but only to be faithful. Most of the time being faithful is as much as I can handle.

The other day a friend, whom I admire more than I know how to write, handed me a piece of paper with a name written on it. It was a suggestion, a place to turn to for help. I think of her and know how faithful she has been, yet not without pain. Her eyes still reflected the same struggle, and reminded me being faithful is all I am called to do.

I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

Revelation 3:8

Ratty and Mole and compassion and grace

Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows has been a classic for over a hundred years. I have heard about it all my life, and yet I am reading it for the first time now. S and I are sharing the same beautiful copy I purchased online, a hardback with richly expressive and detailed illustrations by Robert Ingpen. It has been a little tricky trying to share a copy. We both tend to want to read it at bedtime curled up with pillows and the welcome silence of the house. We are also writing summaries, or “skeletons of the plot” for each chapter.

Even as an adult, if you have not read this 1908 classic, I highly recommend it even though I have only completed the first four chapters. It tells the story of inexperienced but eager Mole, wise river-residing Ratty, distractible Toad, unsociable Badger and others. Grahame is a master at presenting their distinctly animal-like characteristics while also providing a discerning eye toward our own human peculiarities. The stories flow at an easy trickle. No great events happen, but we are privy to more and more of their strengths and flaws with each chapter. Mole, for example, is quickly dismayed when his foolishness causes him to get lost in the Wild Wood. Not heeding the sage advice of his friend, he persists in entering the forest alone in search of Badger. A rabbit races past him screaming, “Get out of this, you fool, get out!” This is not helpful to Mole.

But then, there is Rat, ever true and brave, seeking out his foolish friend, despite his own fears and the dangers. His only thought is to rescue Mole. Rat holds no grudges. It doesn’t matter that Mole had previously refused his warnings and brought this calamity on himself. Instead, the Rat responds kindly and works to get them out of the situation.

“Dear Ratty,” said the Mole. “I’m dreadfully sorry, but I’m simply dead beat and that’s a solid fact. You must let me rest here a while longer, and get my strength back, if I’m to get home at all.”

“O, all right,” said the good-natured Rat, “rest away. It’s pretty nearly pitch dark now, anyhow; and there ought to be a bit of a moon later.”

P.54

And that, my friends, is love and compassion and grace. Not once did Rat chastise Mole, though it was all completely his fault. He did not abandon him. He saw his predicament, and it became their predicament.

Here is the way to lead others out of the terrors of the Wild Wood:

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Galatians 6:2

On a Sunday

Sitting in the worship service, looking around at others, I may only see ordinary people, but if I look closer, with eyes of gratitude, I may catch a glimpse of a higher truth. I am part of something truer than what my tired eyes are taking in. God has transformed his people into impressive examples of love and grace. I am not naive; I still acknowledge the pain and brokenness among us. We are far from exemplary on our own merits. There a few struggling with addictions among us. Some have been abused; some have abused others. Many endure profound grief. We stand and sing, however, grateful together.


Sometimes I may not sing. Most of the times I am not able to carry a tune, much less contribute to the four-part harmony our tribe practices. Sometimes I dislike the song. Yes, sometimes I am distracted by the unnecessary apostrophe floating on the screen, or the wrong homonym renders the lyrics confusing.

That’s ok, because I see she has made it to church today. She is up and down chasing crayons from under the pew, escorting wriggling legs down the aisle, and back up again, solo, but smiling. I wonder if she hears the sermon…if it is discouraging that she expends this much energy when she could have stayed home, slept in.

He gets up to say a prayer. He seems so austere at times, almost cheerless. We rarely see eye to eye on extemporaneous doctrinal issues. I have found him annoyingly conservative. But there he stands, wording a prayer of contrition so beautifully I am ashamed to remember a time his gentle words comforted me in a difficult moment last year.

We sing.

We pray.

We hear the words of God together.

It all adds up to greater substance than it would initially appear. Some of us are lonely. Some of us depressed. Some of us are struggling with sins we have dragged about as on “ponderous chains” for years. Some of us are just thankful, hopeful, eagerly leaning in to God’s promises. We live and sing and pray as if they are already true. And they are.

God transforms the ugly into something weak and fragile, distinctly vulnerable, but beautiful.

She bothers me sometimes with her abrupt manner of speaking, as if she has no time for being polite, for choosing grace over expediency. I don’t know it, but I annoy him with my stubbornness, forever asserting myself when I could have just let it go. All of these are examples of what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins meant by “dappled things.” Somewhere among the archaic language, the newly-hyphenated words, and melodic alliterations, we understand his message. We are a mess. We are freckled and plain, mundane, tedious, distorted and ineffective. We are hopelessly hopefully ordinary.

Pied Beauty

By Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things –

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow and plough;

And all trades their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who, knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers -forth whose beauty is past change.

Praise him.

We are, indeed, “all things counter, original, spare, strange.”

And not unlike Elisha and his servants seeing the LORD’s angel armies for the first time encircling Israel upon battle, we gather on a Sunday in pews nominally comfortable, with people who only appear ordinary, with “landscape plotted and pieced,” and we catch a glory-glimpse. And we praise him.

We gather each Sunday, for “those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” (2 Kings 6:16).

Praise him.