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!

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)

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.

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.

 

New Eyes

I was fourteen, and she was about eight. Initially, I was surprised by her flippancy and matter-of-factness. I was tempted to look around to see if there was an adult to reprimand or correct her. There was none. She held her brother’s forearm as he lay there, seemingly with little thought, and shook it gently. His wrist, as his whole body, was lifeless and limp, and it flopped back and forth with her motion.

“This isn’t really Dale,” she said. “He’s already in heaven. This is just what he left behind.”

I wondered who had given her these words. Had she been taught them by an equally grieving adult in an attempt to comfort her?

Dale, and his big sister Opal, were “bus kids.” Many churches in the 1970s and the 1980s created ministries in their communities by bussing in unchurched children on Sunday mornings. Our moderate-sized congregation drove fourteen buses throughout local neighborhoods every Sunday to pick up over 400 children. My father began on Saturday visiting the kids as they played outside, speaking to any parents nearby, reminding them that the colorful bus would be there to pick them up the next morning. Opal and Dale were two of these kids, and honestly, some of my favorites.

Joy Bus
My brother and I in front of one of the buses about 1978 or 1979.

Opal bounded on the bus most Sundays still munching a piece of toast, hair uncombed. She was full of stories and explanations. Dale was quieter with dark blond hair. Sometimes we called him “Porky,” because he reminded us of the little actor who portrayed Porky in the 1930s Our Gang comedies.

About 1984 six-year-old Dale drowned in a Phoenix canal.

When I learned of his death, I was insistent that I was going to the viewing. It was my first. The room was small and there were few people I recognized.

Opal’s dry eyes and nonchalant way of stroking her brother’s arm or bangs touched me more than an obediently tearful little girl in a corner would have.

That little girl is in her early forties now. The last time I saw her was at her little brother’s wake. I’m not sure if she remembers riding the white bus with Noah’s Ark animals painted across it. I hope so. I don’t know if she remembers any of the bus songs, or me, or even my father, but I do hope she remembers a time when she was loved as a little girl. And I  hope she associates that with Jesus.

I hope her words at the viewing  were her words, and that they have guided her through life. I hope she sees through new eyes. Our old eyes can see only the tragedy and heartbreak, and it is tragic. But it’s not the end.

I don’t know how Opal’s story ends…or Dale’s for that matter.

I hope to see fully, beyond the tragedy and a small room hosting a blond boy’s viewing. I hope to see with new eyes beyond lost time and missed opportunities. I hope in greater things beyond feeble efforts and self-reliance.

Because hope is more that just plaintive wishes. It is assurance that we haven’t yet seen all that there is to see.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Hebrews 11:1

Are you ready?

A frequent greeting which falls from our lips this time of year is “Are you ready for Christmas?” And by this we mean, have you finished your Christmas shopping, do you have the meals shopped for and planned out, do you know where all the relatives will sleep, or how you will get to both sides of the family on Christmas Eve. We might rethink our intentions with this inquiry.

Are you ready?

Are you eagerly awaiting what has been long promised you? Are you resting in exuberant hopefulness? Is the Advent of the Son foremost in your thoughts? Are you ready to celebrate his once-upon-a-time birth and his most assured return?

May we be open to receiving the divine in our life. May we be open to recognizing the blessings and the light, just as the wise men recognized the bright, auspicious star. May we make room for him as we make room for the others before us who need a place to stay, a warm meal, or a sympathetic ear. Are we ready to welcome him as we welcome others in our lives? As we wait this advent, may we grow into a reflection of the holy Infant’s abiding love.

Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!

Luke 1:45

He made himself nothing

I have been reflecting on what Christ renounced to live here on earth.

 “rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”

‭‭Philippians‬ ‭2:7‬ ‭NIV‬‬

In his book Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge, Dallas Willard states that we are to live as Christ would have lived our specific life.

“As Jesus’ disciple… You are learning from Jesus how to lead your life as he would lead your life if he were you. Yes, the very life you have…there isn’t a person on this earth Jesus couldn’t have been. .. he relinquished supreme power. He learned to live  in the kingdom of God as an ordinary human being…He could live in your circumstances now.” P. 54

He could have been any one of us. Instead he was a carpenter’s son, living on the wrong side of the Pax Romana. How would he have lived your life in particular? Perhaps that is part of what he gave up- the ability to live all lives, to be omnipresent and to see humanity from every perspective. Jesus was only able to live the one life here on earth, just as we are limited. We can only see with the single pair of eyes that God created for us. How would Jesus have used my blue eyes in America in the 21st century?

Our prayer might be to catch glimpses of his omniscient vision as Creator and Savior. As C. S. Lewis encourages us,

But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

In this way, may he teach us as the all-knowing God of the universe, and may his pattern as a man speak to us of his compassion and wisdom as he also was limited in his humanity.