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  • Tim Smith

Emmanuel: God. With. Us.

Experiencing God in Unlikely Places

On a recent crisp December day, my four year old daughter and I went for a bicycle adventure through our rural community in Nova Scotia. When we returned home, we found ourselves outside our locked home, my wife having run out on an errand with our baby. Remembering that we had not brought our key with us, we were left looking through the window, faces against the cold glass, at which moment my daughter exclaimed: “It looks like such a cozy home in there”. Warmly dressed, we enjoyed the extra playtime outdoors until the rest of the family returned home. And I was left thinking, “What if we could only look in?”.

At this time of year, our family loves to walk or drive our neighbourhood to experience the magic of lights lining snowy roofs and dangling from trees and shrubs. Through almost every cozy window we spot the Christmas tree, some sparsely decorated, others barely standing with all their weighted garb, but always aglow. Having spent time connecting with youth experiencing homelessness in our area, and engaging as we do in work related to foster care and adoption, we often wonder at this time of year: What is it like for those who feel they can only look in? Hailed as the “most wonderful time of the year”, this season is perhaps the most anticipated, and dreaded, in our part of the world. For those who have a place to belong (and those not carrying unresolved relational trauma) it is typically a time of beauty and connection, inclusion. For others, it is when pain and loneliness, bleeding into hopelessness, often reach an all-time high.

Yet He came to be WITH us. Emmanuel. God. With. Us.

The ultimate pain is to be alone with our pain. As Jesus hung on the cross, He summoned all the strength He humanly had left to cry out: “My God My God why have you forsaken me!”. The pain of separation and loneliness was so incredibly deep it called out every last ounce of His strength to attempt reconciliation with His Father. In the garden the night before, He had sweat drops of blood in agonized anticipation of this moment, pleading with His Father for any other way.

Bessel Van der Kolk, one of the leading researchers in the world in the area of trauma and its effect on humans, states that behaviours such as addictions, self-harm and suicide are the human solutions to carrying trauma alone. Rather than viewing them as symptoms of trauma, hurting humans are understood to grasp these as a better alternative than to journey alone with painful trauma. Recently, our community lost a young lady who had journeyed to the end of this path of self-made solutions to her deep, intergenerational trauma and pain. For all the work of professionals, community members and friends, she felt overwhelmingly alone with her pain.

Researchers have also come to view poverty, at its core, to be relational. When given voice, the key lack expressed by those experiencing poverty is not material, it is human. We chase the material (and quickly reduce even the human to material) as a protective measure, hoping that things will satisfy without hurting us. Yet our heart cry is, and always has been, for connection. Behind every need is a need for relationship.

He came to be WITH us. Emmanuel. God. With. Us.

Jesus became flesh, an embodied human, to dwell amongst us. To dwell is to abide, inhabit, remain, to settle or sit down, to reside, and to continue. He is in it, with us. Instead of clinging to His place in Trinitarian fellowship, Jesus’ obedience and submission to join us as human was an outcome of intimate connection, trust and presence with Father and Spirit. “Who will go for us?” “Here I am, send me.” And when Jesus took on human form, He did so forever.

Beginning as a baby, He was totally vulnerable, totally dependent: nine months in the womb, and then on the outside, only able to cry, wiggle, babble or seek eye contact to communicate His needs. Born into a family, community and nation that at the time were primarily unnoticed, unheard, undesired, alone and carrying deep intergenerational trauma, Jesus identified fully with disconnected and vulnerable humanity. And when He came to His own, they did not receive Him. Yet, He loved them to the end. He prayed for them, wept over them, ministered to them, healed them, provided miraculously for them, worked, sweated, traveled, spoke, kept silent, listened, cared, carried, and loved. He lived with them. And He died, publicly, with them.

When the time came to return to His Father, He promised not to leave them as orphans. He would come to them, on, in, with them through His Spirit (Gr. ’paraklete’ - one who comes alongside). And greater things, He declared, would be done through the oneness, the with-ness, of His Body and Family - the Church. In fact, the world would know Jesus as sent by the Father through the togetherness, the unity, of His Church, made a reality through His Spirit. Amongst incredible diversity in the Church, there are perhaps only 2 common denominators across all differences: being human (and this according to Andrew Murray’s definition: broken, finite and gifted) and being empowered by the same Spirit. Perfection Himself is dwelling in imperfect humanity and reconciling all things to Himself. It is our unity in diversity and togetherness in brokenness that is the message and method of the good news we embody to the world.

God. With. Us.

Emmanuel, God with us, is now expressed through our being with each other, and particularly with those Jesus knew we would consider as “the least of these”. Those we would naturally count out, exclude, overlook, walk around, avoid, feel discomfort with, shun, or show apathy regarding connecting with - with these we experience Jesus Himself. We touch Him, cry with Him, laugh with Him, serve Him, love Him - with them. What is our faith if not a drawing back together, an invitation to experience God with us, the ministry of reconciliation? The divide is broken down between ‘us’ and ‘them’. We are called to a holistic return to being with: human with the Divine, with other humans, with self and with the rest of creation. The whole creation is groaning for this, the glorious freedom of God’s children. So, we hope and wait patiently for what we don’t yet see, His Spirit helping us in our weakness, nothing separating us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (rf. Rom 8)

Jesus came to do what we had left off doing in the beginning, live as fully human in holistic healthy relationship with God, self, others and creation. He came to atone for these sins of omission as well as those of commission, that which we had used to fill the void and alleviate our pain and disconnectedness. Hurt people hurt people, including themselves. Jesus took on humanity, allowing us to hurt God in human form, and then offered forgiveness as no other hurting human could do. In this way He leads us back into true connection with God, ourselves, others, and creation, empowering us to live according to our original design - reconciled, healthy and whole. And this is nowhere more clearly expressed than through experiencing healing connection with fellow-humans who are alone with their pain and trauma.

He is: Emmanuel. God. With. Us.

Emmanuel is no longer confined to one human body, God with us reaches across the globe and across time. “Greater things you will do”, is the promise He is keeping. He has given us, His Family, the ministry of reconciliation. The Church has been gifted the ability to express the embodied presence of God… so that the world will know, one connection, one relationship at a time. How will you experience Emmanuel this season?

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