Immanuel, God With Us: — How “With” is “With?”

read Seal Your Mouths by Brooke Rosemary, Flickr.com_-photos-indigotimbre-46141712_412e856dc9_o

“Seal Your Mouths” by Brooke Rosemary, Flickr.com_/photos/indigotimbre/46141712_412e856dc9_o.jpg

The dentist’s chair was the last place I wanted to be. A piddling annoyance for many, the dentist represented far more trauma for me. Vivid pictures swirled in my mind of childhood cavity-fillings without anesthesia, and the more recent “time-I-almost-died-in-the-hospital”: a near-fatal bacterial infection had invaded my system after a broken tooth and a six-month cleaning.

Four years later, I was still terrified.

I cringed in the chair and tried, hard, to imagine Jesus near me. Anywhere near me. Even in the same building. In that moment, no amount of “with” seemed enough, and nothing convinced me – not Scripture, not worship songs, not frantic prayer, nor even hand-holding by a concerned dental technician.

Immanuel, God “with” us, just didn’t cut it, and I sputtered in exasperation.   Exactly how “WITH” was “with?”

The drill whined, and I clenched my jaw, my fingers, and my toes. Eyes wide, my mind went into overdrive, forcing facts into the front of my brain.

“OK Jesus, where are you?” I forced a deep breath, and tried imagining somewhere Jesus might be. Not just a distant force, I reminded myself, but someONE right here in the room. Someone strong and protecting.

What if Jesus was really THERE, in the room, at the end of the long chair…

…wiggling my almost-numb toes.

What? The surprising image popped into my brain. He was wiggling my toes, loosening my tension, changing my view and jostling me out of my terror. I giggled silently as the picture gradually emerged and I realized how stiff I was. I flexed my hands, my fingers, my ankles. In my mental picture, Jesus smiled as I wiggled each limb, reassuring me that this was no dangerous visit. I would not die, the pain would not defeat me, and the fear could leave.

Somehow, I couldn’t be scared and grateful at the same time. (That much is objectively true: anxiety and fear both emanate from the same part of the brain, I’m told). I breathed, and stopped chomping vice-like on my physician’s hands.

Christmas was long-gone, but Immanuel was apparently still very much “with.” He didn’t come to leave us alone, but to stay amid our darkness, our fears and instabilities, our joys and blessings, and our anger and pain. He is huggingly close, holding our hands and our hearts and overcoming all manner of evil.

Immanuel, God WITH us. It’s not just for Christmas any more.

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Slandering Appliances

“What didn’t go wrong in the last two weeks?” I snapped at my friend’s innocent “How is it going?” My litany of woes wasn’t short; the daily absurdities felt like a swarm of hungry mosquitoes, intent on making me dessert.

I reviewed the damages:

  • The refrigerator puddled water on the floor, costing hundreds of dollars to fix, just as my husband left for another unexpected business trip.
  • Our new laser printer digested my expensive cardstock and refused to perform just before our scheduled seminar.
  • A predatory virus blossomed into a raging ear infection and pounding sinuses after four flights in one weekend.
  • And finally, our faithful Honda van joined the onslaught, blinking the dashboard lights randomly on and off (and on, and off) en route home.

Barely scratching the surface of my afflictions, I wondered if now was the time to add the story about wanting to throttle a well-meaning co-worker. Perhaps not? At least I could slander appliances and viruses without fear of retribution.

My friend groaned and then laughed. “Wait, wait,” she interrupted, “tell me three things you’re thankful for!”

Great. Thankful? I wasn’t even close.

I stopped, retracing my brain’s steps and taking a breath. Slowly, pictures surfaced in my mind. Better pictures, not fantasies of kicking refrigerators or throwing printers out the window. Images of friends helping, sacrificing, coming alongside. “The leader who gave up time and rest to come to our ­­­­­meetings when he wasn’t well enough to do so,” I said, forcing myself to calm down. “And my colleague – she spent hours copying and collating notes for Board sessions the other weekend.”

I took another breath. The list was getting easier. “Oh! My friend surprised me with an invitation I didn’t expect. She made me feel so welcome and loved!” More pictures surfaced, unbidden. Like eager puppies released from a cage, appreciations tumbled out on top of one another. “The weather, the gorgeous foliage, the food and the show when we saw the performance last weekend; The lavender and rosemary bushes that survived the cold snap; our excited friends helping with next weekend’s bridal shower; and our marvelous supporters who paid for all our expenses at the seminar,” I gushed. Breathing was easy now, and fun pictures of the past weeks bubbled to the surface.

“Okay, okay, my turn!” my friend interjected. By this time we were both laughing, blessed beyond measure that in the midst of stress, Jesus was holding us and keeping us afloat. Nothing changed on the outside, but inside our worlds shifted. For the umpteenth time, God reminded us that He was bigger than our circumstances. He understood, He knew our pain, He was there to help and redirect us, and to redeem all the offending attacks.

I shook my head. “I’ll learn,” I thought. “I really will get this!” Determination rose up and joy snuck into my soul, ready to try again. After all, the refrigerator was working again, the car would probably be fixed tomorrow (and last until spring?), and the laser printer and I had called off our divorce.

The assaults were real, but God was more real, more present, and more able than I’d remembered. Appreciation opened the door, and the Holy Spirit blew in. I smiled, grateful for the break from unrelenting attack. This was a thankful I could live with.

In the midst of your stress, are there “thankful-nesses” waiting to be noticed?wendy blog signature

Barking At Wolves

Image by Shawn Kinkade CC BY –ND 4.0,

Image by Shawn Kinkade CC BY –ND 4.0,

I lay shivering in bed, frozen against the wall under the sloping eaves. The darkness haunted me as menacing shadows danced in the window, backlit through the white-sheet ruffled curtains and the pull-down shade.

Wolves, there were wolves there. I could hear them, sense them, feel them slinking across the floor to my bed. They hid there, daring my feet to dangle where razor-sharp teeth could snap. I pulled my toes further under the thin blanket, too scared to scream for Daddy. When my breath finally returned, I was as voiceless as in a dream. I waited an eternity until sleep smothered the fear.

Mommy was no help. She frowned her impatient morning-frown as she cracked eggs sharply and dropped them in the frying pan. Her eyes scolded me while her voice told me the wolves did not exist. Her words made me doubt myself, but my fears didn’t listen to logic. I shoved the questions down and waited. Perhaps Daddy would help in the evening?

I waited until he came home late and changed after work. Then he was in my room. I gulped. He wouldn’t believe me either, would he? His eyes were kind, though, and I tried my voice, surprised when this time there were sounds to go with my fears. I felt silly when I heard my own words. “I don’t want to go to bed. There are wolves under the bed! There are! They were there last night. I heard them, and I saw them in the window!”

“Wolves?” His blue eyes widened as he looked from the window to the bed with the green ruffled bedspread. “Wolves?” he repeated, as I nodded tentatively, feeling sheepish and even younger than my little girl age. I looked down at my toes, afraid of what he’d say.

“Well, we’ll have to get rid of them!” Then, suddenly, he was down on his hands and knees. Barking. Under the bed. At the wolves. Barking, until every last one of the grey monsters disappeared, vanished, slinking out the window and into the night.

“There,” he said as he rubbed his hands together with a satisfied grin. “We took care of THEM!”

And suddenly, I could breathe again. Laughter started to bubble. We giggled, sputtered, and he grabbed me in a hug, tucking me firmly into the bed. It wasn’t scary now, not with my Daddy there.

He understood. He chased the wolves away. He believed me.

I didn’t know Jesus then, I was too little and my Daddy didn’t know how to introduce us. But I learned something then that I know about Jesus now: He takes me seriously. He listens to my fears and my hurts, even if they don’t make sense in an adult world. He listens first, without telling me what I “should” feel, or why my fears are wrong.

And then he barks, and the wolves go away. Schedule wolves. Relationship wolves. Evaluating wolves. Deadline wolves. Money wolves. Worry wolves. Despair wolves. Shame wolves (especially shame wolves, my most vicious wolves of all).

Did you catch that? He listens first. He believes me. And then he barks at the wolves, so I can sleep.

What wolves did He scare for you today?

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Church: The Messy Place We LIve

luggage sculpture from freephotophoto from

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice. ‘For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-13)

One more conflict, one more misunderstanding, one more incident needing mediation. In my weaker moments, I want to scream, or perhaps move to some uninhabited island. Or both. I forget, of course, that “me” will come along and ruin the perfect solitude.

Messy, this church life is so messy. We Christians are often an offended, hurting lot; or on other days we are maddeningly “victorious,” meeting suffering with answers and ills with fixes. What is wrong with us? Have the Spirit’s fruit and gifts not taken hold?

I simmer and distract myself with reading, doing and accomplishing, hoping that the day’s frustrations will dwindle and dissolve before I reappear, but my mind is still busy seeking answers. I’m not praying, exactly, but apparently I haven’t stopped listening.

“It will always be messy,” I hear in my head. Oh, there’s that still small voice again. “It has to be messy. I came for the sick.”

I shake my head and realize, once again, how quickly I forget.

We are sinners. The world has it together, in comparison, or so they think. If they had a need, they would run to hear a gospel of hope. In contrast, the sickest among us figure it out – like the woman in Mark 5, they look for answers and push through the crowd to find solutions.

The church is the clubhouse for the messed up, broken and poor—both in spirit and in health. We who have sought have found. We ran to a Redeemer and discovered Someone who could make sense of our screwed up, shattered, lonely lives. We found Somebody who could restore and change us, see us for who we could be, and transform our ugliness into beauty. We discovered, to our amazement, that we are cherished.

However, as redeemed as we feel, our pasts are not as gone as we would like. There is healing, but we often haven’t found it. We are new creations carrying leftover luggage, pasts that persist and drag us down like a hem full of stones. It’s those pasts that fight, cling, trigger, shame, and hurt; my luggage wrestles your luggage and we’re left with a mess.

We are sinners becoming saints. We’re only barely learning to clean up those ugly consequences of our baggage battles. My need for control still skewers your insecurities; your arrogance wounds my timidity. We forgive, we learn, we grow, we heal, and we arise with the determination to let more of the Spirit take over the next time.

May I challenge you, and us? World: it’s a messy church, but God’s working on us, and we’re real. Church: keep growing, the world needs to see how we handle life. We’re the only ones who can come through these battles with Hope – hope in a Savior who changes, redeems, and calls us forward. No one else in the world – no one – has that answer.

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A Tale of Two Kingdoms

DSC_7882image (c) Wendy Coy

A quick glance through social media turned into a long squeal. My friend decided to run a half marathon. At Disney. DisneyLAND!

I posted a Facebook reply in three nanoseconds and almost booked a flight on the spot. Why?

Because Disneyland makes me yearn for the Kingdom of God, and Heaven.

Truly, I’m not nuts. Let me explain.

The first time I visited Disneyland I had just emerged from five days of fasting and tussling with God about leadership issues. I was exhausted and wondered how I’d recover.

Enter The Mouse.

I wandered, awestruck, through the park. One man and a large organization, plus a massive supply of imagination and money, created a perfect dream world. Just what my spirit needed. That off-season day there were no tears, no frowns, no trash, no mistakes, no conflict, no worries, no errors, and no hurt, pain or trauma. No mistakes taunted me; tantrums disappeared with hugs from oversized characters. Perhaps Disney had problems that day, but they stayed off-stage. I did not have to deal with them. Not. Even. Once.

My heart instinctively needed a place where all the bad things disappeared. A place where someone was happy to be with me, and smiles radiated from every window.

My soul reveled in wonder and delight. My brain danced and somersaulted along with my eyes and ears. My imagination tumbled and spun and whirled and clapped along with my hands and my body.

Suddenly I remembered God’s Kingdom, the play, the healing, the laughter. I remembered that God prepared a place (both physical and spiritual) where the ills don’t win, and He wanted to bring that Place, that Kingdom, to invade my world. My head knew all that; I’d prayed and seen healing; I’d worshiped and felt Glory; I’d watched God change death and despair into Life and Hope. But I’d forgotten.

God used a silly Mouse to remind me about beauty and whimsy and color and excitement and joy. No, Disneyland wasn’t His Kingdom, it was a magic kingdom; it wasn’t perfect, but it reminded me of God’s perfection. And if MAN, created in God’s image, could do this with finite amounts of expertise and dollars, HOW MUCH MORE did God create a beautiful, perfect New World for us to enjoy?

For some strange reason, The Mouse rekindled my longing for Heaven, our true home, a place of wonder. No tears, no pain, no trauma… and everyone is glad to be with you. Joy embodied.

What does it take to remind you of God’s Kingdom?

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Relational Circuits and Pharisees

irises stock photo for refresh blogThe Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. Psalm 103:8

“OK, thank you,” I chirp tersely in my leave-me-alone-can’t-you-see-I’m-working voice. Five seconds later, I realize what I did…no, what I AM doing. I have no idea what my husband said, what he wanted, what he’s feeling, or even if he smiled or frowned.  Nor did I care.

That’s not the first time I preemptively stopped conversation, empathy and connection with someone I loved in the last 24 hours. Not that I’m cruel, or abusive, or even short-tempered. On the contrary, I’m cheerfully accomplishing more in one day than I usually do in a week. I’m also cold and distant, distinctly not synchronizing with anyone’s feelings ( not even my own!), and driven to accomplish my overwhelming to-do list. In short, my “relational circuits” are off.

Relational circuits? Yes: those emotional, social, and neurological pathways that keep us connected to God and others. “RCs” are the trails and corridors that let us value people, attune to them (and notice them attune with us), work with them well and function as a team. Relational circuits help us lead with sensitivity, respond with flexibility, and process pain when life triggers or traumatizes us. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that relational circuits are what enable us to perceive and cooperate with what the Holy Spirit is doing. I can’t really “do what the Father is doing” (John 5:19) if I can’t respond to the Holy Spirit, and if my RCs are off, I don’t really want to respond to anyone!

What about Jesus? Did He care about relational circuits? Certainly He never used those words, but it’s impossible to love someone well without empathy, attunement, sensitivity and care. When my relational circuits are off, I don’t care about people as people; I see them as problems to be solved or pieces to a puzzle, but certainly not as cherished sons and daughters of the Most High God.

The very people Jesus tussled with most were the Pharisees and my suspicion is that their relational circuits were definitely off almost all the time. The Pharisees were legalistic, judgmental, critical, evaluative, and consumed with external appearances. They valued rules over relationship and Jesus confronted them at every turn. That’s not a comforting thought as I bulldoze through my to-do list, shoving people, conversations and interactions off to the roadside.

How ironic. Here I sit, writing about relational circuits while my relational circuits are off. Huh. How to turn them back on?

Chuckling, I shake my head and notice the gorgeous irises my husband left on my desk before dinner. I did say thank you. At least that’s a start.

“Okay, Jesus, let’s begin again.” I breathe a quick prayer and think through the mental checklist of ways that work to reset my emotional temperature.

Appreciation. Appreciating God is probably the best route, but gratitude for anything is good, as long as I can really feel it.

Prayer.  It’s hard to be ornery if we’re really talking to God and being honest about what we feel. After all, he already knows how we feel. 

Empathy. Finding someone to be with you in your pain; someone who will understand, empathize and listen. 

Laughter. Real, genuine, kind and goodhearted humor (not the sarcastic kind) can help jump start our brains back to connection.

Singing. Singing worship or sacred music, especially in a group.  This may not work for everyone, but it certainly helps me focus on what’s good and true. Neurologically, singing together is a powerful relationship builder, both with God and others.

My RC light flickers on as I print the page. I’m smiling now, the real kind of smile, as I toss my inner Pharisee to the floor and walk upstairs to thank my husband for those lovely irises.

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I poked my head into my husband’s home office long enough to see him don headphones for his next Skype appointment. Backing away to avoid interrupting, I glanced up at his computer screen and saw his co-worker’s avatar – a black and white photo of a somber-faced, suit-wearing male, more like a mugshot than a pleasant introductory portrait. “Now, that’s scary!” I thought as I turned to go, until my husband startled me with his opening greeting.

“Hi, Kevin (not his real name),” he said brightly.” Y’know, when I look at your picture, why do I feel like you’re going to break my knees?”

I sputtered, giggled, covered my open mouth with my hand and ducked into the hallway, hoping I closed the door before “Kevin” could hear my laughter bubbling in the background.   “Like you’re going to break my knees?” Did he really just say that? How could he so quickly capture a moment and banter like that? I shook my head, chuckling, amazed at his ability to tease humor into any conversation.

And then I noticed what the lighthearted conversation accomplished: I wasn’t harried, frenzied and anxious any more. My morning had promised the worst of driven days as I planned to welcome 30 leaders to our home for a two-day seminar, and house six team members. If that wasn’t enough, my office looked like a cross between a bad episode of “Hoarders” and the aftermath of a black Friday sale at Walmart – and some poor soul needed to SLEEP in there. But now that I was laughing, the cleanup process seemed positively hopeful.

Somehow humor breaks through the worst of my introspection. It takes all my negative despair and restores joy and relationship. Laughter forces my spirit to brighten, and I regain hope in the midst of the world’s dark despair.

I wonder, is this just a clever coping mechanism or did God make us this way on purpose? A quick rundown of Bible stories doesn’t exactly produce fodder for a comedy routine – at least not a nice one – but humor must be in there somewhere, since we’re created in God’s image. After all, He created some rather bizarre animals (Armored armadillos? Long-legged giraffes? Waddling penguins? Rafter-hanging bats? Would a somber Creator have made those? Would YOU?). And he created (ahem) us, so HE must have laughed, right?

Come to think of it, almost every interaction with Jesus that I “see” or imagine involves Him smiling, laughing, walking through life with lighthearted security. When I’m anxiously praying that He’ll get me through my dreaded two-hour dental repair, He shows me a picture of Him holding my hand while He sits on the table, grinning, legs swinging, relaxed and unafraid. Even when He heals my greatest pains, holding me while I cry, He always ends with a smile, with joy and hope.

Yes, He weeps with those who weep and cries with us in our sorrow. He upends tables and throws money-changers out of the temple; but He also embodies joy. No one – no one – would follow a somber, intense exhorter who adds obligation and despair to already burdened shoulders. We follow a savior who endured the cross for the JOY set before Him, and his humor and lightness invade our despairing universe.

In these hard days of earthquakes, famines, violence and despair, we need this holy joy. Our personal desolations and corporate angsts drive us to places no one can endure. Humor, laughter, lightened hearts lift our darkened hearts and we see again Jesus’ hand and the hope of His breakthrough redemption.

Jesus assures that at the end of all time, we will have joy. We will laugh. We will rejoice. I, for one, cannot afford to wait until then. I will find a way to laugh now and practice joy for eternity. Together, can we risk this? Can we laugh and extend His joy to those mired in pain and darkness?

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