Coming Home to Emmanuel

– Andy Wade –

Hood River Warming Shelter - logoThis past Sunday marked the 28th day the Hood River Warming Shelter has been open this season. I’m reminded how, for some who have “no place the lay their head”, the days seem to drag on – especially those frigid winter days when you’re desperately waiting for the shelter doors to open at 6pm.

In contrast, for those of us living inside, cozy and warm, might be lamenting how quickly these same days of Advent seemsto be zipping by.

One of our shelter volunteers sent me an email the other day saying that he had a friend who makes high-end snow wear, and that he had several sets he wanted to give away to our shelter guests. His plan was to bring them one night last week and give them to the guests who were there. But life happened, and he wasn’t able to make it.

Then a couple of days later, as he was driving down the street with the coats and pants still in his trunk, he noticed one of our guests walking along the side of the road. Quickly stopping, he introduced himself and told him what he had to give him. The man’s eyes lit up as he looked over the amazing and totally unexpected gift. “It’s like I just won the lottery!” he cried. A simple act of love shattered the cold afternoon air as our guest was wrapped in a new jacket and pants. But even more, the de-humanizing experience of living on the streets had been recognized, touced by care, as he was warmed by the unexpected gift of compassion.

For many, this is a season of joy, of surprise, of hope, of preparation and expectation. For others it’s a season of sadness as we experience Advent and Christmas for the first time without a loved one. Or perhaps we find ourselves lining up at our local food bank, never having expected we’d ever be there asking for help. Or yes, even at a warming shelter, thankful for a warm place to stay, yet wondering how life managed to crumble around us, leaving us anything but “home for the holidays”.

This is life. Real life. With all the happiness and sorrows mixed together in ways that are often overwhelming. Sometimes we focus a bit too much on the joy of the season. We try to cover up or ignore other emotions that bubble to the surface, telling ourselves that we should be happy, it’s Advent after all, and Christmas is coming!

Our lectionary readings this past Sunday (Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 146:5-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11, and the alternate reading Luke 1:46-55) all speak, in one way or another, of hope, of expectation of what God will do. Far from trying to cover up our pain and hardship, these passages speak into it, declaring that God will draw near, God has heard and will act with compassion toward those who are in need.

Indeed, the One who came, who comes daily, and who will come again, is none other than Emmanuel, God with us. This is not some far-off God who winds up the clock, setting the world in motion, then sits back and watches from afar. This God is one who comes close. This God is one who is well aware of our pain, our sorrow, our fears, and even our often misguided expectations.

John the Baptist sends his messengers to Jesus to confirm that he is indeed the Messiah, the one they’ve been waiting for. Jesus’ response is actually rather interesting:

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Matthew 11:4-7

Jesus could have just said, “Yes, I am the one”. But what Jesus actually says hearkens back to various prophesies about the Messiah, calling the people to put aside their false-expectations and hear with new ears – this is the one who draws near! This is the one who heals! This is the one who embraces the outcast and humanizes their existence with the touch of love and compassion.

The other interesting part about this is that many of the people were expecting a triumphant, military Messiah, one who would overthrow the Roman oppressors. Jesus reminds them that the Messiah foretold by the prophets would be one who comes close – Emmanuel – and his method of overthrowing empires would be completely upside-down and inside-out to their way of thinking.

Sometimes what we expect is not at all what we receive

I wonder what our shelter guest was expecting when this car stopped and a man got out and approached him? I know what he wasn’t expecting. He wasn’t expecting to walk away from that encounter clothed in new ski clothes worth over $200! He probably wasn’t even expecting a positive encounter with this stranger. Life on the streets is difficult, and usually when someone actually notices you, stops you, it’s not going to be good news. Last night at the shelter I asked this guest about the unexpected gift. “It’s like I’ve died and gone to heaven!” he beamed.

So what are you expecting this Advent?
What are you expecting this Christmas?

It’s so easy for us to get stuck in our holiday routines and forget that often our expectations are not at all what God is calling us into. What God has in mind is even better!

During the Thanksgiving to Christmas period, soup kitchens, shelters, and food banks are filled with good people wanting to help out those “down on their luck” during the holidays. Obviously these “poor people” need our help and it’s good that we should take a bit of time, and a handful of resources, to “spread the Christmas cheer”.

But what if we have it all backwards? What if Jesus is challenging us, like he challenged John’s followers so many years ago, “What are you going out to see?”

What are we going out to see when we serve those in need at a warming shelter, or at a food bank, or at a soup kitchen? What are we expecting? Often what we’re expecting is tainted by ideas about the other, ideas often shaped by the media and society as a whole, and we wonder:

  • Why are they here asking for food or shelter?
  • If they don’t have any money, why are they smoking?
  • What if one of them is mentally ill – I don’t want to be attacked!
  • Don’t they just need to try a little harder, work a little harder, so they can put their life back together?

I know that in my first several encounters with the un-housed, way back in the early 1980’s, what I expected – what I “went out to see” – was not at all what I encountered. As it turned out, I was the blind one, the naked one, the truly needy one. Over and over again I encountered Emmanuel in the presence of the person I had come to serve. Yes, they had needs, often deep physical and emotional needs.

But as Emmanuel met us there, my own wounds were uncovered, and in that moment it was clear that the two of us were really no different – we both desperately needed Emmanuel. And most profoundly, as we met together, Emmanuel was in our midst, touching, healing, opening eyes, opening hearts, and drawing us close, not discriminating based on our housing situation or the clothes on our backs, but based on our very basic shared need for Emmanuel.

As we decorate and have parties this Advent and Christmas season, I pray these celebrations don’t become just another distraction from the realities in life we encounter. We need times of great celebration and joy; God is good and wants us to rejoice! But we also experience pain, loss and brokenness. What I need, what we need, is Emmanuel!

We need a God who comes close. We need a God who willingly lays everything aside to intimately identify with all that we are: the joys and the sorrows. And we need to open ourselves up to the world around us in ways that are oftentimes scary and out of our comfort zones. The surest way to discover God in our midst is when we step outside ourselves and enter into the life of another. It is in these places that we truly begin to encounter Emmanuel. Here on the raw edges of life we discover just how alike we all are; housed and un-housed, hungry and well-fed, sick and the healthy, we all need Emmanuel.

Besides being on staff with Mustard Seed Associates, Andy is also the Volunteer Coordinator for Hood River Warming Shelter( HRWS). To learn more about issues surrounding homelessness and find our more about HRWS, please visit Hood River Warming Shelter.