My favorite characteristic of God’s love is most evident to me at Christmas when we sing about Emmanuel—God with us. I call this attribute his with-ness.
I experienced this with-ness tangibly through the gift of friendship these last few years. When my husband and I moved from Michigan to California, we prayed for community for months. We made several wonderful friends (whom we consider “lifers” today), but we did not have that day-in, day-out, stays-with-you community that loves you through your messes, misspoken words, and sometimes-awkward attempts at living like Jesus.
And then another couple from church invited us to dinner. We all noticed, “Hey! Not only can we laugh about the same things, but we are all looking to live authentically with God and others.”
The pair took a step further by inviting us to a weekly community dinner with their four kids, her parents and grandma, a seventy-something couple, and other men and women in need of good food and a genuine hug.
Over that dinner table we talked about faith, laughed over YouTube clips, spilled our food, answered the question, “What was the highlight of your day?” dozens of times, sang a family “go-to-eating” song at least a hundred times, celebrated birthdays, cried over job losses, cheered over the birth of our first daughter, planned group vacations (then went on them), and did real life.
We belonged. These were our people. We were with each other on the messy journey that is following Jesus. They displayed his Emmanuel love.
When God called us to move back to Michigan two years later because of a job transition, it felt like someone amputated a body part. We had amazing friends and family back in Michigan, but…these were our people. They knew the daily ins and outs of our lives.
After a season of moving and mourning, we dusted ourselves off and asked, “Okay, how can we incorporate what we had there, here?” We looked around and noticed the too-spacious-for-us house God let us rent cheaply, and the too-big-for-us table that came with the home. We turned to each other and questioned, “Why not?”
As a pair of busy introverts with a new ministry and child, we could have answered that question with a myriad of excuses for why a weekly community dinner wouldn’t work. But after experiencing what it felt like to belong in California, we had to try it in Michigan.
So we began with a simple dinner. It’s not perfect, but that’s the point. Jesus invites us to go to him with our problems, our pain, our not-perfect-yet attitudes, and he loves through it all. I come to my new and old friends here in Michigan with a not-Food-Network standard meal, and it’s okay. That’s the point. Laugh, spill, let your babies cry. Let’s journey with each other.
Of course, God has standards for us. He loves us too much to allow us to stay living in sinful patterns and to choose death when we think it might give us life. But when we immerse ourselves in his Emmanuel presence through the Word, prayer, and traveling with fellow sojourners, darkness comes to light and confession is a nearly natural outpouring of a desire to receive more of God’s love together.
I cannot do that on my own. Life is too hard, too messy, too discouraging. However, when there are men and women willing to reflect a loving Savior who came and never leaves, life isn’t so bleak. There is laughter to be found in spilled milk and burned chicken when surrounded with those who love like Emmanuel.
As I look now at our Christmas tree, and see that too-big table peaking around the corner, I can’t help but decide again that—without a doubt—my favorite characteristic of God’s selfless love is his with-ness.