Emmanuel in Iowa

Obama_in_the_cornThe candidates are swarming in Iowa like flies on a dead carcass, “pressing the flesh,” making speeches in school gymnasiums, holding impromptu press conferences in diners and donut shops. The Washington Post’s Campaign Tracker uses Google Maps to pinpoint where your favorite politician is appearing hour by hour.

In my mind, I see Jack Bauer at a CTU computer, retasking satellites, their powerful cameras peering down at campaign motorcades slip-sliding along icy Iowa highways. I’ve been watching 24 reruns again.

The theory of campaigning, tested by decades of political hard knocks, is that you can’t win in Iowa without putting “boots on the ground.” Iowans don’t want more TV commercials and junk mail, they want to see the candidates face to face, eyeball to eyeball. They want to measure a candidate’s grip in a handshake and evaluate her off-the-cuff responses to their concerns about ethanol and outsourcing and Iraq.

If their candidate wins, they can say “I was there at the beginning,” but they will never again get as close to power as they were in those drafty-cold barns and overheated living rooms in Platteville and Chillicothe and Ottumwa.

There’s something inside of us that craves the real thing, face to face. I keep saying — and it isn’t an original thought — that we humans are relational. We aren’t wired to be loners, and in fact, we recognize excessive introversion as a sign of trouble. Autism, as an extreme example, is a disease that blocks the instincts that Iowans and political candidates practice together — strangers seeking common ground for social interaction, for fellowship.

The word Emmanuel occurs only three times in the Bible, and really only twice, since its use in the New Testament is merely a quotation from Isaiah. Yet, Emmanuel, which means God is with us, is a foundation stone in Christian theology. God, the Eternal and Omnipotent Creator, wants to press the flesh and look us over eyeball to eyeball.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [which means, God is with us]. — Isaiah 7:14, ESV

Isaiah isn’t the only suggestion that God yearns for fellowship with us. It begins in Genesis, where God walked together with Adam and Eve in the garden. Whether you take that story literally or as an allegory, it characterizes the Judeo-Christian God differently from the gods of other religions. He wants meaningful social interaction and influence with men and women.

Evangelicals often say that God wants a “personal relationship” with us.†

Abraham was known as God’s “friend,” and Moses went up on Mt. Sinai to meet and speak with God face to face. David composed songs and poetry for God, performing them in honor of the One who ruled Israel (and fought for Israel) beside him.

Conversely, Richard Dawkins is famous for describing God as a blind watchmaker, a feeble-minded genius who created a masterwork, wound it up, then wandered off and forgot where he laid it. I don’t blame Dawkins for voicing what most of us have thought as we’ve watched war and famine, disease and sorrow grip human history.

If you believe the writers of the New Testament, the Christian God is neither absent-minded nor disinterested in humanity. Christianity claims that for a short time in dusty Israel, Jesus became the Emmanuel and gave us a glimpse of what could be.

Jesus told the disciples of John the Baptist:

…tell [John] what you have seen and heard — the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor. And tell him, ‘God blesses those who do not turn away because of Me.’ — Luke 7:22,23, NLT

He not only healed their diseases, but he hinted frequently that God was doing something altogether new through him, something that the world had not seen since the Garden of Eden:

One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the Kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied, “The Kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you.” — Luke 17:20,21, NLT

Why Emmanuel? Why does God want to know us, to call us his friends, to see us face to face? Apparently for the same reasons we do: It is in his nature.

Biblical writers describe Heaven as a place teeming with intelligent and, apparently, relational beings: angels, seraphim, and the three eternal co-existing beings who are somehow the One — God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Created as we are in the image of God and sharing some of our maker’s DNA, as it were, we are relational because God himself is relational. We reach out for a handshake in the blustery Iowa winter because God himself reached out to some fisherman on the shores of Galilee and said, “Come follow me, and let me show you how to fish for people.”

Emmanuel looks like that. God with us is God speaking to us, healing us, teaching us love and compassion, encouraging us not to lose hope in the morning when we’ve fished all night and have come back empty-handed.

Emmanuel looks like a hot cup of coffee and a friendly word offered to a lonely campaign worker who is miles and months away from his family in the dead of winter.

Even in Iowa, in the midst of an arduous and divisive contest between Sumo politicians, we can live out the truth of Emmanuel — the Kingdom of God is among us, with us, and within us.

† Two recent posts on “personal relationship” at Intellectuelle helped my thinking about this post. They were Sarah’s A Personal Relationship with Jesus: Goals for Women’s Ministry Leaders and Ilona’s response, Theology of the Evangelical ‘Personal Relationship’. Both of these women have done some good thinking on what we Evangelicals mean by the phrase “a personal relationship with God.”

Photo credit: Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

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  1. Thanks, Charlie, for this thought-provoking post.

    I’d like to look at your analogy from a slightly different perspective. Genesis tells us that we’re created in God’s image. If we crave one-on-one relationship, then it stands to reason so does He.

    Iowans have the right idea. TV ads, direct mail campaigns, and news sound bites are one-sided and often manipulative. Asking a candidate a question and pinning him/her down on exactly what they mean makes it hard for them to disguise their true positions.

    It’s unfortunate that such interaction is the exception rather than the rule. In all fairness, the candidates would be hard pressed to reach the American people using this method.

    I’m glad there are still people like Iowans, who get to know the candidates on a personal basis.

  2. This is a wonderful post, Charlie! I really enjoyed reading it. You made a good analogy with the “personal appearances” of politicians making a difference to voters.

    Politics aside, I’d like to say that the love, forgiveness, mercy and grace that “Immanuel”-made-flesh has given us is the hope eternal that every man/woman craves in his/her heart. Whether they want to admit it or not, there is a hole in the heart of every human being until he or she repents and surrenders to Christ. Upon being born again, Jesus enters our hearts in the form of the Holy Spirit. Upon this genuine conversion, our relationship with the Lord and the sanctification process that ensues, our “Immanuel” makes us whole again. It is truly a relationship like no other!

    Men like Richard Dawkins must live sad, empty lives. There is nothing on this earth that will ever satisfy like personally knowing Jesus Christ – “God is with us.”

    God bless you and your family. May your New Year be joyful, blessed and healthy!

    Love in Jesus,


  3. Exellently written and thoughtful reflection. I love the photo of Obama in the cornfield. Looks like he’s ready to hoe the back forty.

    I think of the question (once posed in “Field of Dreams”) “Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.” Is it really Iowa, or do the candidates know something we don’t? I wonder.

  4. Wow, I was really engaged with the first part and totally didn’t expect the theological reflections, which were also quite intriguing. Well done!

    You crack me up, Pistol.

  5. You’ve misinterpreted Richard Dawkins, here. (Among other things, I imagine.)

    When Dawkins described ‘God’ as a blind watchmaker, he wasn’t describing a Christian God. Richard Dawkins does not believe in your God, nor in anything that remotely resembles your omnipotent invisible friend. He was creating a metaphor to describe the process by which the universe develops.

    Metaphors are things that thinking people use to describe the world. They are not meant to be taken literally.

  6. Thanks for the English lesson! What I think you fail to understand is Dawkins’ love of the sport of Christian-tweaking. His blind watchmaker is both a metaphor and a satirical comment on an idea (God) that he has disdain for.

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