Driving Immanuel

Dec 15, 2005 |John Thomas

Some shepherds were stunned by a divine encounter two millennia ago. A motorist was only slightly less startled when Jesus showed up as he was traveling I-40.

One of the great disappointments of my life is that my brothers and sisters and I never became a singing group like the Partridge Family. It isn't because we were undiscovered prodigies who never got our break; it is because we have not a morsel of musical talent among the six of us. What are the odds of that? You can't walk to your car without bumping into someone telling you about their new record deal; yet, out of half a dozen fairly well-adjusted people, eight if you throw in Mom and Dad, none of us could so much as play I Dropped My Dolly in the Dirt on the piano.

As a service to the global community, my family never sings publicly. You're thinking, Oh, come on, it can't be that bad. You are wrong. It is that bad. I've heard us. If we are not tone deaf, we are as close as a group of individuals can be.

I wish I could say that my family's creative energy was channeled elsewhere, and that we settled for Nobel prizes, but the fact is we're all pretty much just regular people. What we did grow to appreciate, out of necessity since we could not generate our own groove, was a love for the music created by others more gifted than we.

I grew up with records and 8-tracks and cassettes and radios blaring music from every room of our house. We surrounded ourselves with the great talent of others, therapy for our painful, toneless wounds. As I would meander throughout the halls and various rooms of our home, it was like scanning the dial of a radio. Music, mostly pop, would flow from every appliance that had a set of speakers. Every Saturday our living room television set was tuned to American Bandstand. You could see the longing in our eyes as we watched the guest- group perform. We wanted to be the Osmonds.

My own musical handicap is never more obvious than during the holidays, which feature multiple gatherings of public singing. Christmas songs beg to be sung out-loud by everyone within range. They are to be sung with verve and passion. Many of them are written simply, with me in mind, so that even the worst of the worst can join in with the others. But even then I have to hold down the volume so as to preserve the peace and good will of the season. About the only place I can really let it rip is in the confines of my car.

And so it was, last Tuesday, when I was driving down Interstate 30, running an errand for work. That morning when I stopped for coffee, I had on impulse purchased My Christmas Prayer, the Christmas album by BeBe Winans. I can't say enough about how good BeBe Winans is. As they say in the biz, he could sing the proverbial Denny's menu and it would go double-platinum. My singing a duet with him on this side of heaven is a little like my 3-year-old son banging pots and pans along with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, but in my car, alone, I gave it all I had.

As I traveled north over the Arkansas River from Little Rock to North Little Rock, BeBe and I launched into Oh Come All Ye Faithful. It's a carol I've always enjoyed, but no more than any of the others.

On this occasion, though, something happened.

Yea, Lord we greet Thee, born this happy morning/Jesus to Thee be all glory given/Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.

Now, I'm not one to stuff my emotions. I'll get a little choked-up on appropriate occasions, like when the Broncos win a Superbowl (I recall even getting a little misty-eyed), but I wouldn't describe myself as overly emotional. Something started forming in my throat, though, as BeBe and his echoing choir began the chorus.

Oh come let us adore Him/Oh come let us adore Him/Oh come let us adore Him

Merging onto a short stretch of I-40, I joined in and let loose.

Christ! Christ! Christ! Yes, Christ! Christ! Christ! The Lord!

BeBe, his choir and I had worked ourselves into a fever pitch. We were all yelling by this point. Whatever had earlier grabbed my throat had now climbed into my eyes and the mist turned into tears and at 65 miles per hour I began weeping.

For He alone is worthy/For He alone is worthy/For He alone is worthy/Christ the Lord!

I was overwhelmed. I wasn't sure if I should keep driving or pull over. I blinked feverishly, wiping the tears from my face, trying not to run anyone off the road. What started as just an innocent errand with a little Christmas music in the background was now a church service. My heart pounded. It became boiling hot in my car.

The song ended as I exited the interstate, made a few turns and managed to pull into the parking lot of a local business, my errand destination. I looked at myself in the rearview mirror. My face was red and my eyes were bloodshot. I sat there for a moment and tried to gather myself. What in the world was that?

To my knowledge, I hadn't any bottled up emotions that needed releasing, which is to say, I don't think I "just needed a good cry." Additionally, I'm entirely incapable of generating emotion on my own. I know because I've tried. And finally, the words were not anything new to me. I've sung Oh Come All Ye Faithful countless times with little fanfare. I never remember being moved to tears by them. To be honest, even as I sang them this time I wasn't really giving much thought to their meaning.

I can only explain what happened as the presence of God's Spirit. It was quite simply a gift that at that moment I was neither seeking nor necessarily expecting. It, He, just arrived. I was filled with a mixture of peace, joy and awe — a microscopic slice of heaven.

I sat in the parking lot thinking, why? Why would such a thing happen so unexpectedly in such an ordinary moment? What was different about this moment from any other moment? And then I thought of those shepherds just out there in the fields, tending their flocks, going about their ordinary lives, on a night no different from any other, when:

Suddenly, God's angel stood among them and God's glory blazed around them. They were terrified. "Don't be afraid. I'm here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has just been born in David's town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you are to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger." At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God's praises, "Glory to God in the heavenly heights! Peace to all women and men on earth who please Him!" (Luke 2:9-14, as paraphrased in The Message)

And they will call him Immanuel. God with us. He is with us in fields and stables. He is with us in classrooms and offices and homes and malls and grocery stores and hospitals. And right there, on Interstate 30, behind the wheel of a '97 Mazda, I had experienced the best gift I would receive all season long — the gift of His presence.

Copyright 2005 John Thomas. All rights reserved.

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