“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” —Matthew 1:23
She looked at me with wide, interested eyes. The young woman sat next to me in childbirth class, and I had just told her that my husband and I were planning to have a doula present at the birth of our son the following month.
I had only recently become familiar with the concept of a doula when I’d met a woman at a writer’s conference who was one. On a basic level, a doula is a birth assistant. But after my husband and I met with a Christian doula, we learned that the word doula
is the feminine version of the Greek word Paul uses in Romans 1:1 — doulos. Translated, it means bondservant. This meaning captures more fully the role of the doula: Her purpose is to serve the mother and father throughout the birth of their child.
Though the young woman in my class hadn’t previously heard of a doula, she was attracted to the idea of a person who would be with us during such an important experience. With so many unknowns associated with first-time childbearing, the idea of a dedicated support person must have sounded wonderfully reassuring.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
“God with us” is not an unfamiliar concept this time of year, but it is one I rarely give much thought to. The Israelites, on the other hand, sought God’s presence as if their very lives depended on it.
After leading the people out of Egypt, one of Moses’ first tasks was to build the tabernacle, a place where God would descend to dwell among the people. This was a temporary, movable meeting place. Many years later, Solomon would build the temple, a more permanent, glorious place for God to meet His people.
It was while the temple was still serving its purpose that the prophet Isaiah gave an astounding prophecy: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). Immanuel — God with us.
What made this prophecy so incredible was that one day, God’s presence would not just inhabit a building; it would manifest itself in human form, the person of Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:23). In the coming of Jesus, God dwelt among us in the most tangible and personal way possible. He became us.
Extending His Presence
Sometimes I feel like I really get it. I see clearly how God is working in my life on a daily basis. How He is carefully orchestrating the conversations I have, the opportunities that come my way, even the things I hear and learn. But other times I take His presence for granted. Instead of looking for those around me who may need to experience it, I hoard it to myself with little recognition of its value.
But if God is with me — and in me — it stands to reason I can and must be His presence to others. Paul says:
“But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere” (2 Cor. 2:14).
Captives. Bondservants. A bondservant, by Old Testament standards, was a slave who had been set free but willingly chose to stay with his master. This servant agreed to give up his own interests to fully pursue the will of another. This is the best kind of captivity, and it involves actively taking God’s presence to others.
A few verses later, Paul presents another word picture:
“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).
We, those who are Christ’s bondservants, are His presence to others. As a teen I frequently heard the words, “You may be the only Bible someone ever reads.” The familiarity of those words does not make them invalid. The truth is, “God with us” means “us with others.”
Who are these people? Maybe they make your coffee. Maybe they sit next to you in class. Maybe they wave to you as you’re pulling in and out of your driveway. They are people who need to experience God’s presence … need to feel Immanuel.
Taking Immanuel Next Door
There are dozens of ways to extend God’s presence to others, especially during the Christmas season. But here are four ways to look for Immanuel opportunities.
Look for the lonely. A couple of years ago on the day after Christmas, my brother took his two sons 4 and 2 out to McDonalds early in the morning to allow my sister-in-law to sleep in. While Matt and his boys downed pancakes, an older gentleman, who had been sitting alone, approached their table and struck up a conversation. Matt invited Harvey, a widower, to sit with them and share a cup of coffee. The simple invitation clearly made Harvey’s day.
While it may be inconvenient to get involved with lonely people, they surround us. I’ve seen one kind word launch a grocery checker into sharing her whole life story and a child’s off-key song bring an elderly person to tears. God has a heart for the lonely. Psalm 68:6, one of my favorite verses, says: “God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing.” God’s presence is a special gift to those who feel alone.
Be willing to share. Many times I feel very cozy and comfortable in my community-rich Christian life. It’s all too easy to luxuriate in the warmth and love I receive from family members, Christian friends and those with whom I attend church.
Last year my husband, Kevin, and I sat next to an acquaintance of ours at our church’s Christmas Eve service. On our way home, Kevin asked me if our friend, who is single and has no family in the area, had mentioned any Christmas plans. “No,” I said. “Just watching football on TV.”
“Get out your phone,” Kevin said. “Call him up right now and invite him to have Christmas dinner with us at Mom and Dad’s.”
I was surprised at my husband’s immediate resolve to invite someone to our family gathering. We called Kevin’s parents first to make sure inviting a guest was OK, but our friend accepted our offer and spent Christmas Day with our family.
Take the extra step. Since I moved into my townhome five years ago, I have had less than three conversations with my neighbor, a shy young woman with two small dogs. Last year, a church I attended handed out copies of The Case for Christmas
by Lee Strobel and encouraged us to hand them out.
So one day, I piled a plate high with Christmas cookies, tied on the small book with ribbon and wrote a note to my neighbor, wishing her a blessed holiday season. I left the plate on her doorstep. The next week, I found a thank-you card slid under our door. “Thank you for the cookies,” she wrote. “My brother was on leave from the Army and enjoyed sharing them with me!”
Ask God to show you those who need His presence. There are people all around you who are desperate for what you have. The woman in my childbirth class listened intently as I told her why we had chosen a doula. I even explained how our relationship with Christ had played into our decision.
Though, to my knowledge, the young woman does not know Christ, she asked for our doula’s information and they’ve since had several conversations. I don’t know what will happen with that young woman, her husband and their new baby, but I hope that through my interaction with her (and now daily prayers), God will make His appeal.
Jesus Christ was the first great Ambassador. John 1:14 puts it beautifully:
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
We have seen His glory. This Christmas I want to be a doula to those around me, serving their needs and offering them a heaping dose of God’s presence through my own.
Copyright 2010 Suzanne Gosselin. All rights reserved.