These words from Miguel began what has been a four year journey in experiencing the presence of Jesus. I'm not sure I would call what we do as fun, but we do have some fun along the way. Working with over 900 abandoned and forgotten children for a week has a way of evoking almost every emotion in the emotional vault — and unlocks some you never even knew you had. However, the most moving moment in all four years of our partnership involves my wife, Donna. I was merely there as a witness to the grace of Jesus that shined out of her in that moment.
For three days, we had all tried to get a little girl name Adrianna to open up. She was a skinny wisp of a child completely closed down by the horrors that had brought her to The Community. At this time, we were unaware of what these real horrors were. However, her lack of obvious affect — completely closed down emotionally except for sadness and fear — made clear that her monsters were real and had done their hellish damage.
Adrianna was distant when present. She was disengaged when there were activities. She was totally detached when she went through the activities that other children greeted with glee. She cried some, but it was a silent and expressionless cry made up of quiet whimpering and slow rolling tears that streaked her thin and wan face. She wanted to sit in our shadows, but never ventured out of her own darkness to be emotionally accessible.
Then one day as I played on the see-saw with a screaming bunch of 3-6 year old girls, she sat down by Donna, snuggled close, pulled Donna's arm around her, and looked into Donna's eyes with a determination to come out of the darkness. Donna's welcoming smile helped make the journey outside her protective shell.
It was a magic moment made more magical because this moment changed her. She was different. There was more emotion. She smiled. She even laughed some. She even got close and felt secure around me and other men on our team. I have a picture of this moment that we discovered after returning home. It was taken by a friend who captured the exact moment I saw from the see-saw. This picture means more to me than I can articulate, because this was the moment where Jesus showed up and not only received the grace Donna offered, but magnified it in the life of this little girl.
When we talk about experiencing the presence of Jesus, Matthew makes clear that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, in four ways. One of those ways is as Jesus says, "...whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:40 NIV). He explains:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me (Matthew 25:35-36).
When we give of ourselves in service to bless others in need, we are actually serving the Lord himself. He shows up the in the eyes and smiles and wounds of those we serve. His power and presence in that moment, to be present and heal, is real and not imaginary. I know, not just from Jesus' promise of Scripture, but also from that moment watching Donna and Adrianna when Jesus showed up and was real to all of us.
So often we go in search of exotic methods and new ways to discover the presence of Jesus and have the Lord be real to us. In the process, we end up neglecting Matthew's simple and profound promises of Immanuel, the very presence we yearn to experience.
- I am Immanuel, and can be real to you in my story (Matthew 1:23) [Find out more.].
- I am Immanuel, and you can find me present when you live in genuine and authentic spiritual family (Matthew 18:20) [Find out more.].
- I am Immanuel, and you will meet me and experience my presence when you serve "the least of these" (Matthew 25:40).
- I am Immanuel, and I am with you always as you reach across cultural barriers to share me, baptize others in my name, and bring them to maturity in my teaching (Matthew 28:18-20).
This week, don't miss the third promise. Jesus is waiting for us in the gnarled hands of the forgotten widow, the fearful look at not knowing who to trust we see in the eyes of a recent immigrant, the tender heart behind the hard manner of the incarcerated, and in the silent cries of abandoned and abused children.
Yes, I know there are people in each and every category of needy that are ready to take advantage of us. Some of them actually will. But as Jesus said, "...whatever you did for one of the least of these... you did for me." And I don't want to miss experiencing Jesus when he shows up and is near and real and present.