Close Enough to Hear God Breathe: The Great Story of Divine Intimacyby Greg Paul
In Close Enough to Hear God Breathe, acclaimed author Greg Paul shows readers through beautiful prose, powerful stories, and inventive teaching a rich message that recounts the story of a God who has been inviting all of humanity, and each individual-into a tender embrace since time began.See more details below
In Close Enough to Hear God Breathe, acclaimed author Greg Paul shows readers through beautiful prose, powerful stories, and inventive teaching a rich message that recounts the story of a God who has been inviting all of humanity, and each individual-into a tender embrace since time began.
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Close Enough to Hear God BreatheThe Great Story of Divine Intimacy
By GREG PAUL
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Greg Paul
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Voice from Above
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." —FROM THE GOSPEL OF MARK, CHAPTER 1
There was a crowd, as usual, although dawn had barely broken. Hunkered on the banks of the river, scratching themselves absently and yawning, waiting for him to appear. Narrow ribbons of smoke stretched lazily upward in the still air from the ashes of a dozen small fires made and tended through the cold night. They had missed out the day before, and decided to stay rather than making the long trek back to Jerusalem.
Most had no food, not having thought to bring any, or having eaten what little they had already. The few who did nibbled their crusts surreptitiously, not wanting to be besieged by their hungry neighbors. Some had no food simply because they had trudged through the wilderness to this spot by the Jordan instead of working that day, and so had no money to buy food anyway. They were a ragged bunch, mostly.
A furious rustling in the low, dense bushes lining the opposite bank—a pair of bony hands and one hairy leg emerged, thrust some branches aside, and the rest of the Baptist followed into view. A mutter ran through the crowd. The men stood up, the children stopped their games and stared. The Baptist stared back for a long moment, then nodded, apparently satisfied with what he saw, and turned his back on them.
His hair hung in matted hanks down his back. Everything about him seemed to be the same color as the desert floor. He undressed quickly, giving his ghastly camel-skin jerkin a flap—a cloud of ochre dust drifted away from it—before hanging it as carefully as if it were a linen robe on a branch of the bush from which he had appeared. As he bent to untie his sandals, he presented a pair of pale, scrawny cheeks so perfectly to his audience that a child guffawed. The Baptist gave no sign of noticing, but did procure a scrap of dirty cloth from a leather bag he had been carrying, and girded himself with it.
Seating himself on a rock, he drew the bag to him again, withdrew a small package, and unfolding it, began to eat the contents while gazing into the sky above their heads. He crunched away contentedly for a short while, then returned the cloth wrapper to the bag and licked each finger clean with a loud, delighted smacking sound.
"Locusts and honey," muttered an awestruck young boy to his brother.
The Baptist rose and, with a grin at the mob opposite, leapt into the river. It was only thigh deep, but he submerged himself, then floated face first to the surface. The mud he had disturbed bloomed creamily about him for a moment before the current shredded it and the river resumed its placid olive sheen.
Newcomers were beginning to arrive. They came from everywhere—not only from Jerusalem, but also from all the small towns of Judea, as well as those that dotted the shallow Jordan valley. As they drifted up, usually in small groups, the ones who had spent the night waiting moved quickly to line the bank, eager that the Baptist might choose them early in the day.
Finally standing upright, he began to preach. It was the same simple message they had heard repeatedly the day before. He kept up a running commentary as people waded into the river, as he embraced them, flung them backward into the muddy water, thrust any part of them that had not been submerged under the surface, then yanked them upright again. Always, it seemed, just as he had gotten to a point in his sermon when he could shout "... forgiven!"
The combination of the silty riverbed, the gentle current, and all the activity going on in one spot made it appear that he was slowly sinking. When the ground beneath his feet eroded enough that the water lapped around his ribs, he would clamber out of the hole and move eight or nine long steps upstream, the crowd shifting with him. Each time he did, he stopped baptizing for a while to preach in earnest, and to address the rumor that murmured incessantly through the steadily growing crowd.
"I am only baptizing you with water," he cried, "as a symbol that you have turned your faces away from your wicked ways, and toward God, and so that you will know he has washed you clean—your sins are forgiven! No, I am not Messiah—but he is coming soon! His kingdom is close enough to touch! He will sink you into the Holy Spirit, cleanse you with fire!"
It went on and on. Shortly before the sun reached its zenith, there was a disturbance at the back of the growing multitude on the riverbank. The tattered folk who had stayed the night shrank back from an advancing wedge of richly dressed men, some of them priests. They moved as if by right through the people who had been waiting for hours, making their way to the water's edge.
The Baptist didn't see them until they had reached it and stood there silently, half a dozen of them with their oiled beards, their hands secreted in wide sleeves across comfortable bellies.
He stopped speaking in mid-sentence and let go of the middle-aged woman he had just raised up from the river. She plunged back into it with a squawk, surged sputtering to the surface again, and clambered onto the bank casting murderous, unnoticed looks back at him.
The Baptist had been shouting his message so he could be heard, which makes any man sound angry, but when he found his voice to address the Pharisees, it was higher, harsher, and much, much louder than it had been all morning.
"Snakes!" he bellowed at them. They flinched as one man, but held their position. The Baptist derided their character, accused them of hypocrisy, and threatened them with judgment in rich terms that delighted the rest of the crowd. (Few things are more satisfying than seeing one's social and religious superiors trimmed a bit.) He had just finished telling them that they would be cut down like a barren fruit tree and thrown into the fire—a vein throbbing dangerously at his temple, the spittle flying—and was winding himself up to deliver even more extravagant condemnations when, it seemed, something distracted him.
Faltering to a stop, he turned to look squarely at the man a dozen steps upstream who had been waving circumspectly to him since shortly after he began his harangue. The Pharisees looked relieved, and dared to move a little. Their leader, a portly man with a silver beard and a tall turban, opened his mouth to speak, but the Baptist turned away and began splashing toward the waving man.
He was nothing special to look at. Just an ordinary man of ordinary height, complexion, and hair color. He was dressed just like everybody around him. He didn't seem to be with anyone—in fact, when they talked about it later, those around him who had so jealously guarded their positions at the river's edge weren't quite sure when he had arrived, or how he had made his way in front of them.
The ordinary man and the Baptist conversed quietly, oblivious to the fascinated mob around them. Who was he?
"A Galilean," said someone dismissively who was close enough to hear the accent.
"Ah!" said someone else. "That's his cousin, then. From Nazareth, but lives in Capernaum."
The two appeared to argue in a good-natured way, the man eventually cajoling the Baptist into some kind of agreement. He removed his outer garment and handed it to a young fellow in the crowd who, though he had never met the man before, received it and draped it over his arm as placidly as if he had followed him there for that express purpose. The man stepped into the river, found his footing, and plodded toward the middle, arm in arm with the Baptist.
For once, the Baptist was silent. He embraced the man with both arms, held him tight against his hollow chest, head bowed. Although he had been enthusiastically flinging people of all shapes and sizes into the water for hours, he now seemed reluctant, or perhaps even embarrassed. Gently, the Baptist lowered the man into the water, bending until his own arms were submerged to the biceps; a heartbeat's pause while he was completely out of sight, then the Baptist slowly raised him up again.
He sputtered and blew and rubbed his eyes as had everyone else. He smiled and, placing a hand against the Baptist's hairy cheek, spoke a few inaudible words as if in blessing. Then he turned and began wading toward the bank.
It was all so ordinary, just like the man himself, and yet while he was being baptized, no one else had gone into the river to stand close to the Baptist, as they usually did, in hopes that he or she might be next. There was no rush of people into the water now, either. The crowd stood in a peculiar silence along the banks, unmoving, except for those few who stepped aside to allow him space to climb out. The air itself had become strangely still.
His eyes were turned skyward, over the heads of the people. Those nearest him could see that his lips were moving soundlessly. The Baptist, forgotten for the moment, stood motionless behind him, his hands dangling in the hip-deep water.
There was a tearing sound from above—thunder, perhaps, is what some thought later. A curious purplish cloud formation— which looked like a gash across what had been, as far as anyone could remember, an empty sky only moments before— seemed to flutter open. A dark spot descending quickly from the gash—the "gash" seemed strangely near for a cloud— resolved into a dove, a very ordinary-looking dove, but with it came a gentle breeze, gentle and warm and beautifully moist in the desert air.
The man was smiling broadly, raising his eyebrows and looking up without tilting his head, as well he might, since the dove had landed upon it and sat there cooing comfortably. Several people laughed out loud. He nodded at the ones closest to him who had laughed (the dove undisturbed by the motion), sharing their delight.
The gash in the clouds rippled repeatedly, as a man's heart beats, and each time there was another puff of the warm breeze. As if the sky was breathing upon them. The sky breathed a word into them, all those people standing there looking at the man. With each breath a phrase:
"This is my son. My beloved. I am pleased with him."
They all heard it, though it was so quiet it might have been easily missed. They knew the voice was speaking about the ordinary man, the man who looked like them. Many also heard the breeze speak directly to the man. Hearing it as they did, like the breath within their own bodies, they wondered if it also spoke to each of them:
"You are my child—my son, my daughter. I love you. And I am pleased with you."
Chapter TwoThe Heart of The Matter
If every story has certain pivotal moments, moments that clarify everything that has gone before and set up everything that's to come, surely this is such a moment in the story of God's relationship with humanity! This is the moment when the Word-Made-Flesh appears to the world: God's voice, and everything he wants to say to us with it, given a completely accessible, fully human form and substance. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are tangibly—and uniquely—present at this extraordinary event: the voice from above, the man on the riverbank, and the spirit descending "like a dove" from voice to man, connecting them visibly. Here, by the words he chooses, God reveals both his unique relationship with Jesus, and that he intends to relate to us also as a parent does to his or her child.
If the people standing on the bank of the river that day had known before the sky was torn open that the ordinary-looking man coming out of the water was God, I wonder what kind of introduction they might have expected? How about, "Introducing ... The One! The Beginning and the End, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, King of kings and Judge of the nations, Supreme Commander of the Armies of Heaven. He holds the keys of Death and Hell ..."
That would certainly have gotten my attention. How fascinating, how significant it is that God spoke of and to Jesus in the most tender and intimate terms instead: "I want you to meet my boy ..."
As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews put it, "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last [most recent] days he has spoken to us by his Son"—or, as a literal translation would render it, "he has spoken to us in Son." That is, in the language of "Son," the language of intimate, familial relationship.
When Jesus asks John to baptize him, the Baptist is understandably uncomfortable with the notion. Exactly how much he knows about Jesus' true identity before the baptism takes place is unclear, but he certainly realizes that it's Jesus who ought to be baptizing him. After all, of what sins shall Jesus repent?
Jesus says, in essence, "Yes, you're right. But let it roll, because this—my identifying with all the yokels gawking at us from the riverbank—this is how all of God's profound, perfect goodness will be delivered to humanity—to the whole cosmos!"
In this crucial moment, Jesus is not only God-with-Us; he is also, mysteriously and wonderfully, One-of-Us. He stands in that muddy river, disappears beneath its surface, and rises both as a representative of all humanity, and as its salvation. He represents both God and me.
And so, when the Voice from heaven speaks, the message is not only for the unique Son of God, but is also for every human being. This is "the true light that gives light to every man."
When I got through reading the three gospel versions of the story, perhaps in several translations, and past comparing them and imagining the scene, checking the specific meanings of a few key words, browsing through reference works and so on, and put the book down, and sat quietly listening for the sound of God breathing, I heard him say to me—to me!—the same thing he said to Jesus that day.
"You're my child. My beloved. My pleasure."
This is the heart of the matter. This is the message that blows quietly, sweetly through the whole Bible. It's easy to lose it in the strictures of law, the violent stories of the people of Israel, the doom-laden pronouncements of the prophets, or the near-psychedelic foretelling of future events. It's so tender, so gentle, that it's easy to miss it blowing through my own little life story, with all its dramas and distractions.
There are a thousand other voices, most of them much louder and more insistent, that have other things to say about who I am. They say things that are demeaning or discouraging. Sometimes they say things that make me so proud of myself that I forget God is whispering his beautiful message to everyone else too. Sometimes they speak words that cut or bruise my soul, telling me I am unlovely and unlovable—a message I am unaccountably ready to believe. They may be the voices of people close to me, the culture around me, the advertising I can't escape, religion, education, or of my own innate pride or insecurities.
There are so many of these other voices, and they are so constant that I can't escape them. I need new "ears" to be able to hear what God has to say. As with the people of the Baptist's day, it begins with coming to the river of God's grace and being submerged in it. Dying to an old life, an old way of hearing, and rising again to a new life, which can only come as a gift from above. Confessing my sins—admitting that I am too broken to live the identity for which God made me. Repenting—changing the course of my thinking about myself, my world, and my Creator.
My child. My beloved. My pleasure.
It seems as if it should be easy to hear these words and believe them, but it's not. An entire life of discipleship cannot fully mine these three simple expressions. It's the work of a lifetime just to begin to truly believe them.
Excerpted from Close Enough to Hear God Breathe by GREG PAUL Copyright © 2011 by Greg Paul. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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