Read an Excerpt
God Is Closer Than You Think
God's Great Desire
For over the margins of life comes a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living. . . .
During the first year of our marriage, Nancy and I spent two months traveling around Europe. We lived on a budget of
$13.50 per day for food, lodging, and entertainment. We breakfasted every morning on bread and cheese. We lodged in accommodations compared with which the Bates Motel in the movie Psycho would be an upgrade. Entertainment on that budget consisted of buying Time magazine once a week and ripping it in half so we could both read it at the same time.
We splurged in Italy, where we blew one whole day's allowance on a single meal and spent money we could not afford to look at the treasures of Western art. The highlight of the day came after standing in line for hours at the Vatican to view Michelangelo Buonarroti's brilliant painting of God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
His masterpiece is one of two works of art that serve as touchstones for this book. (I'm saving the other one for the next chapter.) If you look carefully at the painting, you notice that the figure of God is extended toward the man with great vigor. He twists his body to move it as close to the man as possible. His head is turned toward the man, and his gaze is fixed on him. God's arm is stretched out, his index finger extended straight forward; every muscle is taut.
Before Michelangelo, art scholars say, the standard paintings of creation showed God standing on the ground, in effect helping Adam to his feet. Not here. This God is rushing toward Adam on a cloud,
one of the 'chariots of heaven,' propelled by the angels. (In our day they don't look quite aerobicized enough to move really fast, but in
Michelangelo's day the angels suggested power and swiftness.) It is as if even in the midst of the splendor of all creation, God's entire being is wrapped up in his impatient desire to close the gap between himself and this man. He can't wait. His hand comes within a hairbreadth of the man's hand.
The painting is traditionally called The Creation of Adam, but some scholars say it should be called The Endowment of Adam. Adam has already been given physical life --- his eyes are open, and he is conscious. What is happening is that he is being offered life with God.
'All of man's potential, physical and spiritual, is contained in this one timeless moment,' writes one art critic.
Apparently one of the messages that Michelangelo wanted to convey is God's implacable determination to reach out to and be with the person he has created. God is as close as he can be. But having come that close, he allows just a little space, so that Adam can choose. He waits for Adam to make his move.
Adam is more difficult to interpret. His arm is partially extended toward God, but his body reclines in a lazy pose, leaning backward as if he has no interest at all in making a connection. Maybe he assumes that God, having come this far, will close the gap. Maybe he is indifferent to the possibility of touching his creator. Maybe he lacks the strength. All he would have to do is lift a finger.
The fresco took Michelangelo four years of intense labor. The physical demands of standing on a scaffold painting above his head were torture. ('I have my beard turned to the ceiling, my head bent back on my shoulders, my chest arched like that of a Harpy; my brush drips on to my face and makes me look like a decorated pavement. . . . I am bent taut like a Syrian bow.') Because he was forced to look upwards for hours while painting, he eventually could only read a letter if he held it at arm's length above his head. One night, exhausted by his work,
alone with his doubts, discouraged by a project that was too great for him, he wrote in his journal a single sentence: 'I am no painter.'
Yet for nearly half a millennium this picture has spoken of God's great desire to be with the human beings he has made in his own image. Perhaps Michelangelo was not alone in his work after all. Perhaps the God who was so near to Adam was near to Michelangelo as well --- at work in his mind and his eye and his brushes.
The 'Everywhereness' of God
This picture reminds us: God is closer than we think. He is never farther than a prayer away. All it takes is the barest effort, the lift of a finger. Every moment --- this moment right now, as you read these words --- is the 'one timeless moment' of divine endowment, of life with God.
'This is my Father's world,' an old song says. 'He shines in all that's fair. . . . In the rustling grass I hear him pass, he speaks to me everywhere.' The Scriptures are full of what might be called the everywhereness of God's speaking. 'The heavens are telling the glory of God; . . . day to day pours forth speech.'
He talks through burning bushes and braying donkeys; he sends messages through storms and rainbows and earthquakes and dreams,
he whispers in a still small voice. He speaks (in the words of Garrison
Keillor) in 'ordinary things like cooking and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweet corn and flowers, through sports, music, and books, raising kids --- all the places where the gravy soaks in and grace shines through.'
God's Great Desire
The story of the Bible isn't primarily about the desire of people o be with God; it's the desire of God to be with people.
One day I was sitting on a plane next to a businessman. The screen saver on his computer was the picture of a towheaded little boy taking what looked like his first shaky step. 'Is that your son?' I asked. Big mistake.
Yes, that was the man's son, his only child. Let's say his name was
Adam. The picture on the computer was taken three months earlier,
when Adam was eleven months old. The man told me about his son's first step and first word with a sense of wonder, as if Adam had invented locomotion and speech. There was a more recent picture of Adam on the man's palm pilot. The man showed it to me. The same picture could be viewed more clearly on the computer. The man showed me that. He had a whole string of pictures of Adam doing things that pretty much all children do, and he displayed them one at a time. With commentary.
I and my seatmates got a graduate course in Adamology.
'I can't wait to get home to him,' the man said. 'In the meantime,
I could look at these pictures a hundred times a day. They never get old to me.' (They were already getting pretty tiresome to everybody else in our section of the plane.)
Why was the man so preoccupied with Adam? Was it because the boy's achievements were so impressive? No. Millions of children learn to do the same thing every day. My own children (I wanted to tell him) had done the same things at an earlier age with superior skill.
The man was preoccupied with Adam because he looked at him through the eyes of a father. Everything Adam did was cloaked with wonder. It didn't matter that other children do them as well.
'You obviously miss your son,' I said. 'How long ago did you leave home?'
One day away from his son is one too many. So he was rushing through the skies, taking a chariot through the clouds, implacably determined to be at home with his child. He didn't simply want to love his son from a distance. He wanted to be with him.