During the first year of our marriage, Nancy and I spent two months travelling around Europe. We lived on a budget of £8 a 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. If you look carefully at the painting, you notice that the figure of God is extended toward the man with great vigour. 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 aerobicised 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 splendour 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 labour.
??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. ?
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.??
God's Great Desire
The story of the Bible isn't primarily about the desire of people to 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.
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 11 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. My seatmates and I 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.
And then it hit me. I am the child on God's screen saver. And so are you. The tiniest details of our lives never grow old to him. God himself is filled with wonder at our faltering steps and stammering words - not because we do them better than anyone else, but because he views them through the eyes of a loving Father. God shows our pictures to the angels until even the angels get a little tired of looking. And the story of the Bible is first of all God's story - the story of a father rushing through the clouds to be at home with you. One day apart is one day too many.??The Primary Promise: I will be with you?The central promise in the Bible is not 'I will forgive you,' although of course that promise is there. It is not the promise of life after death, although we are offered that as well. The most frequent promise in the Bible is 'I will be with you.'
Before Adam and Eve ever sinned or needed forgiveness, they were promised God's presence. He would walk with them in the cool of the day.??How close has God come??Frederick Buechner writes, 'There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognise him or not… because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.' How close has God come? So close that, as Thomas à Kempis put it, 'every creature will be to you a mirror of life and a book of holy doctrine.' So close that, in the words of Jean Pierre de Caussade, 'each moment is a revelation from God.' So close that he can flow in and through your life from one moment to the next like a river. So close that your heart will be beating with life because Someone is walking around in there. God is closer than you think.
Set aside for now the question of to what extent any of us is capable of experiencing God's presence in our current spiritual condition. Set aside your past failures or future worries. The teaching of Scripture is that God really is present right here, right now. Michelangelo's picture really does express spiritual reality. The Spirit of God is available to you and me: flowing all the time, welling up within us, quenching our unsatisfied desires, overflowing to refresh those around us. He is at work all the time, in every place. And every once in a while, somebody somewhere wakes up.??God with the Professor?The offer of this with-God life has not expired in our day. When my friend Kim was a young girl, her dad pulled the car off the road one day to help a woman change a flat tyre. While he was lying under her car, another vehicle accidentally swerved to the shoulder, and in the collision the car was shoved onto his chest. His right thumb was torn off at the joint, five of his ribs were broken, and his left lung was pierced and began filling with blood. His wife, who is barely five feet tall, placed her hands on the bumper of the car and prayed, "In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ," and lifted the car off his chest so he could be dragged out. (Some weeks later she found out that she broke a vertebra in the effort.)
Kim's father was in a state of shock as he was taken to the hospital. Doctors prepared for emergency surgery. "His thumb won't do him any good if he's dead," one of them said. His survival was iffy.
Suddenly, spontaneously, the man's skin changed from ashen to pink. He experienced a miraculous healing. He invited a surprised surgical team to join him in singing 'Fairest Lord Jesus.' They did not even bother to hook him up to oxygen. He did not find out until later that this was the precise moment his father-in-law, who was a pastor, had his congregation start to pray for him. Sometimes these stories come from not-very-credible sources - such as publications sold in grocery checkout lines that also carry news about extraterrestrial creatures secretly playing third base for the Boston Red Sox. In this case, however, the subject was James Loder, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. His life was not only saved, but changed. Until then, although he taught at a seminary, God had been mostly an abstract idea to him. Now Jesus became a living Presence. Kim writes that her father's heart grew so tender that he became known at Princeton as 'the weeping professor.' He began to live from one moment to the next in a God-bathed, God-soaked, God-intoxicated world.??Now it's our turn?Spiritual growth, in a sense, is simply increasing our capacity to experience the presence of God. Brother Lawrence wrote, 'The most holy and necessary practice in our spiritual life is the presence of God. That means finding constant pleasure in His divine company, speaking humbly and lovingly with him in all seasons, at every moment, without limiting the conversation in any way.' What if God could be that close? Maybe I miss him because I fail to see him in the ordinary moments of my life. Maybe every heartbeat is not just the mechanism of a sophisticated plumbing system but the echo of God's voice, the murmur of God's love. ??There are people - saints and mystics - who seem to find God in their lives as easily as the morning newspaper. They check their hearts and feel him walking around in there. No one has ever lived with a sense of the presence of God as Jesus did. He was so dependent on God that he said that everything he did was a result of God's power. He was so surrendered to God that he said his greatest delight was to do the will of his Father. He was so confident of God that neither stormy seas nor hostile crowds could shake his poise. The river of life flowed strong through this man Jesus as it had never flowed through anyone before him. And when he died, the veil that kept people out of the Holy of Holies - the veil that symbolised separation between God and human beings - was torn in two. In Jesus, God touched Adam.
Now, according to the clear expectation of the teaching of Jesus, it's our turn. The expectation of Jesus was that this unseen river of life will flow again: in an office, a home, at a desk in a classroom. It can happen for a mechanic working at a garage. It can happen for plumbers and stockbrokers and homemakers and retired folks. It can happen for CEOs and school children. It can flow through the life of a young, single mom with all the demands of raising young children. It can surge in a hospital bed where a solitary individual lies in the valley of the shadow of death.
It can happen for you. At the end of this article are some guiding principles for practicing God's presence. I would encourage you to read them each morning for the next two weeks as you make your own experiment in this 'with-God' kind of life. For centuries now, people have stood in line to view the picture of God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But what if the miracle that is hinted at on that fresco became a reality in our lives? What if an artist greater than Michelangelo is at work on the canvas of our ordinary days? "God alone is capable of making himself known as he really is," Brother Lawrence said. "God Himself paints Himself in the depths of our souls." It can happen anywhere, anytime, for anyone. Whatever your age or season of life or temperament or job - these are no obstacle at all. All you have to do is lift a finger. God is closer than you think.
Foundational Truths of My Life with God
- God is always present and active in my life, whether or not I see him.
- Coming to recognise and experience God's presence is learned behaviour: I can cultivate it.
- My task is to meet God in this moment.
- I am always tempted to live 'outside' this moment. When I do that, I lose my sense of God's presence.
- Sometimes God seems far away for reasons I do not understand. Those moments, too, are opportunities to learn.
- Whenever I fail, I can always start again right away.
- No one knows the full extent to which a human being can experience God's presence.
- My desire for God ebbs and flows, but his desire for me is constant.
- Every thought carries a 'spiritual charge' that moves me a little closer to or a little farther from God.
- Every aspect of my life - work, relationships, hobbies, errands - is of immense and genuine interest to God.
- My path to experiencing God's presence will not look quite like anyone else's.
- Straining and trying too hard do not help.
Review these truths once a day for two weeks as you cultivate the practice of God's presence.