From a Distance

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In 1985 Julie Gold, an administrative assistant who dabbled in songwriting, came up with lyrics and a melody that she thought sounded promising.

None of the artists or record companies she contacted, however, thought it was worth recording. 

A year later she asked “folkabilly” singer Nanci Griffith to assess whether her work had potential.  Griffith was so impressed that she included Gold’s song on her next album.  But few paid attention.

Sometimes a hit record simply needs the right artist at the right time.  When Bette Midler recorded From a Distance in 1990, it went straight to number one and ultimately garnered the 1991 Grammy for Song of the Year. 

It’s always interesting when a song about God tops the secular charts.  Gold’s lyrics include these lines:

From a distance we all have enough, and no one is in need
And there are no guns, no bombs and no disease, no hungry mouths to feed
From a distance we are instruments marching in a common band
Playing songs of hope, playing songs of peace, they are the songs of every man
God is watching us, God is watching us
God is watching us from a distance

It may be reassuring to hear that God has his eye on the world.  But the song naturally raises a vexing question:  At what distance is God watching us? 

If God can’t make out our planet’s hunger, violence, and disunity, does that mean he needs to upgrade his cosmic version of Google Earth?  And who needs an absentee landlord of a God, anyways?

On the other hand, some of us are desperately hoping that the Creator is seriously distant at least part of the time.  We don’t want God to pay too much attention to our behavior.

This summer my three-year-old grandson was playing in our outdoor sandbox.  He knows one of the house rules:  The sand has to stay in the box.  His hope, however, was to pour a generous amount into the grass.  “Bah Poo,” he said (and yes, Bah Poo is my grandfather name), “go over there for a few minutes.”  He pointed off in the distance.  If only I would just go away I wouldn’t discover his nefarious plot. 

There are times when all of us wish God would just go away.  Or at least avert his gaze for a few minutes. 

Isn’t it just like sinners to fantasize about a distant God?     

The 1611 King James Version of Matthew 6:9-13 – the rendition of the Lord’s Prayer that almost all English-speaking Christians have learned by heart – begins with these words: “Our Father, which art inheaven…” 

Scholars agree that that translation is misleading. The underlying Greek words are o en tois ouranois – literally, “who is in the heavens.”

The KJV text implies, to modern readers, that God is currently located in a celestial realm far away – perhaps high above the earth or in some kind of parallel dimension.  The Jews of Jesus’ time, however, regularly spoke of three different heavens.  The first heaven is the earth’s atmosphere – what meteorologists would call the troposphere.  This is the realm where we live, move, and breathe.  The second heaven is the one that contains the sun, moon, stars, and planets – in other words, the fullness of the visible universe.  The third heaven is the realm of God’s power and presence beyond the cosmos.   

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus is affirming that Abba – our Father or Daddy – is “in the heavens.”  This speaks both to where God is not and where God actually is

God is not hanging out on Mt. Olympus, safely insulated from Earth’s muck and mire.  Nor is he a regional deity, like the gods of the Egyptians, Canaanites, Greeks, and Romans – confined to a particular piece of real estate.  Nor is God parked just behind the Andromeda Galaxy, watching human beings slog through their lives from a distance. 

Instead, God is in the heavens.  Plural.  That means he is everywhere.  He is simultaneously alongside the most distant quasars and closer than our next breath. 

In his book The Divine Conspiracy, the late philosopher Dallas Willard suggests that this is the sense of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who is right here with us…”   
Does God have a “landscape view” of human history?  He does.  God knows the beginning, the middle, and the end of every story.  But he is also experiencing the most intimate details of our lives even as we go forward.  He is not distant from our feelings and our fears. 

Nor is God fazed by those moments when we want to pour sand into the grass. 

He will still be our Father; we will still be his deeply-loved child. 

Which means we can always begin our prayers by saying, “Abba, thanks that you’ll be alongside me today, every step of the way.”