Closing the Distance

I lived in New Orleans for almost three years. I initially moved there to finish a master’s degree I had started on years earlier. While there, I completed my degree, met and married my wife Emily, and also learned to enjoy Cajun food, the Mardi Gras season, and the melting pot of cultures that mix together in that lively city.

I also became very familiar with the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. I was flying two or three times a year to visit family, and many of my fellow students were doing the same. Most of us usually had more time on our hands than money, so we would help each other avoid cab fare or parking fees by offering rides to and from the airport. Cell phones weren’t as common then, and the airport had no cell phone lot. So if I arrived early to pick someone up (or their flight was delayed), I had to either pay to park or drive endlessly around the airport until they showed up at the curb. Needless to say, I became quite familiar with the loop around the airport.

One day Emily was riding with me on one of these trips to the airport. As we approached the airport terminal, she showed me something that I’d never noticed before. “See those people over there?” she asked, pointing to my right.

I looked, and saw people sitting in lawn chairs in a small grassy spot near the terminal.  They had ice chests with them, and appeared to just be sitting around, relaxing.

“They’re always there,” Emily said.  “I think they just come here to watch the planes take off and land.”

So we both chuckled as we thought about how strange that seemed, and we bantered around thoughts about why people would spend time watching planes go by. Certainly there was nothing wrong with them hanging out and watching the air traffic, but surely it would be more interesting (albeit more expensive) to actually board a plane and fly somewhere.

Watching the planes may not be such a strange practice, though. We all engage in some version of plane-watching, where we fall into a mostly observational mindset. In those times we are content to watch things happening, instead of actually engaging with those things and experiencing what they are like. For a short while, we’re satisfied to just be a spectator, even if we know we eventually have to leave our observational mindset and interact with something or someone that we actually care about.

But I think that many people treat God as if he is in this mostly observational mindset all the time. They might believe in a God, and they might even believe that this God created the world somehow. However, they behave as if God simply watches them, with passive interest, to see what they’ll make of themselves. Perhaps they think God wishes them well, and will even help them a bit here and there, if they pay attention to him, do a few things for him, and follow his advice. Otherwise, they think he’s content to wait and see if they’ll actually work their way into a better, more fulfilling, more abundant life.

However, the Biblical picture of God is nowhere near the one I just described. If we believe the Bible at all, then we must throw away the idea of God being distant, detached, or passive towards his creation, especially towards human beings. Because in the pages of Scripture, God simply refuses to leave humans alone. God isn’t only active with humans in the beginning of the story when he makes the world. He breaks into human experience all along the way and in all sorts of ways, calling people to listen to him, change their mind, and trust him. God becomes indignant with the many who refuse to trust him, but he takes great delight in those who do trust him–even despite their doubts, mistakes, and failings.

And then, in the most startling move of all, God becomes human in the man known as Jesus. In doing so, God closes the distance between himself and humans to practically zero, and shows once and for all the lengths to which God will go to reconcile with the humans that he loves.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, since he is not the shepherd and doesn’t own the sheep, leaves them and runs away when he sees a wolf coming. The wolf then snatches and scatters them. This happens because he is a hired hand and doesn’t care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me, and I know the Father. I lay down my life for the sheep.” –Jesus (John 10:11-15 CSB)

Now we can believe in the God of the Bible, or not. We can agree with what this God says in the Bible, or not. But what we cannot do is say that this God does not care about humans. If he did not care, then he would not have spent one moment of effort trying to reach the hearts and minds of human beings, and he certainly wouldn’t have become a human himself and laid down his life for those who would trust in him.

So if we do believe in Jesus, we can take heart in all those times where it might seem that God does not care. We can pick up our Bible, turn just about anywhere, and read how God closes the distance again and again, refusing to merely observe. No matter what, Jesus will not leave us to wander alone, for he is the good Shepherd who cares for his sheep.


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