I’m typing this at 30,000 feet. Actually, that’s a guess; I’m not sure what our cruising altitude is. But anyway, I’m on an airplane somewhere between Charlotte, NC and Boston, MA. Since I have a window seat, I’ve been passing my time peering out at winding rivers and geometrically plotted parcels of land and cars the size of ants making their way to somewhere important. The rest of the time, I’ve been reading Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber. A Lutheran pastor with an irreverent wit and punch-in-the-gut honesty, Nadia makes for a great traveling companion. She is just what I need, as I look down on the world and think, inevitably, about God.
God and I have not been on the best of terms lately. In my years as a hospital chaplain, I have, of necessity, grown comfortable with mystery, with paradox, with unanswerable questions, with a somewhat limited God. If the God my patients and their families were praying so fervently to was actually in the room and listening, He/She sure didn’t seem inclined to intervene most of the time. But for a while, it was enough for me that God was in the room, or at the very least that God was keeping an eye on my hospital, or my city, from a distance — keeping the really big things moving according to the divine plan.
As a child, I remember being kind of troubled by the Bette Middler song, “From a Distance,” because she sang about how wonderful things looked from so far away and said that was how God was watching us. Well, how is that supposed to do us any good? I wondered. If God is too far removed to know there are problems — pretty damn big ones — down here, then how can God help? Over the years, though, the more awful, inexplicable, tragic things I saw in the hospital, the more I made my peace with the idea that God was watching from a distance, even if She/He didn’t do anything to change the course of events. Presence is enough, I told myself. There is a certain kind of power in that.
But I’m not content with that anymore. Maybe I never was and just did a good job of lying to myself for a while. The truth is, I’m pretty pissed off at God for not showing up more often. It isn’t enough to have a God keeping an eye on things from 30,000 feet. I can see signs of lots of people going about their lives from my window seat on this plane, but I can’t tell you anything about any one of them — what they need, what they’re hoping for, whether they feel loved and at peace, what their struggles are. I want a God who can, and who will do something about it.
This is a very selfish theological shift, I realize. I used to sneer condescendingly at those people who prayed for God to lead them to a good parking space, but now I find myself moving closer to their camp. I don’t necessarily need a God who finds me parking spaces, but I do need a God who is intimately involved in my daily life. I need a God who will stay my hand when my chemically out-of-whack brain decides that the most rational thing to do in the moment is down a whole bottle of pills or drive my car off a bridge. I need a God who will give me this day my daily bread in a very literal sense, leading me to choose nutritious food in reasonable portions instead of stuffing myself with slow poison that barely qualifies as food, which I, as a compulsive overeater, am wont to do. I need a God who is a source of love real enough to somehow make up for the lack of a family of my own, a lack I feel more painfully with each passing year. I need a God who somehow makes some kind of difference in the lives of the people I pray for as a chaplain — or maybe I just need my eyes opened to the differences already being made, even when they aren’t miracles of healing.
We will be making our descent toward Boston soon, and people will look people-sized again instead of ant-sized. I can tell now that this is a school, that’s a golf course, this must be a hospital, that’s a subdivision with a swimming pool. In a few minutes I will be back on the ground among them, and all their problems and mine will look overwhelmingly larger-than-life again, if I dare to let myself look. I think my prayer today will be that I find God to be just the right size for all our needs, and that I don’t overlook divine involvement in my life. It’s easy to do, especially when you’ve got depression screwing up your brain chemistry. I don’t believe God moves us around like pieces on a chess board, but I really want to believe that sometimes God makes the bottle just a little too heavy to get to our lips before we have a second to reconsider, or gives our best friend an overwhelming urge to call at just the right moment, or puts the words that will save our lives on the page of whatever ridiculous thing we happen to be reading right when we feel the most lost. I want to believe. And from what I’ve learned in my nineteen years as a Christian, that counts as faith.