On a beautiful afternoon at the end of October my son Zach and I got to take a helicopter ride. One of my parishioners is a pilot and owns a flight company. He’d offered us this chance for adventure for a while, and we FINALLY got to take him up on his offer.
Zach and I were both excited, and I admit that I was a little nervous too. I’m not afraid to fly, but I had never even stood next to a helicopter before, much less climbed in one and taken off. I thought that the ride would be choppy and loud, but it was none of that. It was nothing like I expected. It was better! Zach sat up front with Mark, and I sat in the back seat listening to their conversation and watching with wonder the landscape unfold underneath us.
I’ve been on plenty of airplanes over the course of my life. I still remember the first time I flew with my mother from Nashville to Minneapolis when I was 4, and how I marveled at everything on the ground becoming so tiny and ant-like. If you’ve flown you know that very quickly you lose sight of the ground altogether, and if you can see anything below you it’s so tiny it’s hard to make out any significant landmarks.
But a helicopter is different. You don’t fly as high in a helicopter. You’re not hovering on the ground, but you are able to clearly pick out landmarks and places below you. We flew over our house, Zach and Phoebe’s school, lakes, countryside, the interstate, the mall and our church. As we hung momentarily over the church Mark and I both commented about how good it looked from the sky. The building looked graceful and elegant, its dome gleaming in the afternoon sun. But anyone who spends much time in our church knows the problems the building has, both inside and out. Mark especially knows the problems the building has because he spends a large part of his time keeping the place running.
Close up the dome is discolored and needs repair. Close up the large columns at the front entrance are covered in rust. Close up the semi-enclosed side porch where homeless people often take shelter has a ceiling that looks ready to collapse. Close up there is a large chunk of plaster missing at the top of the left wall of the sanctuary. Close up the third floor has sustained so much water damage, some rooms should just be gutted in order to have some use again. Close up we have a small, aging congregation who is fierce in its love and loyalty to each other and to the congregation as a whole, but there is great debate as to what will come next – for the building and for us.
Close up there are lots of homeless people in the neighborhood around the church. Close up there are lots of hungry people and lost people and sad people. Close up the problems and challenges, not just of our physical property but of the community in which we live and engage, seem overwhelming. But for an hour or so I had the opportunity to see all of it from a different perspective. For a little while I had the chance to step outside of it and myself and see my immediate world with new eyes. I wondered as we flew if maybe, just maybe, that’s – WARNING! Cheeeeeze alert. What I’m about to say next may make some of you involuntarily roll your eyes and groan, but please be patient.
I wondered as we flew if maybe, just maybe, that’s how God sees us. (Brief pause until the groans subside). I’m not trying to paint a picture of some smiling, removed deity hovering above us like a beneficent Santa Claus just watching us from afar. I guess I see it as God having the ability and perspective to see all of the problems, disrepair, rust, crumbling walls and sadness that is the human condition but also being able to see the great beauty, the graceful lines and shining domes that is also the human condition.
I think if there is one thing that keeps me believing in the divine, although so much evidence out there suggests the contrary, is my belief and understanding that God willingly, lovingly came into the close up. How much easier would it have been if God had stayed outside of it all, focused only on the beauty? But God became close up. Isn’t that really what the incarnation is all about? God becoming close up so we would know God close up. God sees us close up, sees the terrible harm we do to one another, sees the destruction and the hurt, but never forgets the beauty. That’s what we wait for during Advent. That’s what we watch for. God becoming close up.
Maybe we need to try a little harder to see us as God sees us. Maybe we need to trust that the beauty is there in each one of us, alongside the bad. I don’t think you have to believe in God to see the value in doing this either, to understand the value that comes when we see each person as having beauty first. I am very conscious of the fact that I write this piece on the seventy-first anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor – a day that irrevocably changed our country and the world. I am not so idealistic that I think just seeing the beauty in everyone would prevent all wars or the evil we inflict on one another. But maybe it would. Have we ever really tried?
I also know that if anyone needs a wake-up call to the importance of seeing the beauty in others first, it’s me. Trust me I could make a significant list of the people I’d like to drop kick into next year. On my best days, it is a challenge to think some of these folks have any beauty in them. Yet as I realize that I am a mix of both, I also must acknowledge that they are as well. Perhaps if I can see the beauty in them, the grace and the goodness, I will be better able to treat them in a way that allows all of that to shine forth.
I do know this. I am loved, by God and by others, close up. I am loved in spite of my flaws and failings, in spite of the myriad of ways I screw up and fall down. I am loved. So in this season of Advent and in every season, I am called to love back. Close up.