A couple years ago I was in Cambridge, England visiting with Ranald Macaulay, son-in-law of Francis Schaeffer. I asked him about the first time he met the late L’Abri founder, and he gave me an image I have not forgotten. He was a college student then, and Schaeffer was meeting with several students, holding forth on some topic in an apartment or dorm room. Ranald said Dr. Schaeffer took his hand and placed it beside his face, as close as possible and yet not touching, and said “God is this close to us.” It’s a simple image, but it’s one way of visibly expressing a truth we take for granted and yet often fail to really believe in the moment-to-moment reality.
I often lament the fact that I cannot actually see God, that He never really shows up in the flesh for me. I envy the early disciples who could see, touch, and hear Jesus, who witnessed his miracles, and who were visibly and audibly comforted by His presence. And so when God seems distant, when prayer seems like a one-sided conversation, when I feel alone --- I hold my hand up to the side of my face, sense its closeness, and remember what Schaeffer said: God is there. He has not left us alone. He’s that close.
There are very few moments when I’ve really grasped what it means to say Emmanuel: God with us. Sometimes I get a glimpse of it, the fact that God was embodied --- baby, boy, and man --- and endured the whole of human existence. Dorothy Sayers summed it up well:
For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is --- limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death --- he [God] had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace, and thought it was worthwhile.
Yes, he suffered and died. But that “he suffered the trivial irritations of family life” somehow makes His incarnation real for me, as it is less dramatic and more like my everyday experience. That enfleshes what sometimes becomes abstract doctrine. He was (and somewhere still is) a man, capable of being touched, of eating and drinking and laughing and weeping.
In no other religion do you have a God who becomes weak, who sanctifies the physical world by entering into it to suffer with and for us. God walked on the earth. He ate and drank. He suffered the toil of work and conversations petty and the profound, the interesting people as well as the bores, the mundane and spiritual. He knew what it was like to be me. He is real, and He is as near to me as the hand beside my face.