Love is in the details. The God made known to us in Jesus takes delight in our individuality, is lavishly attentive to our hurts and hopes, and is involved in the everyday, mundane details of our lives.
I was intrigued and even troubled that Bette Midler's hit song, "From a Distance," was so popular with many Christians because it was little more than an insipid hymn to a disinterested god, Sayles says. (Photo: Alan Light)
God embraces all time and space, but God also holds each of us in strong and tender arms. God's love is vast and cosmic, but it is not vague and general. God loves the world, and God loves me and you and everyone.
Several years ago, just before school let out for the Christmas break, a high school history teacher invited me to come to his European history class to talk about "religion."
I told him I'd be glad to come but that "religion" was a broad topic, covering everything from Babylonian Zoroastrianism to Judaism, Islam and Christianity, with Buddhism, 12-step groups and major college football in-between.
Did he have anything more specific in mind than just "religion"?
Not really, he said. Then he told me the reason for the invitation: When they had studied the Reformation, his students had had a lot of questions about God. He thought it would be good for them to hear from a few "experts," so he was inviting me, a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor and a Unitarian minister to answer their questions.
So, I went. At one point, a student asked me, "What do you think about atheists?"
I told her that I had known surprisingly few real atheists, since an atheist is a person who has a settled conviction that there is not a god – a faith that there isn't a god.
I just don't know many people who have staked their lives on the non-existence of god.
On the other hand, I said, I have known some people who are agnostics – people who aren't sure about God.
They are curious but uncertain, perhaps even hopeful but unconvinced. Most of them are searching, as all of us search, for a way to make sense out of life, to affirm that it is worth living, and to discover enough love and hope to make life's harsh realities bearable.
After I left the school, I kept mulling over this whole question of what we believe about God.
I thought about those periodic opinion polls that are a kind of snapshot of Americans' religious beliefs. They regularly show that most Americans, well over 90 percent of us, affirm the existence of God.
That doesn't impress me much, because telling a pollster you think there is a God is nowhere close to the same thing as betting your whole life on the conviction that God is with us and cares about us.
I came to the conclusion that, while I don't know many comfortable agnostics – and even fewer committed atheists – I know plenty of practical atheists and functional agnostics.
Day to day, in contrast to what we say, many of us live as if there were no God, or at least as if God were so aloof and disconnected from our real concerns that God doesn't make any actual difference to us.
Do you remember Bette Midler's hit song, "From a Distance?" I was intrigued and even troubled that it was so popular with many Christians because it was little more than an insipid hymn to a disinterested god.
Its simple refrain summarized its lackluster faith: "God is watching us, God is watching us, from a distance."
Apparently, there are a lot of us whose real faith is in a remote, passive and merely observant god. Our actual god – not the god of our polite and expected professions of faith, but the god of how we live day by day – doesn't surprise us, disturb us, delight us or save us.
The God revealed in Jesus gets into the middle of everything. This God loves us too much to leave us alone.
God intrudes, disturbs and delights. God shakes things up and make things happen. God is unpredictably but reliably involved in all the dimensions of our lives and the life of the world. God loves us, up close and in detail.
And, God invites us to open ourselves to that love, to yield to it, to cooperate with it and to experience the lasting and transforming joy it brings.
Guy Sayles is pastor of First Baptist Church of Asheville, N.C. This column first appeared on his blog, From the Intersection.