There are many beautiful things in this world — mountains, waterfalls, a rugged coastline, coral reefs, and deserts to name a few. There is however a point at which one can get too close. Even a relatively small waterfall can be treacherous to walk under and a large one becomes increasingly terrifying as one gets closer.
Mountains look beautiful from an airplane or overlook, but to traverse them on foot is a different matter. Rugged coastlines are positively deadly if one chooses to jump in when the surf is up. Some things are best viewed from a safe distance without proper understanding and preparation.
There are also things in this world that are hard to look at even from a distance. Viewing the aftermath of a flood or storm just keeps getting worse the closer one gets. When it comes to cleanup and restoration it is always worse than it looks to my non-professional eyes.
We use distance to keep us safe. We have just experienced a time when we used distance as a tool to protect ourselves. At least some of us had that luxury. Many others did not, and we should not forget that. I am amazed at the number of people who speak of the past year with some satisfaction that they rarely had to leave their cocoon, forgetting all the people who made their distance possible.
It is good sense for one to keep distance when people who know what they are doing are at work. Getting too close would be dangerous and hinder the work at hand. What child is not fascinated by big machines working under the control of experienced operators? Who is not fascinated by professional athletes competing?
I am amazed at the craftmanship of those who create beautiful work from wood, clay, or metal. Those who know what they are doing get close enough to put their hands to the work. Those who do not are better served keeping distance.
It is good for most of us to keep distance from most things most of the time. No one can be good enough to be useful at everything, but I believe we should all strive to be useful at something.
Something that we can learn well enough not to fear and be able to get close enough to put our hands on the tools and get useful work done. Close enough to be able to make a mess and then clean it up and make conditions better than we found them.
This is true when we think of other people as well. Most of us look better from a distance than up close. That is what makes marriage, family, church, and politics so hard. Even the best of us have a less desirable side to us. What is necessary is to develop the tools of maturity, empathy, and wisdom to be able to get close and not cause more harm than good.
It can be hard work to develop those tools. I knew someone who would not visit a children’s hospital because it caused her so much distress. I understood the distress, not the refusal to visit. I know the pain of holding a child in the hospital as the chill of death overcomes the small once warm body. It does not take long.
I appreciated the courage of those who were present (at an appropriate distance) both times. I appreciated those who stayed emotionally engaged in the weeks and months that followed. My challenge to that person was, “Then who will go?”
When it comes to helping each other, there are some things that cannot be done at a distance. It requires us to risk being uncomfortable at first. There is nothing that we have done that we have not done for the first time — even if we were prepared. Even those hard and unpleasant tasks can eventually be approached with some confidence if we commit ourselves to them.
I am thankful for those who dare get close enough to feel the pain, smell the poverty, and occasionally get a little dirty for the sake of others. I am thankful for those in my life who have stayed close enough to help even when it was not pleasant.
There are those who say that the earth looks so beautiful and peaceful from space — from distance. There are those who say that God watches us from a distance. These things may be true, but they are not nearly all the truth. The earth convulses with pain and war and famine. I believe that God is here with us in the mess. Some would call that his Holy Spirit. We all need times to admire or help from a distance. We also need the courage to get close enough to matter.