A good question: How is God with us?
One question, four answers
‘They had to seek God in new ways’
As the coronavirus has put the UK in lockdown, it has been staggering to see how churches and ministers have adapted to being church in new ways. Though scattered and unable to connect in person, we are still the body of Christ. We continue to connect by meeting online, sharing in services that have been delivered via email or through our letterboxes, by phone calls and by prayer chains. Worshipping our creator, redeemer and sustainer seems more urgent and important than it did two months ago. As with so many things, it is only when the possibility of meeting together face-to-face is taken away that we realise what church means to us.
In the sixth century BC, the people of God had their world turned upside down. They had been invaded and defeated by the latest near eastern superpower, Babylon. They had lost their king, their land and their freedom. The temple in Jerusalem, the one place where they thought God’s presence dwelled, was utterly destroyed. For those deported from Israel to the rivers of Babylon, it was time to stop and rethink their theology of worship: ‘How’ as Psalm 137 says, ‘can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’ They had to think outside the box…
Alison Gray is Tutor in Old Testament Language, Literature and Theology at Westminster College, Cambridge
‘God is a safe place’
We read in Psalm 46: ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.’ This is a very popular text for encouraging ourselves and others. If we put this text in a modern version it could translate as: ‘God is a safe place to hide in, and he is always ready to help us when we need him.’
But how helpful and relevant is the text for us as we face growing fear and anxiety due to the coronavirus pandemic? We have to admit that this virus has hugely affected our daily lives. We are left overwhelmed with everything that has changed so quickly. Frankly speaking, watching the news, it is clear that the message of gloom outweighs that of hope.
Anyone who has lived in the aftermath of natural disasters, pandemics or wars knows that it brings a question which seems so simple but is soul-searching: where is God in these times of trouble, pain and suffering? To question God is not wrong. There are many occasions in the Bible in which people asked God questions and he was not angered or offended…
Samuel Silungwe is Minister of the Rockingham Forest group of churches, Northamptonshire
‘God can handle our questioning’
According to Exodus, when the people of Israel arrived in Rephidim and found themselves without water, they asked Moses: ‘Is God with us or not?’ The text assumes that their question displayed a lack of faith in God, who had led them out of slavery in Egypt, allowing them to miraculously cross over the sea on dry land with the Egyptian army in pursuit, who had already provided water for them miraculously at Marah, and sent manna, their daily bread.
So yes, their question did represent a tendency to forget what God was doing for them. And perhaps one lesson to be learned here is to stand firm, as much as we are able, in our faith that God will be with us and provide for us, through all circumstances. We should never forget the myriad ways in which God has looked out for us.
But it feels like there may be another side to the story. The children of Israel were tens of thousands of people, old and young, along with their cattle and other possessions. They were in a desert climate, severe heat, wandering for hours without any drinking water. How long would you survive before a sense of panic set in? How many miracles would you have had to experience before your dry throat and crying children at your side brought you no sense of anxiety? How many reports did you hear of panic buying before you got in line yourself, to pick up toilet paper?…
Tim Johnson is Interim Pastor at the Japanese Congregational Church in Seattle, Washington
‘God is close’
Someone sent me some one-line jokes the other day to cheer me up. My favourite one was: ‘What if there were no hypothetical questions?’ It’s still making me giggle…
I’ve given a lot of time over my life to asking, if not hypothetical, at least philosophical questions. One course I had the privilege to teach was on the problem of suffering: ‘If God is good and all-powerful, why is there suffering?’ We looked at the classic arguments in answer to what is often called the theological question. We read philosophers, theologians, poets and novelists, and debated earnestly and long. We read Job, Psalms and the story of Jesus’ suffering and death.
What has struck me about this time of trouble is that I’ve hardly resorted at all to anything like abstract thought. In any case, we are just beginning a time that we cannot map yet. I’m enjoying spring days at home and looking forward to reading The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, but I’m also living with an underlying fearfulness…
Susan Durber is Minister of Taunton United Reformed Church, Somerset
These are extracts from an article that was published in the May 2020 edition of Reform