As I read a brief study this morning of Psalm 125 out of Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, I remembered sitting in a hotel in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada in May 2008 reading that psalm while looking out at the Rocky Mountains that surrounded me. In that psalm, the psalmist noted the mountains surrounding Jerusalem and compared the protection afforded by them as being like the security offered God’s people by His presence that surrounds them for “now and forevermore.” Today as I remember that psalm and reflect on God’s care, world news is of the devastating earthquake in Haiti where estimates of the dead are in excess of 140,000 people. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to feel God’s protection in the aftermath of such devastation.
In October (2009) my associate pastor, in welcoming everyone to the 8:00 a.m. service, said (tongue-in-cheek), “I’m glad you’re here and just want you to know God shows up for the 8:00 service too.” Everyone laughed — everyone but me, not because I don’t have a sense of humor or didn’t know that was his intent, but because I think we all need to be aware of the possible impact of the little ways in which our trust in God can be undermined. The truth is, I love language – I believe it has the ability to inspire us, motivate us, entertain us, amuse us, confuse us and that it can, subtly (when it takes up residence in our brain without clarification), lead us to flawed thinking.
The dilemma with the concept of God showing up doesn’t lie in the ‘when’ of His presence, but in the inferred ‘If’ of His presence. I believe the thought process that “God shows up” sets the stage for the thinking that God might not or did not ‘show up’ when tragedy occurs. Way too often, our response to trouble is to ask, “Where was God in this?” or “Why me; I tithe … attend … serve, etc,” and, unfortunately, there always seem to be a few judgmental people who hurtfully announce that some tragedy was inflicted by God as punishment for whatever happens to be on their personal ‘top ten sin list.’
My concern is that thinking God ‘shows up’ may rob someone of the assurance of His presence and comfort when they need it the most. Our God is named Immanuel, God With Us. By the very nature of His character, he doesn’t ‘show up.’ He is omnipresent, meaning He is there all the time; and as God With Us, He is both already present and arrives in and around each of us as we show up where ever we are.
It is difficult in the face of overwhelming tragedy, such as what is happening in Haiti, to move beyond the questions of “Why?” and “Where was God …?” However, even though those are typically our first questions, I don’t believe they are useful questions – the world is and weather is – as M. Scott Peck said in the opening sentence in his book The Road Less Traveled: “Life is difficult.” Jesus gave us a picture of reality when he said (Matthew 5:45 – NASB), “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
The better and more useful questions revolve around “What can I do in this situation to help?” Paul in 2nd Corinthians 1:4 (NLT) said, “He [God]comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” Right now most of us cannot go to Haiti, but we can give dollars to support the cost of rescue and eventual rebuilding; we can also allow our tears to flow as we weep with them over their suffering and pray that God will meet their needs as only He knows them. As I reflected on this I remembered a melody and lyrics:
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast
And our eternal home. . .
Be thou our guide while life shall last,
And our eternal home.
The promise of scripture is not that by belonging to God we will be kept safe from the difficulties, tragedies and disasters of life, but that nothing can stop God’s ultimate plan and purpose. Paul in Romans 8:35-39 said, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I think we all want to worship God in singing, dancing, rejoicing and praising him in celebration; it’s just that in this world, there are many times when loving and worshiping God means praying and weeping and either giving in response to the needs around us or receiving the comfort offered by those who pray and weep and give.