“Come, let us return to the Lord” – a reflection on not returning to in-person gathered worship

Isaiah 5.5-7; Jeremiah 9.10-14; Hosea 4.1-3, 5.15-6.3

“Come, let us return to the Lord…”

How different those words sounded just a few weeks ago, when the worship planning group met to plan for our return to in-person gathered worship, which was to have been this weekend. Then, those words spoke of joyful return, of a promise fulfilled. But the world has changed quickly since then, and our plans have changed with it, and we are not gathering. I wonder how those words sound to you today?

“Come, let us return to the Lord…”

Perhaps it sounds like a promise of things to come – after all, our gathering for worship is not cancelled, but postponed. Or perhaps, as this fresh loss compounds our grief for all the losses of this time, it sounds like an empty promise, hollow words when we cannot return.

It is, I think, no coincidence that the book of Hosea, like many of the prophetic texts in the Bible, was written during or just after a time of upheaval, sadness, separation and loss, when the people of Israel were taken in exile to Babylon. There was perhaps something about that experience of devastation and separation which enabled people to face some of the harder, more uncomfortable truths about what it means to live in the world in relationship with God.

“Come, let us return to the Lord…”

This is not really about returning to worship, though it might have fitted that context well. Nor is it about returning home, returning to a beloved community, though it might have had those resonances for its original hearers as well as for us. It is about turning to God, and not just turning but re-turning, turning again, setting our face in the direction of God, living our lives oriented towards God, and accepting that to do so is not a once-and-for all decision, but a continual process of turning and returning.

The life of faith is not static, it requires us to be continually ready to move, to change, to turn and re-turn, as we try to keep ourselves firmly pointed towards God, in all the changing, challenging and confusing circumstances of life. Church traditions, at their worst, encourage us to stay still, to stay put, to resist change, because ‘we have always done it like that’. But at its best, the tradition of the church encourages us to root ourselves in a long line of faithful people who have turned and returned to God in every generation, adapting to all manner of circumstances, and trying to work out afresh what it means to remain faithful to God now, in this time and place and situation.

Our readings today contain some pretty devastating imagery. Imagery of violence and destruction, of turmoil, loss, devastation and extinction. This is, perhaps, not the sort of stuff we expect to hear very often in church. But it is important stuff to engage with, and to engage with well.

Some of this imagery has been used badly, to suggest a vengeful God who destroys or harms as punishment for human sin. That is not a God I recognise. Sometimes this sort of imagery has been used to justify human violence, the violence of the privileged towards the oppressed, and that is never right. We need to be very careful to resist any reading that could seem to condone abuse or violence.

So how do we read these texts? It helps, I think, to start by remembering that the relationship between God and human beings is not – in the ordinary sense – an interpersonal relationship. God is not a person, and our relationship with God is not the same as our relationship with other humans. Nor is God’s relationship with God’s own creation the same as our relationship with God’s creation, of which we are a part.

A careful reading of the text from Jeremiah may also help us here. ‘Why is the land ruined and laid waste like a wilderness?’ asks the prophet. A question we may well echo as we see the destructive impact of climate change on our world. And God replies ‘Because they have forsaken my law that I set before them and have not obeyed my voice or walked in accordance with it.’ It would be easy to read that as God punishing people for their disobedience by destroying the land. But I think it is better read, especially if we are looking for parallels with our present climate emergency, as God spelling out the inevitable consequences of humanity turning away from the way God wants us to live in relationship with creation.

It’s a bit like if you say to a child: “if you touch the cooker, you’ll get burned” – that’s not a threat of punishment, but a warning about consequences. So, in these sometimes disturbingly violent texts, God is not threatening us, but warning us about the consequence of our own actions and inactions, and the choices we make in how we relate to one another, to God, and to the creation of which we are a part.

“Come, let us return to the Lord…”

This is a call to turn back towards God, to notice those times when we too have ‘stubbornly followed our own hearts’, to commit again to walking in God’s ways and placing ourselves in right relationship with God, with our neighbours, and with creation.

This is not easy stuff. It never is, but especially now. It is not easy in terms of how we respond either to the climate crisis or to the Coronavirus pandemic. Sometimes it will mean making decisions which are costly or even painful. Often it will mean wrestling long and hard with what it looks like to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves, now, in these circumstances, in response to these crises. What that looks like will continue to change, and we will need to be prepared to change in response, to turn and turn again towards God who is unchanging in faithfulness and love.

There is a spiritual which emerged from the Shaker tradition which has the chorus “to turn, turn will be our delight, til turning, turning we come round right” and as they sang it, the Shakers would dance, turning and moving as they worshiped God. Dance is often used as a metaphor for the life of God in the Trinity, as one of continual movement in relationship. We too are caught up in this dance, in this turning and returning to God.

It is hard, sometimes, to learn new ways of dancing, new ways of living, new ways of expressing our love for God and neighbour. It is hard, and it can be heartbreaking, and it can be joyful, and inspiring, and devastating, and beautiful – sometimes all at the same time. But we do not do it alone. Even when we cannot meet, we are still part of the same dance, turning together towards the same God, seeking together to walk with Jesus, bound together in the life of the Holy Spirit.

So come, let us return to the Lord, together-but-apart, let us know, let us press on to know, the Eternal One whose appearing is as sure as the dawn. Amen.    

This reflection is part of Hodge Hill Church’s ‘Trees of Life’ reflection series.

Meeting God in unexpected ways – a reflection on Hagar and Jacob

Genesis 21.8-21; Genesis 22.22-32

In today’s texts we have the stories of two quite different encounters with God: Hagar in the wilderness at the point of despair, receiving the water she needs to keep her son and herself alive; and Jacob, wrestling for a blessing, which he does receive, but only alongside an injury. Neither of these are, perhaps, typical of what we might think of when we think about meeting God. But one thing the many and varied stories of scripture teach us is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ model of encounter with the divine.

When I was a little girl, I went to a Church of England primary school. This is where I first heard about God, and first encountered the idea that God is someone you could have a relationship with, could communicate with. It was where I first came across the idea of prayer. At my primary school, we were given a very clear idea of how prayer should happen. Prayers were to begin “Dear God”, they were to end “Amen.”, and – and this was very thoroughly impressed upon us – they were to include the words “thank you” and/or “please”. This is how I was taught to approach God – it was important to get it right, and important to be polite.

And, of course, those please and thank you prayers have a place in my prayer life still, although perhaps not in such rigid forms. But they are not the be all and end all of the life of faith. Certainly they are a far cry from the sort of encounter with God which we see in today’s stories. These are not nice, polite, scripted interactions between God and God’s people. They are desperate, raw, real encounters between the awesome and merciful power of God and the frailty of human lives. And they can teach us something about our own encounters with God.

Let’s look at Hagar first. She is desperate at this point in the story – really desperate. Driven out of her home, and now with her son at the point of death, she has nobody to turn to. So what does she do? She does not compose a nice “Dear God… please… Amen” prayer. It is not clear that the words she does speak – “Do not let me look on the death of my child” – are addressed to God at all, or indeed to anyone. They are the distressed cry of a desperate woman. Watching the news recently, of refugees making dangerous sea crossings, of the explosion in Beirut, of the continuing devastation caused by Covid-19 around the world – I wonder how many parents might be uttering those same words. Hagar does not ask God for anything. And yet God acts, and acts in a way which she could never have expected, providing the lifesaving resource of water, or perhaps opening Hagar’s eyes to a resource that was already there – the text is unclear on this point.

And then there is Jacob, wrestling all night with this mysterious stranger, who is perhaps an angel, a messenger from God, or perhaps is God. Either way, as Jacob wrestles, this strange dialogue takes place. There are no ‘please’ and ‘thank you’s here either, although there are certainly demands. Jacob asks for a blessing and the stranger replies by asking his name, and giving him a new one: Israel. Jacob asks the stranger’s name, and instead of answering he gives Jacob the blessing he had asked for before. It’s a curious conversation, and certainly a long way from how we might have been taught as children to think about “talking to God”.

But the God we see in these stories, and throughout much of scripture, is altogether more complicated than the God of the children’s prayer book who awaits our polite requests and grants them. And our relationship with God is, or has the potential to be, far more complex too – richer and deeper, encompassing every aspect of life.  

In the story of Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, we see a God who does not wait to be asked, a God whose saving action does not rely on politely phrased requests. This is the God who hears our despair even when we can’t put it into words, and who is still present and active when the situation seems to us to be too far beyond hope even to pray about it.

In the story of Jacob wrestling, we see a God who does not give us easy answers, but who allows us to grapple and wrestle with who God is and who we are in relation to God.  This is the God who has room for the difficult questions, space for us to bring all our doubts and wonderings. This is the God who responds to our demands – but not in the ways we expect. This too is the God who does not allow us to remain unchanged.  

There is a strand of Christian thought that wants to iron out the difficult parts of life, to package faith – and by extension God – into a nice neat framework. But I don’t think God is like that. I don’t think life is like that. And I don’t think the life of faith can, or needs to, duck the tough questions like that. We live in a complex world, and we lead complex lives, and God is big enough to deal with it all.

When we find ourselves pushed beyond our capacity to cope, when we reach a point of desperation, God will meet us there in unexpected ways. Not to solve our problems or make it all ok, but perhaps just to nudge us towards what we need for the next step, the next breath, the next moment. When we find ourselves wrestling with big decisions or difficult questions, problems that seem unsolvable, God will be right there wrestling with us, and even as we wrestle, we will be blessed in strange and unexpected ways which change us forever.

When we think of meeting God, it is tempting to think of drawing apart from our everyday lives, in search of beauty, peace or inspiration. And there is a time and a place for that. But these stories, and so many others like them, inspire us to keep alert to the presence of God in the ordinary, God in the tough stuff, God in the uncertainty. God does not wait for our polite requests or our set-aside times, but comes to meet us, to bless us, and to transform us in all the difficult, glorious, grace infused, human mess of our lives.                         

This reflection is part of Hodge Hill Church’s ‘Trees of Life’ reflection series.