On Praying the Psalms and Where is God in Natural Disasters?
Talk about biting off more than you can chew! Last year during Lent, with the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes very much in the news, I watched as no lesser person than the Rt Revd James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, apparently struggled with this question; and rightly so, for where is our God, the God of love, of righteousness, in Japan or New Zealand right now? Well HE is there. Statement of the blindingly obvious you might think. But this is the question the un-churched and the militantly atheist, so often use as “proof” that God either doesn’t exist at all, or HE is a pretty unreliable sort of deity
Two years ago I attended the first of Liverpool Cathedral’s Lent prayer schools/retreats. I had never done anything like this before, so was naturally somewhat apprehensive as to what was involved. The twenty four hour event was led by the Rt. Revd Gordon Mursell, then Bishop of Stafford, and his subject was “How to pray the Psalms”. Now this might sound a bit obvious, but not to this particular lame brain! It had never occurred to me previously to see the Psalms as prayer; devotional exercises yes, prayer? Well it just hadn’t reached the grey matter. I learnt about the Psalms as prayers of lamentation, and as songs of joy and thanksgiving. But surely I knew that? I know how to SING the Psalms, I knew all about them as wonderful pieces of poetry; well they are in the Myles Coverdale version anyway, but to actually use them as prayer? Some months later, I found myself in Winchester Cathedral, singing as part of a visiting choir. At our first service, a wonderful and very elderly Austrian Cleric, invited the congregation to sit for the Psalms of the day thus: “Here at Winchester, we PRAY the Psalms seated”, and I finally got the point.
Why mention this now? Last night at Evensong, the Choir of Liverpool Cathedral (where the traditional format of “Psalms of the day” is not followed), sang this Psalm, being the one appointed in the Cathedral’s Psalter (i.e. NOT selected that day because of the situation in Japan):
Deus noster refugium
God is our hope and strength : a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be moved : and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea;
3 Though the waters thereof rage and swell : and though the mountains shake at the tempest of the same.
4 The rivers of the flood thereof shall make glad the city of God : the holy place of the tabernacle of the most Highest.
5 God is in the midst of her, therefore shall she not be removed : God shall help her, and that right early.
6 The heathen make much ado, and the kingdoms are moved : but God hath shewed his voice, and the earth shall melt away.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us : the God of Jacob is our refuge.
8 O come hither, and behold the works of the Lord : what destruction he hath brought upon the earth.
9 He maketh wars to cease in all the world : he breaketh the bow, and knappeth the spear in sunder, and burneth the chariots in the fire.
10 Be still then, and know that I am God : I will be exalted among the heathen, and I will be exalted in the earth.
11 The Lord of hosts is with us : the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Talk about the hairs on the back of your neck standing up!! And there we have the truth of God, our God, in the midst of the destructions brought about by natural disaster. That HE is with us though all our many trials and tribulations. Our Lord knew this. As we read in St Mark’s Gospel Ch 15: vv 33-35, just as death approached Christ called out Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? St Mark (and St Matthew) tells us that some thought Christ was calling out to Elijah; in fact the words are the first verse of Psalm 22. “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? A Psalm well known to the people of Israel, because it is both a Psalm of prophecy and lamentation, yet also one which reminds us of continuing in faith even when severely tested. If ever there was a Psalm to stop you in your tracks and make you consider the historical accuracy of the gospel narrative, this is it. Written probably millennia before Christ, it tells of the piecing of hands of feet, of the parting of garments and casting lots for a vestment etc Read it for yourself, and it is almost as if the ancient author is standing at the foot of the cross. Not only was our Lord pointing out that HIS death was taking place as prophesied so long before, but (given that those there would recognise the reference), demonstrating the knowledge that no matter what the trials and tribulations wrought by man and nature, God is there, HE is with us. Not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the still small voice (1 Kings Ch 19:vv 11-13).
Reflection: I can’t remember where this comes from (someone please tell me) but when my life, as it often is, appears beyond my control and life is less than happy, I often think of this. You walk your life with God, and at the end you turn and look back along the path of your life, and along most of the path you see two sets of footsteps, but at the times when life was difficult there is only one set. You turn to God and ask “where were you when I needed you”, and God replies, “that was when I carried you”
Prayer: In thinking of the people of Japan and Christchurch New Zealand, pray Psalm 22 in in particular verse 24: “For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him, he heard.”