God Was In This Place And I Did Not Know it

 1 March 2021 |

A few years ago I was vising South East Asia and as part of my itinerary, I visited Ankor Wat in Cambodia. It’s a place that over centuries people have encountered a god, or God; a lot of travellers have it on their bucket list. Personally, I was unimpressed even though it is highly regarded by very many travellers and an essential destination for people visiting that part of the world. Machu Picchu, on the other hand, was, to me, a destination that pulsed spirituality and the sense of the liminal. But both are fixed places where an encounter with the special is said to be a reality. The Hebrew Scriptures wrestles with the concept of where God is found. For some, God cannot be pinned down in one place and is found in a variety of places, in fire and smoke, on a mountain, walking in the Garden, and so on; alternatively the early Israelites located God in the Temple, in Jerusalem, in their land. For them, exile in Babylon, far from Jerusalem, was depressing – the psalmist moans “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?.” (Psalm 137). When the Temple was destroyed and the Jews dispersed, the question arose about where God was located.

Christians thought they had found the answer when they believed that God was seen in Jesus Christ. People today talk of having a personal relationship with Jesus and by that they possibly mean there is something about locating God in the relationship with Jesus – but we ask, is it a Jesus found amongst the people, in heaven, on a throne, in the crucifixion or in the resurrection. No simple answer, I’m afraid, and as if to pre-empt those who think they have the answer, Paul warns in 1 Corinthians, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”.

The title of this article is a quote from Genesis 28, and specifically about Jacob, who is running for his life, fleeing the fury of the brother from whom he has stolen the patriarchal blessing and the father he has deceived. He stops for the night, as the sun is setting and in his sleep he dreams about a ladder to heaven with angels going up and down it. He wakes and realises he has had an encounter with God without knowing it. For those who wish to find God in a place, this is good news, but there’s a surprise here too. Jacob was unaware that he would encounter God there. And perhaps we might make the other point that he’s not looking for God, but God comes looking for him.

Many of us go to a church building to encounter God on a Sunday morning; for us God is ‘at home’ and we go to find God there. There are many reasons why church buildings are precious to people but one is about a location that is set apart for the encounter with God, where we find peace and solace: God was in this place. But also we know that God finds us and does so in a variety of ways. We find God is a place, or many places, in people and in our relationships. Some want to say in needy people some in the prosperous. There is no one answer. And indeed, God will surprise us by meeting with us in the unexpected way, location or person.

Just as the Jews in exile, mourned the loss of their land and cities, and believed that they had lost God too, we in our isolation, in these days, stuck at home, miss our church building – we grieve for the loss of the place we are familiar with and where through our lives we have found comfort and encountered God.

We know that Zoom is a poor replacement but presently offers some opportunity to conjure up that feeling of encountering God. A colleague, Anne Jacqueline, has recently published a guide and help to worship on Zoom and I reproduce it below with her permission. I hope you find it helpful.

From Anne Jacqueline – Ideas for helping us to worship on Zoom:

Zoom worship isn’t always easy, and I’ve heard from some people that it’s proving very hard. So, I’ve done some thinking and offer the following as suggestions of some ways that might help you if you are finding it hard to worship on Zoom.
If you work at your computer a lot during the week it might help to find somewhere else to sit for worship so that you don’t feel you are still “at work”.
Likewise, even if you don’t work at your computer a lot during the week you might find that you need to sit somewhere different for worship to give a sense of setting the space and the time aside for this particular event.
It can be helpful to create a worship space wherever you sit for worship. One way to do this is by laying a special cloth or piece of fabric on a table and having things there that help you focus on God. For example you could have a cross or a picture or an open bible or a candle to light as we gather for worship.
Because we are in our own homes sometimes we miss the things we associate with going to church, so you could think about what you could do to prepare yourself, for example:
go for a short walk round the block to give the impression of “going to church”.
sit quietly for a few minutes before you join the Zoom call so you are not rushing straight from tidying up after breakfast or cleaning your teeth.
listen to some music before you join to remind you that this is a particular time.
think about the particular things that you did on a Sunday morning before going to church: are there any of those things you need to make sure you do now so that you mark the day as special? (for instance, I always have toast on a Sunday, usually with marmalade. I don’t often have it other mornings, so it marks Sunday as different)
Think about what you hope for in worship on a particular Sunday. It might be that something has happened in the week that has gone, or something you are struggling with or particularly thankful for. Even though we are not together in a physical sense, remember the community can still hold us in our separate places and God is still speaking now.
Think about the things that can be blocks for worship at this particular time. Offer them to God and open yourself to how you could see them differently.
Perhaps one of the biggest issues in all of this is that we don’t always see our homes as “holy” and so miss the church because that can feel holy, even when we don’t. But remember, everywhere is holy. Here are some words that are from a hymn by Fred Kaan which are good to reflect on when we are not sure where “holy” is:
Holy is the setting of each room and heart,
lecture hall and kitchen, shop and ward.
Holy is the rhythm of our working hours;
hallow then our purpose, energy and powers.
This time is not easy, but it is not forever and it is also God’s time.
Grace and peace to you all,
28th January 2021