The God of past, present, and future

During these many months of pandemic, local congregations have had to wrestle with a host of difficult questions. What will it look like to take our services online? Do we have the resources to do it? When can we open back up on a limited basis? What rules will we have to follow? What will we do when all of this is over?

And when will it be over, Lord willing?

Meanwhile, church members have had to make their own decisions about participation. Do we watch online services? Are we ready to go back when things open up? Some members have been angry about the restrictions to services, even accusing their pastors of being faithless. Some have defected to other churches, even if only temporarily.

But most, I suspect, just harbor a conscious or unconscious wish that things could be as they were before the pandemic.

That wish is not too far off what we find in Psalm 42.

. . .

The psalmist, as we’ve seen, has been suffering through a spiritual drought in which God seems absent and his enemies all too present. He mourns constantly as he bears the mockery of others: “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’” (vs. 3). Having put his lament into words, he immediately turns to a happier memory:

These things I remember,
    as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
    and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
    a multitude keeping festival
. (vs. 4)

It’s as if the taunt “Where is your God?” reminds the psalmist of times in which he joyfully experienced God’s presence: celebrating a festival with a crowd of worshipers, leading a procession to the temple, the air filled with shouts and songs of praise. And having said that, the psalmist turns to a refrain that will be recited again at the end of this psalm, and of its companion, Psalm 43:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God. (vss. 5-6a)

There are, I think, two ways we might read this. There is first the negative reading. The psalmist has shed bitter tears night and day. Having to bear the mockery of his enemies only deepens his longing for the way things were. Remembering happier times from the past only deepens his present despair; thus his soul is cast down like someone who’s been knocked to the ground.

But a more positive reading is also possible. Yes, the psalmist feels God’s absence keenly. Yes, the mockery stings. But the mockery doesn’t just trigger memories of the past which come unbidden; the psalmist actively brings those memories to mind as an act of faith. “These things I remember,” in other words, doesn’t mean, “These things just came to mind.” It means, “I bring these things to mind.” When someone tempts the psalmist to believe that God is absent, he chooses to remind himself of why he believes in his presence. He remembers his encounters with God.

It’s okay to ask God why he seems to have cast us aside. It’s okay to put that sense of abandonment into words. At least those words are still addressed to God. But when we pull into ourselves, saying things like, “This is terrible! God has abandoned me,” we can make God seem absent, and our emotions will follow.

The alternative is to change the way we talk to ourselves. The psalmist addresses his own soul: “Why are so defeated? You know God is real. Remember when you felt the joy of his presence? Then let that be your hope.” And note how the tone then shifts back to a more confident, and indeed hopeful, first-person statement: “For I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”

. . .

When we suffer in the present, we might wish for God to restore a happier past. In that case, our hope for the future would be that the present is just an aberration. We long for things to go back to the way they were. Personally, I believe that there are things about our world that will never be the same after the novel coronavirus has passed—if it passes.

But there is a more robust hope. We can remember who the eternal God is. We can actively bring to mind our experience of God’s character of love and grace. God’s character doesn’t change; he is the same, past, present, and future, whatever ups and downs we experience in this earthly life.

That is where our true hope is rooted.

And we can remind ourselves of that whenever the need arises.