I remember a conference on the nature of God in Christian and Islamic traditions I attended in Edinburgh some years ago (in the days when travel to the far side of the earth was both normal and affordable). At one stage in the proceedings Professor Mona Siddiqui, who visited the Australian Centre for Christianity & Culture a few years ago, said she felt it was important in inter-religious dialogue to address our different understandings of the nearness of God. The phrase echoed in my mind then and has continued to. In one sense it is a familiar enough phrase. Yet we so easily skate over it, miss it, or are simply forgetful of just how near the divine presence is to each and every one of us and the creation. The nearness of God is captured beautifully in the words of the remarkable Medieval theologian St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), ‘God is in all things, and intimately’. Of course, such statements are not just reserved for the great scholars of the Christian tradition. Rather, such words spring from the experience of the human heart that seeks the Lord and finds, to its great surprise, that we have already been found by the God who is near to all things.
I asked a friend, who is being treated for a serious stage four cancer and is now in his fifth course of chemo, what ‘the nearness of God’ meant for him. He thought for a moment and said he and his wife had recently been reading one of the Psalms and were struck by the phrase ‘we are surrounded by mercy on every side’. I tried to find the phrase and found these well-known words from Psalm 139:5-7. ‘You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?’
My friend said that the words from the psalm echoed in their minds for days. In the ensuing days, in conversations with others, they realised that in so many ways they had been in receipt of the mercy of God. The words of Holy Scripture resonated with the events of their life. They found that as they brought to mind the words of the psalmist in their daily life, filled as it has been with many challenges as you might imagine, they became acutely aware of God’s mercy up-close and personal; the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The great Bard spoke of mercy thus: ‘The quality of mercy is not strain’d. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath’. As the gentle rain over time soaks the earth; so too the mercy of God soaks into the human heart, soul, mind, and strength. Such is the nearness of God.
Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God being near: ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’ (Luke 17:20-21, NRSV). The Greek word can be rendered in various ways: in the midst, among, within.
How important it is for us frail humans to remember God’s nearness especially in the difficulties, challenges and perplexities we encounter and in the upheavals of the times in which we live. I was reminded of this when I read the Prayer for the Week recently:
You know us to be set amidst
so many and so great dangers
That by reason of the frailty of our natures
We cannot always stand.
Give us such strength and protection
As may support us in all dangers
And carry us through all temptations
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Who would dare pray such a prayer? Someone who was in need of God up close and personal? Certainly. An individual, a people or a nation, who longed for the Lord to draw near? Most likely. Are such persons justified in praying such a prayer? Most certainly! The reason is to be found not in the one who prays, but in the character of the God whose Spirit draws us from every side into the very heart of the Divine. God’s constant nearness is the source of energy, peace and joy for those who follow in the footsteps of Christ into a world in need.
by Bishop Stephen Pickard