I hear a voice I had not known: “I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket. In distress you called, and I rescued you. – Psalm 81:5b-7a (NRSV)
I’ve never felt close to God in a personal buddy-buddy kind of way. It’s never been my spiritual practice to call up Jesus in prayer like we’re BFFs who need to ponder every personal detail together, from hairstyles to romance.
Maybe it’s due to my upbringing in an Evangelical & Reformed UCC congregation with its formal worship, its elevated altar (not a communion table), and its hazy white dossal behind which I assumed as a child that God might dwell. Maybe it’s due to my personality type. Certainly it’s an aspect of my theology. I’m particularly fond of God’s mystery and grandeur; I’m less keen on God whispering sweet nothings in my ear.
In any event, God has always been distant to me. To hear the voice of God, the actual disembodied voice of God, would be to hear a voice that I do not recognize.
Sometimes this spiritual distance with God seems unorthodox. Across the theological span of modern American Christianity, closeness with God is prevalent and valued.
“Proximity to Jesus will save us.”
“Proximity to justice will save us.”
Those of us with a theology of God’s aloofness, and those of us experiencing a season of spiritual dryness, can be tempted to doubt that we can be saved across the distance. “If proximity is necessary for salvation,” we find ourselves thinking, “we may never be delivered.”
And yet there it is in Psalm 81—the assurance that deliverance can come through an unknown voice, justice can pour out from a well we didn’t dig, relief can be given by a stranger.
Thank you, God, that deliverance comes even when it is unknown and far away.
Rachel Hackenberg serves on the national staff for the United Church of Christ. She is the author of Writing to God and the co-author of Denial Is My Spiritual Practice, among other titles. Her blog is Faith and Water.