Psalm 91, John 15:4-17
October 24, 2010
Where do you go to feel safe when you are afraid, angry, anxious, or vulnerable? Who–or what–are some of the safe spaces in your life?
Every year on Commencement Weekend, PCC concludes its worship service with the song, “On Eagle’s Wings.” Its text is based on Psalm 91. Generation after generation of graduate prepare to move on and take with them what they have received from this place. It seems appropriate to share in such an intimate affirmation of God’s abiding presence amid life’s winding, unpredictable journey.
Last summer, we held a Hymn Service one Sunday. Five individuals picked out their favorite songs and shared what they love about each one. Judy Riggle chose “On Eagle’s Wings,” describing how that hymn has become for her a personal prayer and blessing for her late son, Troy. I looked at this psalm with new eyes after Judy’s sharing.
As time passed, I was drawn into its text to seek gems and insights which I had previously missed. Day after day, I sat with this psalm. I digested it over and over. Some days, I remained fixated on the first two verses: “You who sit down in the High God’s presence, spend the night in Shaddai’s shadow. Say this: ‘God, you’re my refuge. I trust in you and I’m safe!’” At times it was just the single image of abiding in God’s shadow that captivated me.
The repetitive readings took me back to biblical and contemporary saints whose outward journeys seemed everything but protected, but whose inward journeys nevertheless seemed centered and strong. The Apostle Paul who chronicled his shipwrecks, beatings, imprisonments. Stephen the apostle, stoned to death by an angry mob. Oberlin high school teacher John Randall, who passed away last March after a multi-year battle with cancer and left behind beloved wife Dawn.
I couldn’t help but reflect on the most vulnerable among us like Troy, Judy and Tom’s son. I held in my heart names and faces of those struggling with addiction, abuse, or mental illness. Did God cast a generous, comforting shadow over their continual travails? Did God tuck these blessed and often tortured souls under the protection of her mighty and motherly wings, or huge, outstretched arms, as Psalm 91 and other biblical passages suggest?
While the psalmist boldly asserts God’s constant protection, our human reality is deeply mixed. Tyrants sometimes die of old age, while beloved saints sometimes do not live that long. People are born into the best and worst of family situations, and some have a harder time navigating life than others through no fault of their own.
Our daughter, Rachel, and her husband, Juan Carlos, have taught our granddaughter Sofia a wonderful lesson about resilience and falling, and we all know that toddlers fall a lot. As I read the verse, “God, you’re my refuge. I trust in you and I’m safe!” I always think of this story.
Ever since Sofia started walking, her parents have added the baseball umpire role to their parental tool kit. When Sofia falls, they cross their arms over their chest, fling them out, and yell, “Safe!” Consequently, it is the rare, bonafide injury that sparks any tears in Sofia. I’ve seen her fall down a few stairs with a toy too big to really carry on steps and just get up and keep playing. At age three, 9 times out of 10, she brushes herself off, sometimes plays the umpire role herself, and goes on. Sofia has heard so many times that when she falls, she is still “safe!”, that she has come to believe it.
“Fear nothing,” the psalmist proclaims, offering a long litany of terrifying possibilities–flying arrows, wild wolves, disease, and disaster. Allison Lundblad, a Junior Religion Major at Oberlin College, has been reflecting on the concept of “Fearing God,” common to both the Bible and the Koran. An insight from her Islamic studies professor helped her think about this concept in some new ways. He suggested that “fearing God” is more about not fearing anything else than it is about being “afraid” of God. Nothing else is worth fearing when we abide in God’s shadow.
Should we fear what people can do to us or what they may think of us? Should we fear our vulnerabilities, both internal and external? Jesus offers an unequivocal “No!” to such questions in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere (Luke 6:19-34, Luke 12:4).
As we situate our heart, mind, soul, and strength–our very lives–within the shadow of Divine Love, we abide in God’s “safe space.” Harm may approach and impact us, but by God’s grace, it needn’t destroy us. In Romans 8:28, the Apostle Paul asserts, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” He goes on to proclaim in Romans 8:38-39, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Paul does not assert that all things are good. He claims that all things–implying even bad things, hard things, and tragic things–can be bent toward redemptive ends when placed in the hands of the Holy and Loving One. Jesus taught this lesson day throughout his pubic ministry and during the difficult days of Holy Week, culminating in the violence of the cross and the glory of an empty tomb.
The psalmist ends with a familiar Hebrew blessing of long life and salvation for those who abide in God’s shadow, placing their trust in the Holy One. Is long life always a given? We know it is not. Is the blessing of salvation assured? Yes, it is.
After the tragic death many years ago of high school student, Creighton Green, our daughter Rachel (also in high school at the time) said to me, “You know, mom, when a young person dies, I feel like the rest of us have to live a little more intensely in their absence. It really isn’t counting the days that matters; it is making the days count.”
The psalmist repeatedly affirms that evil does not have the last word in the Realm of God. His descriptions of God evoke strong maternal images, such as dwelling within the Divine Shadow and sheltering under the wings of a great Mother Bird, a metaphor seen elsewhere in the scriptures (Deut 32:11-12, Ex. 19:4, Isaiah 40:31-32, Ps. 17:8-9; Ps. 57:1-2; Ps. 61:4, Matthew 23:27, Luke 13:34). The psalmist invites us into this imagery as well. If you are looking for the Mother Bird imagine in The Message Bible, it is replaced by images of “huge, outstretched arms” where the older translations speak of wings. As you might guess, we will close with the song, “On Eagle’s Wings.” Enter the richness of its promise. Taste the text, feel it, think it, experience it. Let its testimony seep into you in places you might not anticipate. Abide in God’s shadow for a few moments. Rest in God’s presence. Welcome God’s love, protection, and shelter today and everyday. Amen.