Our safe place
November 20, 2016
I just returned from a mission trip, as you may have read in this morning’s paper. We spent a week in Sierra Leone, conducting a leadership workshop for pastors and teaching workshops on health and cottage industry topics.
When you fly from the U.S. to Sierra Leone, you change planes in Paris, and so on our way back it really didn’t cost that much more to spend a couple of nights there, which was something that both I and my traveling companion, Debra Snellen, had always wanted to do. Paris is an amazing city, and now I want to go back some day when I have the time to do it justice.
We were only there for a couple of days, but Debra and I figured out how to get around Paris using its subway system, the Metro. This is a terrific system — clean, and well-maintained, and inexpensive.
But on the evening of our first day in Paris, we were on board the subway, trying to get back to our hotel. We pulled into one of the stations, and there was an announcement — in French — and everyone got off of the subway. We stood there on the platform for a while, and there were announcements from time to time, none of which Debra or I could understand. We finally figured out that the train was going to be down for a while, until 7 p.m. We tried to figure out how to get home using a combination of the other trains, and came up with a route, but then it turned out one of those trains was shut down as well. We ended up having to take the bus home.
Here’s what happened. The day we arrived in Paris, November 13, was the one-year anniversary of a terrible terrorist attack — the worst in Europe in 11 years. A total of 130 people were killed. Naturally, the security there was on high alert, and there had been a couple of suspicious-looking packages found in subway stations. That was why those particular subway lines were stopped and we all had to get off.
As far as I know, neither of the packages turned out to be anything at all. The subway was back to normal within a few hours, and Debra and I rode it several times the next day.
But the whole incident was a sad reminder that we live in a world of fear and turmoil. Every age has its own struggles and challenges, its own triumphs, and its own heartbreaks. But I know there are times we look at the world around us and just shudder in fear and anxiety.
The 46th Psalm is a song of comfort in times of trouble. According to Matthew Henry’s commentary, Martin Luther often responded to discouraging news by saying, “Come, let us sing the 46th Psalm.”
I want to read you the 46th Psalm. This is from the Common English Bible, which has become my favorite translation, so a couple of very familiar phrases from this Psalm may sound a little bit different in this version than you’re used to. But that can be a good thing. Sometimes a new translation can get you to think about a passage in a different way.
Psalm 46 (CEB)
For the music leader. Of the Korahites. According to Alamoth. A song.
46 God is our refuge and strength,
a help always near in times of great trouble.
2 That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart,
when the mountains crumble into the center of the sea,
3 when its waters roar and rage,
when the mountains shake because of its surging waves. Selah
4 There is a river whose streams gladden God’s city,
the holiest dwelling of the Most High.
5 God is in that city. It will never crumble.
God will help it when morning dawns.
6 Nations roar; kingdoms crumble.
God utters his voice; the earth melts.
7 The Lord of heavenly forces is with us!
The God of Jacob is our place of safety. Selah
8 Come, see the Lord’s deeds,
what devastation he has imposed on the earth —
9 bringing wars to an end in every corner of the world,
breaking the bow and shattering the spear,
burning chariots with fire.
10 “That’s enough! Now know that I am God!
I am exalted among all nations; I am exalted throughout the world!”
11 The Lord of heavenly forces is with us!
The God of Jacob is our place of safety. Selah
The psalmist uses images of natural disaster — raging waters and crumbling mountains. But he, and the people who first heard this Psalm, were probably more concerned with wars and persecution and various man-made hardships, which happened in the days of King David just as they do in our day and time.
Natural disaster is a powerful way of symbolizing struggles and hardships. Nature is, and certainly was back then, beyond our ability to control. If you were at the mercy of a tornado, or a hurricane, or an earthquake, or a flood, or a volcano, you would feel helpless, overwhelmed, small. But there are a lot of other things that can make us feel helpless, overwhelmed and small. Maybe it’s an illness. Maybe it’s finances. Maybe it’s some sort of broken relationship, or some kind of abuse. Maybe it’s just turning on the TV news and seeing the news of a big terrorist attack and thinking about how bad things have gotten.
While I was in Africa on my mission trip, there was a presidential election back here in the USA — maybe you heard about it. I’m not going to get into politics here. Whichever way an election turns out, there are always going to be some people who think it’s a good thing and some people who believe it’s a step on the road to disaster.
No matter which side you were on in the election, you’ve had things to get upset about in the past week or so. Even though the election is over, we continue to protest and bicker and argue and disagree. You’re either mad at the status quo or you’re mad at the people who are trying to change the status quo.
But in this passage, the psalmist is reminding us that no matter what happens, God is in control. Don’t get me wrong; earthly politics matter, and as Christians we have a responsibility to vote our individual consciences, and to try to work for policies that are going to do the most good for the most people. But between any two people, even between any two Christians, you might find very different ideas about what those policies are or what the best way is to do good.
John Wesley, the person most associated with founding Methodism, gave this advice to voters:
To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy;
To speak no evil of the person they voted against;
To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.
Whatever, happens, whoever is in power, our hope as Christians is in God, not in any politician or party. “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble.”
After the psalmist describes a crumbling mountain and a raging sea, he shifts his focus in verses 4 and 5.
“There is a river whose streams gladden God’s city,” writes the psalmist, “the holiest dwelling of the Most High. God is in that city. It will never crumble. God will help it when morning dawns.”
It’s interesting that both images have to do with bodies of water. A raging sea, representing trouble, is contrasted with a peaceful river flowing through the City of God. The river poses no threat; it doesn’t tear down mountains. A river moves forward; it’s a thing of beauty. God is in control. God speaks a word, and the earth melts.
The ninth verse says that God will bring wars to an end in every corner of the world, that God will break the bow and shatter the spear, and will burn all the chariots.
Now, in some sense, we believe that God does take a hand in things today. Even in times of terrible trouble — war, disasters, terrorism — there are stories that show God’s hand at work, and stories that show how God inspires us and enables us to help each other through the bad times. But in another sense, this ninth verse is a prediction — looking forward to a day when God will put an end to all war, to all turmoil and desperation.
The psalm begins by saying that God is our refuge and our strength. A refuge is a safe place, somewhere that you can go to get away from trouble. And sometimes we need to get away from trouble. But God is also our strength. God doesn’t just protect us; God enables us. God doesn’t always keep us away from trouble; sometimes God gives us the strength to face the trouble.
When I went away to Oral Roberts University for college, our campus chaplain was a man named Rev. Bob Shields. I still remember a phrase from one of the first sermons I heard him preach. He referred to a Bible verse about faith being a fortress but said a fortress implies that you’re not going anywhere. He said he preferred to say that faith wasn’t a fortress, it was a Panzer tank.
Our faith, our confidence in God’s protection, is not for the purpose of hiding in our little cubbyhole. It’s for the purpose of advancing God’s kingdom.
There’s an old story — and I apologize to those of you who have heard it before — about a town where there was a bad flood. One man was sitting on his porch, his entire house surrounded by the flood waters. An inflatable raft came by, and a man from the sheriff’s department said to him, “Get in the boat, and I’ll take you to the shelter.”
“No thanks,” said the man. “The Lord will take care of me.”
The flood waters continued to rise, and the man had to move up to the second floor of the house. He had the window open, and a powerboat came by with someone from the Civil Defense. “Get in the boat,” they said, “and we’ll take you to the shelter.”
“No thanks,” said the man. “The Lord will take care of me.”
Well, the flood waters continued to rise, and the man had to climb up onto the roof of the house. A National Guard helicopter came flying overhead and dropped a rope ladder. “GRAB HOLD OF THE LADDER,” said a guardsman holding a bullhorn.
“NO THANKS,” the man yelled back. “THE LORD WILL TAKE CARE OF ME.”
Finally, however, the flood waters rose too high and the man drowned. He found himself at the Pearly Gates, and was escorted inside, where he insisted on speaking to the Almighty.
“Why didn’t you take care of me?” the man demanded to know.
“I sent two boats and a helicopter,” God responded. “What more do you want?”
Many translations of this passage have the 10th verse reading somethng like “Be still, and know that I am God.” That rings true, and it’s beautiful in a poetic, literary way. Sometimes it’s in the quietness that we can listen to, and hear, the still, small voice of God calling out to us. “Be still” sounds like it means “go into your little prayer closet.” And sometimes that’s exactly what we need to do.
But the translators of the Common English Bible, when they looked at the ancient Greek manuscripts, translated that verse a little differently. Instead of “be still,” they came up with “That’s enough!” Instead of telling us specifically to be still, these translators believe that God, through the psalmist, is telling us to “stop complaining,” “stop flailing about,” “stop panicking.” Enough of the unproductive and un-Christian ways in which we sometimes respond to trouble. Instead, we should respond to trouble by knowing, reminding ourselves, that God is God.
God’s words of comfort don’t mean that we can turn our backs on the world or on the trouble around us. On the contrary, God’s protection is meant to give us the courage to step out in faith and do whatever we can to make the world around us a little bit more like God’s kingdom. Like Jesus, we are to be in the world, but not of it. That’s a hard balance to find sometimes; some Christians turn their back on the world, and so they have no opportunity to reach people or to understand the culture well enough to change it.
Evangelism is a conversation, and it requires that one person be able to talk to another. Sometimes, we Christians have retreated into our own little subculture in a way that shuts people out and makes it harder for us to have that conversation.
Other Christians, though, have the opposite problem. They become part of the world, going along with whatever is popular instead of doing what is right.
Jesus was a part of his world. He made himself available to anyone, no matter what their status or reputation. Because of that, Jesus was sometimes criticized for associating with sinners. Jesus was not afraid to associate with sinners — because he understood that human beings are all sinners. Jesus was associating with sinners when he ate with a tax collector, but he was also associating with sinners when he debated the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t admit being sinners, which is the greatest sin of all.
But while Jesus was not afraid of the world, and not afraid to talk to anyone, Jesus was never transformed by the world. Jesus understood that it was the will of his father, and not the expectations of his disciples, or the expectations of the Pharisees, or the expectations of the crowd that should guide his path.
We, too, have to fix our minds and our hearts on the knowledge that God is God, so that we can stop flailing about and start working towards God’s kingdom.