Let us pray: Dear LORD God, who is our refuge and strength, be with us as we seek a more perfect understanding of you today. May my words illumine and not cloud your message as we seek to understand you, oh LORD of Hosts. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
This passage for today brings a word of comfort. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” I grew up singing the first two verses in Sunday school. Similarly, I could name half a dozen songs that use the beautiful words, “Be still and know I am God!” These verses and phrases are familiar, like a well-loved blanket that can keep us warm through cold winter nights. However, the familiarity can sometimes make it hard to see the power of the message provided. This psalm is not merely a song of comfort, this is a song of hope for a better day, a strong belief that God will not let one fall, despite the chaos that can engulf one’s life. It is an assertion that through God, we can find refuge from all sorts of anxieties that can plague our lives. God can be our refuge and strength, in times of both external and internal struggle.
The psalm begins with the bold acclamation that “we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea”. The earth and the mountains are both images of the permanent, images of the things that bring order and comfort to our lives. In this passage these fixtures are being thrown into chaos. The chaotic waters of the foamy sea threaten to destroy everything. Those things that are important threaten to collapse in front of our very eyes. But the psalmist asserts that God is our refuge and strength and will be a present help in trouble.
Another image this psalm uses to express this threating chaos is the image of nations in an uproar, and tottering kingdoms. This is an image of government instability and high death tolls. People are dying in battle, and all that the government does becomes questioned. Everything is in flux, and it feels as if chaos is about to overcome nations. Yet, when God utters God’s voice, the earth melts, and there is a restoration of calm. It is asserted that the Lord of hosts is indeed with us and the God of Jacob is our refuge. Though the mountains feel like they are about to shake and crumble into the sea, though it feels as if anarchy and chaos are right around the corner, God is our refuge.
The war imagery of this psalm is expanded further. The psalmist invites others to come and behold the works of the LORD. God is not merely a safe haven, something to be turned to for comfort. God is the one who can make all wars cease, and the one who can destroy the implements of destruction. God is powerful. Out of this imagery comes the phrase, “Be still and know that I am God.” It may seem like an odd phrase to come after an image of world peace, but it is not simply about being motionless and basking in God. The Jewish Publication Society’s translation carries the full impact of the phrase. It translates the verse as “Desist! Realize that I am God!” This is not about simply finding time to step away and contemplate God, it is about stopping in the middle of the chaos and coming back to the divine. Chaos may appear to be imminent, but rather than feeding into the fear of that chaos and being swept up in it, we are called to stop and take the time to center on God. God is the one who dominates both the nations and the earth, and God has the ability to carry you through. Though chaos may be looming, God is a refuge on whom we can rely. We just have to stop and refocus.
It is assumed that this psalm was probably written before the temple was destroyed and the Israelites were cast out into exile away from their land. That is because this psalm asserts that God will protect God’s holy habitation, which is the temple in Jerusalem. But there is no historical way to know if this was written before the Israelites were cast away from their land or afterwards. But I wonder what an Israelite would have heard when this psalm was sung in exile. Their temple, their beloved city of Jerusalem seemed all but gone. They were strangers in a strange land, and everything that had once seemed permanent and stable was destroyed. Yet, God was asserted to be their refuge and help. God would still be there to help them in their times of deepest need. God was still in the midst of their city, their beloved Jerusalem, and maybe, just maybe, the Israelite could return home. In the midst of the turmoil and pain that surrounded their current situation, there was hope. They could look to God as their refuge.
Our world today looks almost nothing like the world of the ancient Israelites. In the US, we do not worry about bows and spears, or the chaos of the sea. We use planes, and worry about bombs and guns. But we do share the common experience of fear and anxiety. And we have documented the crippling effects that fear and anxiety can have on humanity. We may not be as afraid of the literal world crashing down around us, but many are fearful of their own worlds caving in on them. Panic attacks cause some to feel as though they are on the verge of death. PTSD causes others to be transported back to their most traumatic experiences, and even their sleep can be invaded by the worst nightmares. What does it mean for them to find God to be a refuge in this arena of chaos?
My fiancé is a combat veteran of the war in Iraq. Soon after he came home from war close to nine years ago, he was diagnosed with PTSD. He experienced the chaos of feeling himself transported time and time again back into the trauma of war. I do not know many details of his early struggles with the disease, but he spent years reliving his experiences, both in his nightmares and in his therapist’s office as he went through exposure therapy.
In the midst of his turmoil, he connected with an old friend and found himself attending the meetings of a new monastic community that focused on contemplative spirituality and centering prayer. There he found a greater ability to connect to the life giving Holy Spirit, the river that makes glad the city of God. He was able to learn techniques that allowed him to not only calm himself in moments of frustration, but also learned how to stop and shift his focus onto God. He learned what it meant to truly be still and know that God is God. Through his psychiatric treatment he found strength to beat back the chaos, and through his monastic community, he found a way to make God his refuge. He isn’t cured, but he has found hope and renewal. He is coming out of his own exile, closer to the Holy Habitation of the Most High.
His story is unique, but his search is something we all face at one time or another. Some of us may experience anxiety disorders, while others experience anxiety caused by specific stressors. Either can feel overwhelming at times, and we may worry that the seemingly permanent things in our lives might devolve into chaos. We may fear that our lives will never be peaceful again, that we will be overtaken by the sweeping waves of the seas as they shake our very cores. It can often be difficult to stop and refocus upon God, relying upon God as a refuge. And relying on God as a refuge doesn’t mean that the situation will clear up. The waters still roar and foam, causing the mountains to tremble. The nations are still in an uproar. The Israelite is still in exile. My fiancé still has PTSD. But things do slowly improve. Maybe not right away, but when the vision shifts to God, God can begin to become a true refuge, providing us with strength in these times of trouble. It’s a slow process of learning to stop and shift focus.
The good news is that this process is not done alone. There is a river whose streams can make glad your inner city of God. The Holy Spirit is always with us. Even in those times when we are blind to God’s call, when anxiety has us by the gills, there’s still an advocate for us. We still have the Holy Spirit to guide and protect us. Even if we cannot recognize it, even if the chaos is overwhelming, God is our refuge because the Holy Spirit is God. The LORD of Hosts is always with us, the God of Jacob is always our refuge.
In the midst of the chaos, there is hope. God can bring us from our place of anxiety to dwell fully in God’s holy habitation. It’s a slow process and we may feel that we have been in exile forever, but things can change. God can break the implements of the wars that rage inside us. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Let us pray: LORD, life giver and lover of all, we pray for those who experience anxiety and times of distress. We pray that your presence may be known to them and that they might be strengthened to be still and know that you are God. We pray also for those who have begun the path of continual refocus upon you. We pray that they may someday arrive at your holy habitation, no matter how long their journey may be. Lord, help us remember that you are our refuge and strength, and we can turn to you in all of our times of trouble. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.