God is Our Refuge
While we have not been able to gather for worship, I have had the opportunity on Sunday mornings to worship around the country virtually. Like you, I have been enjoying sitting in my living room, having a cup of coffee while attending church. It isn’t the same as being together, but it has allowed me to enjoy what other pastors are thinking and saying about the times we live in. One week Jenny and I virtually went to church with our son and family who live in the Baltimore area. We logged in to worship together at their church, Glen Mar United Methodist Church. Pastor Mandy preached on this Psalm. I enjoyed what she had to share, and it got me thinking what an appropriate word this Psalm is for us all today. So, thank you, Pastor Mandy, for planting seeds within me for this sermon.
Think about how it starts: “God is our refuge and strength. A very present help in times of great trouble.” What do you think of when you hear the word refuge? In this area, the most common use of the term is when we talk about the Dungeness Wildlife Refuge of which the Dungeness Spit is a part. Refuge is a protected place, a place of calm and serenity. And the Spit certainly lives up to that idea. When I have hiked it, I stop and sit on a log, once I get away from the crush of the people right at the bottom of the bluff, and listen to the sounds of the birds, the crash of the waves, and enjoy being in nature.
When we think of refuge in this way, when it comes to God’s promises, it isn’t as helpful as we might think. Yes, it is nice to imagine a place where we can go to get away from things, to drown out the cacophony of bad news that is assaulting us. But then we have to leave the refuge and face the “real world.” This kind of refuge is nice but doesn’t give us any real tools for coping with these times. Viewing refuge in this way says God is the place to escape to so you don’t have to deal with the real world for a moment! We know that this is not what God promises.
The Bible has a different definition for the word refuge. It is a place to flee to in times of trouble. In Old Testament times there were cities of refuge. You went there when someone was out to get you, usually because of some wrong you had done. The family of the injured party felt duty-bound to make you pay, often with your life. If you made it to the city, you were safe because the keeper of that place promises to protect you. His strength was your security against the forces arrayed against you. This is God’s promise. When the world falls apart, God is with us and is our place of safety! It is not saying that bad things might not happen. It is saying that God will never leave us and we will get through these times.
This is not just a nice idea, but one we can lean upon at times such as these. The psalmist talks about what it would be like if their ordered world fell apart. Look at the images he uses: mountains crumbling into the sea, waters roaring and raging, earthquakes and more. All the natural order that seems so stable and predictable is now falling apart. These were the most solid and predictable things they could imagine in their worldview. The psalmist says that even if those are not dependable you can rely on God our refuge.
We need that word right now, don’t we? It feels as if everything we have taken for granted has collapsed. So much has changed in the last few weeks. Think about all the changes the COVID 19 has brought to us. We have not been able to worship together or to eat out at our favorite restaurant. We can’t safely travel. Every day we hear statistics on the news that scare us. We are to wear face masks when we go out. Those of us who live alone cannot get a hug of comfort and support and so the list goes on.
The distancing is very isolating and it hurts. If we are not careful, it can cause us to become bitter and angry. When everything changes, it is easy to focus on what we have lost and cycle down into a black pit. That is why we need to hear God is our refuge and strength! It brings hope and brightness to our lives.
So how do we go to this refuge? First of all, we go there through prayer. We pause and center on being present in the presence of our loving God. List all the things that you are worried about. After each one say, “O God, I know you are bigger than this problem. I trust you.” We need to remind ourselves that no matter what is happening we have a strong force protecting us and helping us. We also go to that refuge by spending time reading our Bibles. In this time of isolation when you can’t be doing all the things you have been used to doing, spend some time digging into the Bible.
Hear anew stories of how God was with people in difficult time. God was with Joseph even after being sold into slavery by his brothers, falsely accused by his master’s wife and forgotten by those he helped. Elijah feared the wrath of the king and queen and, in fleeing to the desert, was fed and sent to the house of a widow for safekeeping. The Apostle Paul, who suffered so much for the faith, could still praise God while shackled in prison. The Bible reminds us over and over that we can trust God to be our refuge even when the world is falling apart around us.
Another way I go to that refuge is by focusing on the goodness of life. In the midst of all of this negativity, I see so many positive things occurring. People have learned to go online for sermons! People are calling one another to check in and let them know they care. People are doing random acts of kindness for their neighbors and for people who are at work to take care of us. Being forced to slow down, to think about others’ needs, to see how our actions impact others, and to trust more in God than our own resources is not a bad thing. Taking time to thank God for all the ways God is blessing me grounds me. Even when I am dealing with really challenging times, there are always blessings. Focusing on them reminds me who is my strength and causes me to trust.
Some of you might be feeling that this is too optimistic a view of life for such unsettled times. The Bible is clear about life. Saying God is our refuge doesn’t mean we won’t get sick or die. It doesn’t mean that our children or grandchildren won’t lose their jobs. But it is saying that God is with us and that God is in control. Even if it feels like everything is coming apart, know that God is with us. Even though the mountains crash into the sea, even though we face a pandemic, God is our refuge and strength.
Here are some concrete ways I sense how God is or can be our refuge. I hear of people who share how they are now praying the Lord’s Prayer every time they wash their hands. It gets them close to that 20 seconds we are asked to do and in praying that prayer so often they find comfort. I see people calling others and, in that shared humanity, they are comforted. I see people who have suffered great loss and yet they remain positive about life and attribute it to their faith. How about you? Have you, by your actions reminded others that God is their refuge and in charge? Have you called people this week in the name of love and the church? Have you thanked the people taking care of us at the stores? Remembering and sharing that God is with us, and we are not alone, and we will get through this together, is a place of refuge and strength, even when everything that we took for normal has fled away.
Also, the psalmist says, “Be Still and know that I am God.” Be still here is not like a command we are teaching our new puppy which is to sit and stay. It is more like “Stop! Stop fussing and fretting. Stop worrying.” Silence your mind for a moment. Let the babble of the world die away and focus on me. There is so much chatter going on about the virus. We need to acknowledge what is happening but focusing too much of our time on it can also build dread and fear in us. Sometimes we just need to turn it off. We need to say to ourselves, our mind, “Be Still! God is here!”
It goes on to say that the Lord of “angel armies” is with us. Think of that, we have an army of angels guaranteeing our ultimate safety. I know this is a promise we can rely upon. We can find the strength and refuge we need. I see people facing their end with calmness and joy because they sense God’s love is with them. I see people stepping up to handle incredibly difficult things, knowing they will have the strength to handle today, and they trust that they will have the strength they need tomorrow. We are one Sunday past Easter. We proclaimed the good news of the Resurrection is for us. We have nothing ultimately to fear.
So remember. God is our refuge and strength in this crisis time. We have a part to play. Keep practicing all those things we have been learning, wash your hands, keep your distance and stay home a little longer. But add something more. Take time each day to be still and know God is with us. That strong presence is our refuge as we remember that the worst thing that happens is never the last thing because God holds us in the palm of God’s hand now and for eternity.