(Message given at Newberg Friends Church, April 30, 2017)
I’ve been reading and praying the Psalms often lately.
I’m grateful for these prayers, songs, poems… these expressions of worship that have been used by faith communities for thousands of years. They model what I need. They model what we all need. The Psalms take the highs and lows of life, they take all the good and bad experiences of life and show us how to direct it all towards God. Sometimes it’s directed in praise, sometimes in begging for relief, sometimes in lament…and sometimes with a desire for God to make things right by punishing someone else.
I’ve had this strange experience several times, the experience of reading a Psalm and having it do two things. It will absolutely speak to my condition. It will give voice to my ripped up soul in powerful ways, ways that make me say “me too!” (that’s a footnote reference to Sara Kelm and the words she spoke here years ago.)
But also in that same Psalm, there can be an attitude that actually doesn’t help me to live as Jesus intends me to live. Many of the Psalms, in the very act of being a true expression of the Psalmist’s feelings, call down vengeance on those who oppose the Psalmist.
The Psalms are far more honest and true to the full range of human expression than we often allow ourselves to be in “good Christian circles”. And in that honesty, in forcing myself to look at my own vindictiveness, I’m reminded of how radical Jesus’ words to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to go love the Samaritan and the tax collector and the Roman oppressor…I’m reminded how radical Jesus’ words truly are.
But I read the Psalms, and I follow Jesus, because I want both.
I want a life that is honest. Raw. Real. I want a life that is integrated, which is related to the root of the word “integrity”. I want to follow the honesty of the Psalms. And I also want to follow the direction of the Psalms, the direction that is always toward God and for God and asking God for help and guidance.
Without both of those things…without facing the reality of ourselves and our circumstances, and without bringing all of who we are to God…without both of those things, there are potholes and train wrecks ahead of us. God truly is our refuge! Our hope!
And with all my heart I believe this is what we all need. We all need a life oriented around and directed toward and guided by God’s righteousness and hope. For those of us with breaking hearts in this time of our church, we are very aware of that need.
But I firmly believe it has always been and always will be our need. We were created by this God, this God to whom the Psalms bring all the rawness of humanity. Our hope is found in God, our refuge and strength.
Today Psalm 71 is going to guide our worship.
Turn with me to Psalm 71. This is a prayer to God; a prayer of praise, a prayer for deliverance, a prayer for many things. May we allow these words to guide us to our own honest encounter with God, even this very morning.
In you, LORD, I have taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame.
In your righteousness, rescue me and deliver me;
turn your ear to me and save me.
Be my rock of refuge,
to which I can always go;
give the command to save me,
for you are my rock and my fortress. [Psalm 71:1-3, TNIV]
What does a refuge, a safe place, a safe presence look and feel like for you?
I remember as a kid that there were several things that would help me to feel safe. When I was in third grade, we got a big collie who was named for our 12th president, Zachary Taylor. I have no idea why the people we got him from named him that, and I was a little annoyed that I didn’t get to give him a name. But I spent countless hours sitting in our backyard with my back to a big tree and my arm around Zach. It was a refuge, a safe presence.
Another safety thing for me is that I think I have the opposite of claustrophobia…rather than fear small spaces, I love them! In elementary school my friend Bobby had the most awesome space in his room; you opened this little door in the wall, and there was a tiny space about 4 feet high, just a tiny little room built into his bedroom wall and underneath the stairs outside his room. I vividly remember when his dog had puppies; cuddly, eyes-not-yet-open puppies who lived in that tiny room. Being in there with puppies in your lap was the refuge of all refuges! (That’s TWO dog references! I blame the Hamptons and all those pictures of their new puppy Wrigley.)
Take a moment and think about the places and people that are a refuge, a safe place for you. [PAUSE]
Refuge in the bible has several deep and rich meanings, all of them rooted in the presence of God.
God’s protection and guidance were seen by the Israelites in the wilderness as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When the cloud would stop and descend on the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, God’s presence made it a true sanctuary; a safe place of holy awe.
There are examples in the bible of people who were in danger of being hurt or killed by others, and they would run to the tabernacle or temple to find safety in God’s presence, literal safety and sanctuary from attack. Guilty people could find safety at the tabernacle in God’s presence. There were cities of refuge, safe places where people who had accidentally killed another person could find safety from vengeance until their trial.
These places of refuge, of sanctuary, of safety were safe because God’s presence made them safe. And all through the Psalms, we find this beautiful idea of a physical refuge or sanctuary morphing into the spiritual reality that God’s very presence is a safe refuge to which we can cling, no matter where we are or what our circumstances.
Psalm 71 is a great example of this. “In you, Lord, I have taken refuge…” “Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go…” In the devotional prayers of the Psalms, we see something emerging that today we too often take for granted: there is nothing that can happen, nowhere we can go, nothing that can stop us from being in the living presence of God as a refuge.
The Psalmists, and people of faith throughout the generations, call out to us to join them in the refuge of God’s presence. When things are uncertain, take refuge in God’s presence. When we feel isolated, alone, rejected…God desires to be our rock of refuge. When we are betrayed, wounded, grieving: take refuge in God’s presence!
I’m thinking right now of all the places that have been mini-sanctuaries, mini-refuges in the last few months.
One of the chairs in my office. Kneeling on the floor next to our bed. My car. Not because of their physical space, but because of the living presence of God, God who speaks truth and heals shame.
I’m also thinking of a prayer image that God has given me for some of my friends and for my family as I have prayed for them in the last few months. I’ve prayed for a sort of “Spirit bubble” around people. I picture it in my mind, a bubble of refuge and safety, a tangible surrounding of God’s presence as they go through their day. It’s like a moving refuge in which they breathe and live in the presence of God’s Spirit, and I’ve loved praying the truth that wherever they are and whatever circumstances they go through, they are safe in God’s presence.
In this next section of Psalm 71, listen for the back and forth, the movement several times between honest, raw fear, and declarations of trust and praise.
Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked,
from the grasp of those who are evil and cruel.
For you have been my hope, Sovereign LORD,
my confidence since my youth.
From birth I have relied on you;
you brought me forth from my mother’s womb.
I will ever praise you.
I have become like a portent to many,
but you are my strong refuge.
My mouth is filled with your praise,
declaring your splendor all day long.
Do not cast me away when I am old;
do not forsake me when my strength is gone.
For my enemies speak against me;
those who wait to kill me conspire together.
They say, ‘God has forsaken him;
pursue him and seize him,
for no one will rescue him.’
Do not be far from me, my God;
come quickly, God, to help me. [Psalm 71:4-12, TNIV]
Wicked and evil people grasp me… but my hope is in God. I’ve become a portent, an omen, an ominous sign to many… but God you are my strong refuge.
Back and forth, back and forth between the honest fear and anger and sense of attack, toward praise and trust and hope in God. This is the power and beauty of the Psalms. There isn’t any sugarcoating or denying of pain or evil. It’s named, but it is named and it is brought to God in trust and in longing for safety and healing.
But we also see the dark side when the raw honesty leads to vindictiveness, toward desire for revenge.
May my accusers perish in shame;
may those who want to harm me
be covered with scorn and disgrace. [Psalm 71:13, TNIV]
My tongue will tell of your righteous acts
all day long,
for those who wanted to harm me
have been put to shame and confusion. [Psalm 71:24, TNIV]
These are the types of verses I meant when I said that sometimes reading the Psalms seems to push me away from the path Jesus asks us to walk. My own way of working through this…you can feel free to disagree and find your own way…my own way is to think that in God’s graciousness we can honestly pray anything, even from our darkest places.
But just because these prayers for accusers to perish in shame and be covered with scorn and disgrace are in the bible, I do not think that means it is where we should stay, or something we should expect that God will do. Everything that Jesus taught and did, right through Gethsemane and Good Friday, show us God’s way is not to wish harm and shame on those we see as against us.
I even imagine the Psalmist, entering the refuge that is the presence of God, entering with all the honest and raw pain…I imagine the Psalmist soothed, healed, bathed and changed by God’s saving presence. As the Psalmist chooses to voice praise, chooses to find refuge in God, chooses to speak of God’s saving acts…I imagine God doing a work that swallows up and removes that desire for the accuser to suffer.
I even imagine God doing that in you and me.
I think the reality is, we need the raw honesty of naming our desire for others to suffer like we are suffering…we need to name it as part of the process needed for us to find refuge and transformation in God’s presence.
I spent too much of my life trying to snuff out and deny my negative feelings, because they didn’t look like Jesus. I’ve tried more often in the last decade to bring all of who I am to God. Not because I want to stay in that yuck. No, I work to bring all of the dark sides of me to God because I want my woundedness and my vindictiveness and my sinful desires to find healing in the safety of the refuge of God’s presence.
I want to find God as a transforming refuge wherever I am, so that God’s presence and power will work in and through me. I don’t want a refuge that removes me from all others, that takes me out of community and life. I want God’s refuge around me to shape me, so that God’s power can be seen like a treasure through the cracks in my clay life.
This also is the power of Psalm 71: the way the Psalmist not only finds refuge in God, but proclaims and shouts God’s good and saving work! Listen to this beautiful example, this example of sharing with others the power of God through God’s tangible acts on our behalf!
My mouth will tell of your righteous deeds,
of your saving acts all day long–
though I know not how to relate them all.
I will come and proclaim your mighty acts, Sovereign LORD;
I will proclaim your righteous deeds, yours alone.
Since my youth, God, you have taught me,
and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.
Even when I am old and gray,
do not forsake me, my God,
till I declare your power to the next generation,
your mighty acts to all who are to come. [Psalm 71:15-18, TNIV]
I see so much challenge in this!
It is not pithy, wise spiritual insights you and I are to proclaim, but God’s saving activity in our lives. It is not doctrine that our mouths are to tell, but God’s POWER…God’s power that shows in mighty acts of safety and salvation, God’s power that is worth sharing with the next generation!
And then there is honest acknowledgement of pain right alongside hope again.
Though you have made me see troubles,
many and bitter,
you will restore my life again;
from the depths of the earth
you will again bring me up. [Psalm 71:20, TNIV]
I say with utter sincerity and joy and hope: I see the goodness of God in the land of the living.
I see God’s saving acts as I walk alongside people and hear their love for each other. I see God’s activity in people in this community who are dealing with their own pain and yet are choosing to reach out and love others.
“You HAVE been my hope, Oh Sovereign Lord…my confidence since my youth.” “My lips will shout for joy when I sing praise to you–I, whom you have redeemed.” I take these words from Psalm 71 as my own today.
I will speak and proclaim the goodness of God our refuge, I will join the Psalmist this morning to call us to run to God with all the honesty we can muster…and find refuge in the presence of the Holy One of Israel. We don’t need to do anything special or go anywhere “holy”. Right here, right now, the sanctuary presence of God waits to envelop us with a Spirit bubble of safety.
Right here, right now, the living Jesus Christ… who conquered shame and rejection and sin and death…the living Jesus Christ will draw us in with open arms and listen to all our anger and pain, and not put us to shame. The Spirit probably won’t let us hold on to our vindictiveness, either; but the Spirit will not shame us as God works to transform us to be like Jesus Christ.
Right here, right now in open worship…Go to the living refuge and sanctuary of God. Invite God’s safety and healing, ask for deliverance and forgiveness, and ask for justice, ask for things to be made right. Ask God to show you beyond a shadow of a doubt God’s specific mighty acts and righteous deeds and power, so that you will have your own story to proclaim to the next generation.
Go right now to our God of refuge!