by Rodney Marsh
He who dwells in the Most High’s shelter, in the shadow of Shaddai lies at night — I say of the LORD, “My refuge (safe place) and bastion (fortress), my God in whom I trust.” For He will save you from … from the disastrous plague. (trans: Robert Alter THE BOOK OF PSALMS – A Translation with Commentary)
The insecurity of a pandemic creates fear of loss or even death . Can I and my family be kept safe from the pandemic? Will I lose my income? Will people close to me die?
From an historical perspective, plagues, famine and war, have been features of every age. In the 20th Century we seemed to have tamed the first and third horsemen of the Apocalypse (Plague(s) and famine) but we failed miserably to stop the second (war). It was a false confidence. In the COVID19 pandemic and in the poverty, and social turmoil we see in its wake, we see all four hosemen on the horizon, galloping toward us at full tilt. Marvel comics used the fourth rider “Death” (Thanatos Rev 6) as the inspiration for the the super hero Thanos. Thanos is a powerful image for the 21st Century and is a metaphor for the universal insecurity of our age – a fear of death. With COVID19 Thanos has become Thanatos and scarily real. Reality has always been that death is the destiny of every one of us and COVID19 has brought this reality to the fore of the minds of individuals and the communities of which we are part. This reality brings with it a new relevance for Christian Faith.
COVID19 is a worldwide plague of Biblical proportions. Fear stalks our lives, our homes, our communities, our countries and our world and in the midst of the current pandemic, the images of Lord in the Psalms: our Rock, Hiding Place, Refuge and Fortress have become more relevant. The Lord who is our Sheltering Place will become our sheltering place when we learn to pray.
There is only one letter difference between the instruction to “Shelter in place” and “Sheltering Place”. The letter “g”! God, begins with the letter “g”. The Lord is our Sheltering Place.The “shelter in place” instruction is designed to stop the spread of COVID19 and as a command is resented as a restriction of our supposed ‘freedom’. However, the instruction can be seen as a reminder to seek shelter in the One who is the only dependable “Sheltering Place” in times of trouble. For example, Psalm 91:1-3:
He who dwells in the Most High’s shelter (hiding place), in the shadow of Shaddai lies at night — I say of the LORD, “My refuge (safe place) and bastion (fortress), my God in whom I trust.” For He will save you from … from the disastrous plague.
There are three separate Hebrew words used here and each brings a different emphasis to the metaphor of the Lord as our Sheltering Place:
- The Lord as our hiding or secret place – Our enemies may search but they cannot find us, hidden within our secret cave (as David hid from Saul in the caves of Adullum, 1Sam 22:1)
- The Lord as our refuge or place of safety – Even if our enemies do find our hiding place it is impenetrable and we are protected and safe (“my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield” Ps 18:2 NRSV)
- The Lord as our bastion or fortress – Here the image is an open display of strength to our enemies (Jerusalem was a fortress city captured by David and it’s walls and fortress towers became a symbol that “Our God is like this forever and will always guide us.” Psalm 48:14 CEV)
These metaphors, and many more in the Psalms, when first prayed, referred to local places and real events and they have comforted believers throughout the sufferings of the ages. When we pray we experience the one God as “Our God is like this forever and will always guide us” and in God we trust.
In times of uncertainty, our anxiety gives rise to two responses in us: worry and fear. Jesus commented on both. He told his followers, “Do not worry”. Why? Partly because worry is unproductive. As Corrie ten Boom said, “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow. It empties today of its strength.” Corrie knew what she was talking about because her family created a Sheltering Place for the Jews of Haarlem fleeing Nazi persecution. Corrie and her family were imprisoned for their ‘crime’. Corrie’s sister and father perished in detention but God preserved Corrie to remind succeeding generations that the only truly safe place is with and in the Lord. Jesus also asked us to trust in the God who has counted the hairs on our heads. During tough times, being a follower of Jesus manifests itself in deep faith in a God who cares. As Corrie said, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God”. Truly, the Lord alone is our Sheltering Place in this and every age.
However, it is one thing to know about antidotes to worry and fear, and another to make faith real through prayer. This takes a lifetime of discipleship, discipline and commitment. Fear and worry take root in our hearts during a pandemic, but, as John points out (1 John 4) when God’s “love has the run of the house… we’re free of worry… (because) there is no room in love for fear” (MSG). Prayer is always a real and deep encounter with God’s love for the one who prays.
When the prayer of the heart, or contemplation, becomes the effective basis for our lives, then fear and worry flee. Fear concerns loss. Loss of income, wealth, health, food supply, family, reputation or even life. However, life teaches us that the only certainty in life is that suffering and death (and so fear), will find us, wherever our hiding place, refuge or fortress, and we will be asked to surrender our life and attachments. Our fortress, on this earth, will fall just as the walls and towers of Jerusalem fell. However, just as we all die, we will, like Jesus, be raised to a new life. Death always precedes a resurrection and, through faith in Christ, resurrection follows death.Therefore, we can stand firm and face the charge of the four horsemen knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ Jesus. That is our faith.
Uncertain times and suffering are the call of Love to rest in the love in which we were formed and for which we are destined. In suffering love calls us saying, “come”. That love is already in our hearts, where the Lord waits to meet us. In our hearts, Jesus will meet us with the perfect love which drives out fear. Prayer is the inward journey to this rest in our being. The path to this love is prayer. But prayer comes with a warning. The genuineness of God’s love, in uncertain times, can also be seen in that love also which will say to us, “go”, for God’s protective love cannot be separated from God’s serving love. Many people in our COVID19 world do not have a physical place of hiding, protection and security. At such a time, when we pray, we can expect Love to say “go” and serve the children, friends and neighbours who have no place to hide. Do what you can to provide a safe place for them and help them to discover, for themselves, the love and acceptance already resident in their hearts. In the times of silent prayer we face our own anger and fear and are healed. Without such daily prayer we project our fear and anger onto to those whom we serve and those with whom we work, or those with whom we disagree.
Take Elijah. He faced up to evil and then had to flee for his life. Depressed and frightened he fled to a cave (a hiding place, a safe place, a refuge) on the mountain of the Lord. However, the Lord was not in the mighty wind, earthquake and fire which followed. The Lord was in the silence and Elijah heard a whisper. He moved out of the cave, was strengthened and commissioned to go continue his work for the Lord. Love is like that. In the turmoil of our thoughts and fears, Love calls us in, and in the silence Love protects, heals and strengthens us and sends us out. These are the marks of God’s love and true prayer.
A good place to start this journey inward would be to view Christine’s video on contemplative prayer, for prayer is not a matter of knowing, it is doing.
My Sheltering Place
I open the door of my heart
To seek shelter
In the stillness and silence
My heart becomes
My God, my host,
becomes my protector
My heart, my home
A sheltering place
Love is at home
In my sheltering place
Here fear and anger
Here I hear a new command
Love as I have loved you