This is the prayer of someone who feels surrounded by a clamor of forces threatening them, whom they see as enemies – whether literal people who are trying to tear them down and harm them; or forces that crowd into their life seemingly beyond their control. We don’t know what this psalmist is facing, but it seems to be connected with betrayal of a friend. On their own, they see no hope.
Hopelessness is a dangerous thing. In my counseling classes, one of the things I learned recently is that one of the greatest tests a counselor has for suicide risk is one’s sense of hopelessness. If someone sees no light at the end of the tunnel, despair and desperation can take hold. Suicide is not the only way someone can make bad choices out of hopelessness, despair, and feeling threatened and stuck.
I think all of us can think of times we had such feeling and we made choices about relationships, about work, about money, about friendships, that looking back we would do differently if we could do that part of life over again. We can grope for any sense of help and rescue, or any relief to the sense of despair and frustration we feel in those moments, no matter how destructive that source of temporary relief can be.
The psalmist envisions God as a place of safety she or he can turn to, run to in danger. Though they want to take wings of flight, traveling far away from that situation, that is unrealistic. They may have to stay in the trial they face, just as we often have to do. Yet through the spiritual life there can be an escape. In communion with God they can find a release from the chaos of the situation, a reminder that they are held by loving hands, and that there is a path through the wandering wilderness of this moment.
To me this image of God as the safe place we can turn to and in which we can find shelter within the trying moment, without escaping it, is especially beautiful in how it contrasts with a common image of flight like the psalmist seeks in popular religion. The hope (or fear for some) of rapture in popular evangelicalism depicted in movies like Left Behind I think is driven by this same burning desire to fly away from fearful dangers people rightly or wrongly perceive around them. A similar image of “place of safety” to which God carries the faithful from danger prevails in certain Adventist groups, like the Adventist-style Church of God of my childhood. Though many Biblical scholars from N. T. Wright to many, many, others compellingly argue such scenarios are based on a misreading of the texts in question and wild conjectures, many cling strongly to such images of rescue because of the power of our fears, our despairs, and feelings of hopelessness.
I think the psalmist would invite us to encounter God as the true place of safety. Wherever we are, we can embraced by the loving arms of our Creator, sheltered as if we are chicks under the safe wings of a fiercely protective mother hen. God’s love and safety can give us the shielding presence to the storms of this life without us being plucked up from the storms of life. God can speak peace into our hearts within the storm whether the storm itself is quieted.
Discovering the living Christ as our place of safety is why the late Dietrich Bonhoeffer could show peace and confidence in the face of threats to his life by NAZI imprisonment, ministering with love and compassion to fellow prisoners while he knew his death was imminent. It is why Christian women like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman could work consistently to undermine the system of human chattel slavery in the south, while knowing their efforts could cost them their lives and health at the hand of angry violent proponents of slavery at any moment. It is why so many whom I have seen as a minister caring for the sick and dying are able to face illness and death with peace and confidence. As we learn through prayer, meditation, mindfulness, song, sacrament, and silence to embrace the living Christ as our Shelter we can find peace and resilience to face with confidence both the joy and strains ahead of us.
May you encounter that deep shelter from your storms this day. Amen.