This is a very evocative Psalm, using rich imagery to call upon God for protection and care.
The psalmist prays for God’s protection, sheltering, at a time that not having such protection could mean a shortening of their lives. It is not clear what this threat is, but to me some language suggests warfare and battle. It makes me think of times in my own life in which trials seem to fly at me like arrows, leaving me tired from seemingly dodging crisis after crisis. The images used are such powerful ones for such times in our lives:
God’s protection is pictured like an enormous rock one might hide under. Where I went to college, in the town nearby was a park called “Raven Rock”, which had a rock so big that hikers could either perch atop it and see the whole surrounding area or hide beneath it, sheltered from the storms. God is invited to reveal God’s self as that sheltering presence beneath which the Psalmist can rest, secure that the storms of life might not subside but though they batter down hard, she or he can rise unscathed.
I do not say unchanged, for I think of all the times I have been caught in a storm and had to seek shelter. I think of when my friend Cecil and I were caught in a sudden downpour and ran under a nearby shelter, when my wife new to NC was caught with me under a storm so strong I could not see the road so we had to sit arm in arm waiting it out, and I think of times storms hit when I was hiking or at the beach. That experience of sitting under unexpected shelter, waiting through the surrounding storm safe with another always changed me. It caused me to stop and realize both my smallness and my significance to God and to whomever I was (and theirs to me) as I was seemingly eclipsed by the enormous sound of rain, thunder, and lightning. I think that speaks to the reality of God as rock shelter. When we seek out and find God as the shelter in our storm, God does not take away the trials but surrounds us so we can face them unscathed but not unchanged. For coming out the other side of our trials, we find ourselves having a new perspective but on our smallness in the face of life and also our significance. We also find ourselves taking stock of who is significant, feeling the preciousness of those near us in that moment, both those of flesh and blood but also our divine companion, the living Christ.
Yet the language of rock is not just here the language of shelter. It is also the language of perspective. “Set me on the rock who is higher than I”. I think again of standing on top of Raven Rock, and seeing the whole landscape as far as the eye to see. I think of hearing daddy sing “I’m on top of the world, looking down on creation” as we sat atop Mount Mitchell seeing the hills, valleys, and mountains of NC and Tennessee wrapped in cloud. The psalmist does not just pray for shelter but also for perspective, to placed in God in such a way that it is as if she or he can for that moment stand on top of the world, looking down on creation, so that they may see their life and their path from a new perspective.
This is what happens when the sacred breaks through into our lives. We begin to see, if but for a moment, the way in which God infuses all that is with sacred worth, the way in which God like a weaver woman weaves the many strands of life into new & beautiful patterns although at times in ways that at first feel painful and uncertain. I remember moments of praying, seeking God to give me new eyes, and finding hope, encouragement, a new sense of direction, and yes sometimes challenge to change. One memory that stands out to me is praying for God to deliver me from a certain situation some time ago, and having the thought hit me, a thought I believe God sent, that God was and would be with me but God could not deliver me from that situation. I had gotten myself into it, and God was going to be with me while I learned what I must by learning to work together with God to right it, though it would be a long and painful journey. Looking back it is one of the best answers from God I got in prayer. It’s a journey I’ve not finished but it helped me lay aside my childlike picture of God as cosmic parent come to the respect for an understanding of God as sacred partner who empowers me to become a co-creator of my own future, who often (to paraphrase the youth in the confirmation class I helped teach this year) does not do it for us, but shows us how to begin to mend our lives and worlds ourselves by God’s power.
I wonder – what experiences have you had of God breaking through, and you walking away with a new and different perspective?
Another image that is given is of prayer as seeking to live in God’s house. The psalmist clearly had in mind a specific location – perhaps the tent of meeting which traveled with the people of God throughout their wanderings as a reminder of God’s presence, or perhaps later in Israel’s history, the temple in Jerusalem. This image again speaks to God as sheltering presence. Another psalm talks about how at the house of God, not only do humans find home but even the birds do as they build their nests, laying their eggs, and raising their young in the shadow of God’s altar.
A common practice in the Biblical days was for a beleaguered soul to rush into the sanctuary and grab ahold of the horns of the altar, as a way of seeking sanctuary. While they held those horns, it was considered a blasphemy to strike out at them.
In prayer the psalmist is seeking to not just figuratively grasp hold of the horns of the altar for momentary safety but to make their safe home in the house of God. I think that to me this speaks of coming to envision all of their life, wherever they reside and whatever they face, as being just as much a place of sheltering peace and also a place in which they look up and around and recognize the divine presence.
I have seen people do this in their lives – turning a hospital waiting room into an altar of God, where they and their families open themselves up to prayer, to solace, and to what light may shine in such darkness. I’ve seen home-makers and work-a-day folks who turned their 9-to-5 toil into a time in which they encountered the sacred in the work they did, the people they encountered, and even if they never voiced the word “God” related to others with the love and compassion that showed God dwelt in them.
We can always live in and radiate the grace of God, wherever and whomever we are.
The final image that stands out to me is the image of being sheltered by the wings of God. This is explicitly a feminine image for God. If you’ve ever raised birds you’ve seen it. When Kat and I raised chickens in our back yard in rural NC, I remember the wonder of seeing a large mother bird with tiny black dots – her chicks – darting in and out of her wings. Her wings sheltered them from weather, from storm, and from predator. And anything that got near those wings experienced her fierce protectiveness in a bite from her beak or a slash from her claw.
This image reminds us of the fierce love of God for us, and is an extension of other images of shelter. It also reminds us God’s love may be life-giving but it is not soft. A mother bird will bite or slash if an intruder goes for her chick, and she will also peck at chicks about to go into the wrong path where disaster lies. We are reminded we are love beyond limit, that God is fiercely protective of God’s own, but that love will not always be comfortable.
This reminds to try and avoid attacking what may be one of God’s chicks. Recently a very openly self-avowed Christian publicly transitioned from the assigned gender of male to their felt gender of female. People publicly attacked, and attempted to shame and humiliate them, questioning their relationship with God. If God is like the protective mother hen, this is not good, for who but God has right to peck at this precious child of the Creator. “Judge not,” the Lord says, “lest you be judged”. We are warned of God’s protective love and how the judgment we pour out on another of God’s children will inevitably come back upon us if we continue down that path, pressed down, shaken together, running over. Remembering God’s protective love of others we need to abandon all judgmentalism, and seek instead compassion so that, instead, is what we sow and experience coming back to us in life.
This image also suggests we need to lay aside the health & wealth fallacy that if we love God, it will go easy for us. No the mother bird is constantly loving in a hard way that challenges the chicks to learn to thrive, survive, and ultimately (in birds of flight) soar through the skies. God may in fact not choose to answer your prayers for comfort here and now not because God does not love you and want your best, but because seeing all your possibilities, God wants here and now you to be challenged so that you grow, so that in the future you can be ready for a time to soar.
A final thought on the image of God as our sacred mother. This does mean that any attempt to argue God is male or masculine to the exclusion of the feminine is a distortion of the Bible’s message. Consistently in Scripture all the persons of the Trinity and God in God’s full God-head are depicted in masculine and in feminine terms. In fact they are not just depicted in human terms, but in terms of animals and forces of nature. Our attempt to box God into any image we find, whether in our lives or nature, is idolatry. Ultimately God is present in all things, and able to be imagined and experienced symbolically in as many different ways as there are creatures on the earth, among the stars, in the seas, and in the heavens. God coming flesh and blood as the man Jesus was not to show us that God is man and not woman but instead that just as a mother throws her lot in with the child growing in her womb, so that her future is bound up in its future & its future in hers, so God has thrown God’s lot in with all people and all creatures so that God’s future is inextricably woven in with theirs. This means that in all that live, move, and have being God can be experienced and found. There is not a person who lives or creature that exists that cannot in some way teach us about God and represent God to us if we learn to be open to the sacred as found in all of life.
May the mother and father of all embrace you in each moment, and fill you with an awareness of Her and His presence in all things.