“God Is Our Refuge”Dr. Ben R. Wagener Psalm 46 Year C: Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
What is the Christian approach to threats that shake our world? At the moment it may seem that we are busy creating a most unfriendly place with poor decisions that lead to disturbances in nature, pressures on the most vulnerable in society, and divisive relationships. We feel so vulnerable and frightened. But the psalmist says, “God is our shelter and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble.” How can that be?
In times of trouble
Apart from earthquakes, our world may not be shaking—but this year it has seemed as if it were burning. By early September, more than 93,000 fires were burning in the Brazilian Amazon, according to National Geographic—up more than 60 percent from the same time last year. Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of deforestation, as farmers clear the land during the dry season, encouraged by the Brazilian government.
On this land they produce palm oil, soybeans, and beef, showing up in our homes in products like toothpaste, shampoo, dog food, and granola bars. But this year there was rising international concern about preserving the tropical rainforest, a major planetary resource. And if we didn’t pay enough attention to the Amazon burning, we certainly sat up and took notice last spring when Notre Dame cathedral in Paris suddenly caught fire.
Meanwhile, unnoticed by many of us, our nation is drowning in red ink. The federal government’s total debt stood at more than $22 trillion at the end of June 2019—larger than the country’s gross domestic product. At the same time, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the budget deficit is growing faster than expected and is projected to reach $1 trillion by fiscal year 2020, two years earlier than previously estimated. Both the national debt and the budget deficit will affect all of us and our pocketbooks in the long run.
Perhaps the most painful news of the day involves the ugly incidents of hate and violence experienced by those in our midst perceived as the “other”—undocumented immigrants, black and brown Americans, Muslims, Jews, women of all races, and LBGTQ persons. How can the powerless find a voice, and would we listen? If we take the teachings of Jesus seriously, are we doing all we can to meet their needs?
There are so many wrongs, so much upheaval, so much anguish, that we despair. Perhaps we can glean some wisdom from Psalm 46.
Let’s start with the word “refuge,” one of the most significant words in the entire book of Psalms. To take refuge in God means to trust wholeheartedly in God with a faith that believes that God is a well-tried and reliable resource.
In the Psalms the word “strength,” which occurs many times, portrays God as one who rules the world and whose incomprehensible power is not indifferent or casual in manifestation but designed to be our help. If God is our refuge and strength, where is that strength when we need it?
God’s strength available
One person I knew who wholeheartedly trusted God was the late Mary Cosby, who in 1947 was one of the co-founders of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., along with her husband, Gordon. Some of America’s most prominent social justice pastors consider that church a trailblazer because of its primary focus on work with the poor and disenfranchised through dozens of nonprofits and small faith communities. The Church of the Saviour took discipleship very seriously; participants who wished to become members had to devote at least two years to personal spiritual practices, leading to intentional commitment to follow Jesus Christ in one of the church’s specific faith communities.
I had known Gordon and Mary since 1970 through my studies with them and other teachers at their Servant Leadership School in D.C. Both Gordon and Mary later became my mentors in forming a church in Richmond, Va., in the 1990s based on their model. Gordon was a giant of the faith, and Mary had amazing capacities for charm, teaching the gospel with stories, and exhibiting a deep gratitude to God.
But now their lives were drawing to a close. On the afternoon of March 19, 2013, I went to see Mary and Gordon in Washington at the Church of the Saviour’s Christ House, a medical respite facility and home for formerly homeless men, where they had come to live and be cared for. I found Gordon in a coma in hospice there.
After a few minutes with him, where I offered a prayer and blessing of gratitude for what he had meant to me, I spent about 45 minutes with Mary. She looked like a concentration camp victim, with a very frail body and thin face. Knowing Gordon was dying and that her life was severely limited with physical challenges, I thought she would be discouraged. However, I found her vibrant, asking about what gave me joy in life, and wanting to share recent personal and faith stories.
What happened next was a lesson I will never forget about trusting in God’s provision. As we were chatting, a Christ House volunteer came to Mary’s room with a supper tray. With a radiant smile, she pulled herself up in bed and turned to thank the volunteer. Then she turned to me with a glowing face, saying, “Look at this luxury I have. In this place I can be served with wonderful food and have my needs met in body and soul.” I later learned that after I left, that night she crawled in bed with Gordon and was with him when he died the next day. She acted out the psalmist’s trust that God is our refuge and strength, a very reliable help even in the face of death.
In Psalm 46:2–3 the psalmist continues to remind us how powerful God can be in times of trouble. The ancient belief held that in the three-tiered universe—heavens, earth, and underworld—the mountains held up the heavens and kept everything stable. If the mountains were to shake (Psalm 46:2, NRSV), the earth would collapse and be flooded by watery chaos.
Sometimes it seems as if our world is falling apart in just that sort of catastrophe: earthquakes, violent tornadoes in the Midwest, and Category 5 hurricanes like Dorian smashing the Bahamas—not to mention human-caused devastation such as burning rainforests. Even when our world is coming apart, the psalmist says we are to be confident that God will be with us, and that God’s power will rise above any cataclysm.
Nations in an uproar
God is a refuge when the natural world convulses. God is also a refuge when there is trouble with humankind, when “the nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter” (Psalm 46:4–7). At the August 2019 G7 summit meeting, tensions emerged regarding global trade, relations with Iran, and the environment.
Ongoing international issues included the economic impact of Great Britain’s exit from the European Union, the escalating trade war between the United States and China, perpetual turmoil in the Middle East, the question of whether the U.S. 2020 presidential election can withstand cyberattacks, and more.
Even when “kingdoms totter” (Psalm 46:6), the psalmist confidently believes that God can be trusted. The image of the river flowing from the city of God (Psalm 46:4) is symbolic of God’s sovereignty and resourcefulness. God is present throughout all nations, and when God “utters his voice,” the “earth melts” (Psalm 46:6).
God’s dominion here means that God can overcome human opposition in any form of danger. The refrain in Psalm 46:7 reminds us, “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
How do we move from hearing about God’s refuge to knowing it deep in our souls? There is an action we need to take if we seriously believe in God’s protection: we must utterly abandon our lives to dependence on God.
As the psalm says, “Come, behold the works of the Lord . . . ‘Be still, and know that I am God!’” (Psalm 46: 8–10).
Be still and know
We are called to acknowledge daily that our utmost security is not in any of our achievements or acquisitions, our national pride, or even in ourselves alone. The starting point of any real connection with God is to empty ourselves of all our concerns and stop, be still, and wait for God. There are echoes of this call in the New Testament, as Paul in his letter to the Philippians notes that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7).
To be still is to cultivate practices of reflective, expectant listening to sense the presence and reality of God. The late Episcopal priest James Green believed that to be still inside is the starting point in learning how to listen and to be astonished at fresh epiphanies that we have not yet discerned.
This prayer posture takes time—living into the risk of anxiety while being alone and embracing silence. This is very hard for us to do. Our American society knows what it means to be busy and productive. We know what it means to get what we want by being active, working hard, and being articulate, but we find it difficult to be still and find time alone to recover ourselves.
Consider Esther “Etty” Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who lived in Amsterdam in the 1940s during the Nazi occupation. Having moved there in the 1930s to study law and Slavic languages, she developed into an intellectually independent nonconformist. She read widely, from the Bible and St. Augustine to Rilke and Dostoevsky. When she began keeping a diary in 1941, she recorded both the increasingly anti-Jewish actions of the occupying Nazi army and her own interior spiritual development.
Jews in Amsterdam were forced to wear the Star of David beginning in April 1942, and then eventually the Nazis began rounding up Jews in earnest and deporting them to concentration camps. Hillesum worked for a time as a typist for the Jewish Council, supporting those at the Westerbork transit camp about to be deported. Eventually, not wanting to be spared what was happening to her people, she voluntarily joined her fellow Jews and was deported to Auschwitz, where she died in November 1943 at age 29.
As the world fell apart around her, Hillesum became ever more aware of her connection with God. She felt that everyone must embrace what endures, which for her was her encounter with God at the innermost depths of her own soul and in other people. This was her belief in the face of the evil around her.
She wrote: “They are out to destroy us completely, we must accept that and go on from there. Very well, then, I accept it. I work and continue to live with the same conviction and I find life meaningful . . . . And that is why I must try to live a good and faithful life to my last breath; so that those who come after me do not have to start all over again.”
In her diary, she frequently explained her urge to fall to her knees in prayer, as God became the definitive partner in her inner conversation. She wrote, “God, take me by the hand. I shall follow you faithfully, and not resist too much. I shall evade none of the tempests life has in store for me—I shall try to spread some of my warmth, of my genuine love for others wherever I go—I know that I must seek you amongst people, out in the world. And that is what I shall do.” Etty Hillesum’s diaries and letters were published in 1981 under the title, An Interrupted Life.
Here was someone who found refuge in God—even in the midst of a hell on earth—because she cultivated being still inside and seeking a divine relationship.
“The Lord of hosts is with us”
Psalm 46 is a psalm for the ages, the psalm on which Martin Luther based his Reformation hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” For the ancient Hebrews, according to Elmer A. Leslie’s commentary on the Psalms, this was a hymn probably sung by pilgrims on their way to the great annual festivals in Jerusalem in the postexilic period. On their way to pray and worship with confidence in the unfailing help of God, they must have sounded the refrain in a triumphant shout.
Ultimately, the psalmist says, a God of peace will redeem the world. Until that time, how will we daily offer ourselves in total surrender, confidently facing every kind of danger? Let our unshakable faith seek refuge and strength in God, with the expectation that God’s sovereignty will ultimately triumph.
About the author:
In 50 years of ministry, Dr. Ben R. Wagener has served pastorates in Kentucky and Virginia, including eight years as founding pastor of a covenant church in Richmond, Va., modeled on the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. His most recent full-time position was 12 years as pastor for spiritual formation at the Vienna Baptist Church in Vienna, Va. Recently he “flunked retirement” after moving to Winston-Salem, N.C., when Knollwood Baptist Church called him as part-time minister of welcome and engagement, to work with visitors and new members.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Ben grew up in Clemson, S.C. He holds degrees from Furman University (B.A., history), Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and Princeton Theological Seminary (D.Min.), and is a certified life coach. He is married to Dorothy, a retired nonprofit magazine editor and church communications specialist, and together they have a son, daughter, and son-in-law. For relaxation, Ben is both active—doubles tennis, senior softball, and golf—and reflective, participating in an Anam Cara (“soul friend”) group and a dream group.
Scripture and Music:
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
Blessed Be the God of Israel
Jesus, Remember Me
Jesus Shall Reign
Gather Us In
Holy God, We Praise Thy Name
Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
In the Cross of Christ I Glory
God of Grace and God of Glory
O Worship the King
Crown Him with Many Crowns
How Firm a Foundation
How Great Thou Art
I’ve Got Peace Like a River
Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious
Beneath the Cross of Jesus
Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross