Psalm 61, 34 8.22.21
After a long day on the Appalachian Trail, it is a welcome sight to see the outlines of a wooden three-sided shelter. The shelter is a place of protection from the elements, whether the cold wind in the fall or winter or early spring, or the rain any time of the year. It is also at least a little bit of protection from forest animals of all sorts. At least it feels like any animal could potentially come a lot closer if you were in a tent. By making use of the shelter, you can rest, you can relax, you can be warmer and drier than you would be without the shelter. A structure can definitely provide shelter.
In another sense, so can a mother’s arms. During this past week with our grandchildren around and interacting with one another, I saw the “mommy shelter” in action. Our grandson Paxton is 18 months old. He loves to play with his sister and his cousin, mostly by taking the toy they are playing with to another place in the room. He laughs and teases with adult family members and loves to run and climb. Until his mother walks in the room. Just a glimpse of her makes him cry uncontrollably and reach his hands out for her until he can find refuge in her arms, hugging her neck and smiling immediately. It is very difficult to distract him, even with daddy, and he is inconsolable until he finds himself wrapped in the sheltering arms of his mommy. We all recognize this as a stage of child development, and surely it will pass as he grows.
The psalmists use Shelter, or Refuge, as a way to describe God. We are used to using terms like Father, Creator, Almighty, or Rock to refer to God. Some use Mother, Provider, Help or Lord. How would it feel if you used the term “My Shelter” as you begin a prayer to God? It might go like this…
My Shelter, fill me with your peace. Show me the path you have for me. Protect me from the storms within and without that I will face this day. I thank you for being my refuge and my rest. Amen.
God the Shelter is an appropriate addition to the list of themes we have been exploring during our Summer with the Psalms series! Since God is sovereign over all, since all of creation praises the Lord, since God chooses the side of those who are poor or vulnerable, because God is just and righteous, therefore we can place our ultimate trust in God. Putting our trust in God, trusting our very life to God, indicates that our trust is not in other humans nor in ourselves. When the psalms of trust describe this kind of a relationship to God, we find the term Refuge, or Shelter, repeatedly used to describe the source of our help in times of trouble. Finding refuge in God is the source of genuine happiness, say the psalmists. God is the One who protects, helps, and rescues.
The image of God as Shelter is found in several different psalms beyond the two we read this morning. There are multiple references to what happens when we are living or abiding in the shadow of God’s wings: we find protection from the storm, or we sing with joy, or we are truly happy, or we find a place to hide when we need it. All these expressions of trust grow out of personal or corporate experiences of having been both heard and listened to by God, of having been saved or rescued by God.
The image of being sheltered under God’s wings could find its roots in one or both of two experiences—1) actually being in the temple itself in the presence of the ark of the covenant, or 2) viewing God’s actions and attributes like those of a mother eagle or a hen protecting her young. The first experience refers to the individual or the community of the people of God entering the temple and literally being in the presence of God. In the book of Exodus, we find very explicit instructions given to the people of Israel as to how to build the ark of the covenant, which holds the stone tablets of the 10 commandments. It is to be made a specific size, out of a specific wood, and covered in gold. The top of the ark is adorned with two winged creatures, one on each end of the cover, facing each other with wings spread out, shielding the cover (and thus the ark itself) with their wings. It is a beautiful image of God’s sheltering wings! Being in the temple could feel like being under the shelter of the wings of God. Some of you feel that way about being physically in the sanctuary, I know. When we gather in this space and join with others in worship, we sense that we are surrounded by with God’s presence.
We find the second potential source of being sheltered under the wings of God in Deuteronomy 32 it is the use of a feminine image of God as an eagle whose wings protect her young. The image is a part of a beautiful poem spoken by Moses which describes God as the one who found the people of Israel in the wilderness and protected them, cared for them, and watched over the community with God’s own eye. “Like an eagle protecting its nest, hovering over its young, God spread out his wings, took hold of Israel, carried him on his back.” Then follows a description of how God nursed Israel and fed the people with all the choicest foods and with milk. In a similar way, I can see my daughter-in-law repeatedly lifting a sobbing Paxton into her arms, protecting him, caring for him and watching over him with her own eye, offering comfort and shelter. Paxton already has a deeply ingrained trust of the “mommy shelter”.
Trusting in God enables us to see God as Shelter. You don’t find shelter in one you do not trust. These confident words describing God as Shelter are found in both psalms we read today: in Psalm 61 it is a prayer, asking God to allow him or her to take refuge in the shelter of God’s wings, and in Psalm 34 it is a statement of faith that the Lord saves his servants’ lives, the lives of all those who take refuge in him. Taking refuge brings safety, comfort, protection, and rescue, whether it is taking refuge in God or in mommy’s arms or in a shelter along the Appalachian Trail. Seeing God as Shelter reminds me of the words of Jesus as he looked with compassion on the city of Jerusalem which had basically left God behind. He says, both in Matthew 23 and in Luke 13: “How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.”
Do we look to God as Shelter? As Refuge? The essential first step is trust, trusting God. That is a big step. Some of us are very cautious about trusting anyone, including God. We might feel that we have been burned too many times, or that God did NOT come to our aid when things went sour, when the crises of life were overwhelming. We humans are really good at holding onto negative, too often allowing those experiences to eclipse the positive ways that God has provided help, salvation, or rescue on a daily basis. Trust develops over time, as a relationship deepens and strengthens. You don’t trust a person you just met with very much personal information. You share more about yourself as you build trust. The same goes for our relationship with God.
To look to God as a Shelter, we also must realize that there is never any expectation on the psalmists’ part that we will be able to completely avoid troubles in this life. Many of them were writing from the point of view of the harassed, the discarded, the ignored, the oppressed– all at the hands of the wicked, or the oppressors, or the enemy. They definitely see themselves as being among the righteous, viewing their troubles with their enemies as a direct result of their relationship to God. These writers are living right in the middle of troubles of all kinds, just as we do, just as our world does every day.
Do we trust God enough to seek Shelter in God’s arms on the rough days, on the sad days, on the days when even the smallest task seems impossible? God is the one who offers comfort, rest, renewal and respite from the fray we face every day. Can we chime in with the psalmists and bury our head into God’s shoulder when we are feeling frazzled? Can we seek refuge in the one we trust to never leave us, to carry us when we can no longer take another step, to guide us on the path ahead, and to embolden us to “keep on keepin’ on?” Disciples of Christ, we can!
Paxton only needs a short time to be comforted in his “mommy shelter,” wrapped in her loving arms. Soon he is ready to go back to playing with joyful energy. The hiker does not stay at the shelter for long, only to take the pack off, eat a meal, dry out wet socks, and get a good night’s sleep. Then she is on her way, moving along the trail toward whatever is around the next bend.
We can seek God the Shelter when we need a rest, a break, a hiding spot away from the troubles that seem to surround us. God the Shelter may be experienced anywhere, anytime because seeking God the Shelter, is entering the presence of God. It is being covered by the wings of God like the mother eagle watches over and protects her young ones. It could be at a quiet mountain stream or on a noisy city street. It could be when you are alone or when you are with others. It could be in the sanctuary or in the cellar.
Pray with me: My Shelter, fill me with your peace. Show me the path you have for me. Protect me from the storms within and without that I will face this day. I thank you for being my refuge and my rest. Amen.