Choosing a “Base”
I enjoy watching my younger daughter, Amy, on the playground at the park or in our backyard. She loves to play chase and hide and go seek with her cousins or with new friends she makes at the park. Often, though she needs to create a “base” — a refuge / place of safety when the game gets too intense. Base might be a bench, or a post, or a picnic table; and the best base is usually one that is close to where we are sitting. There’s something comforting about being able to see and touch Mom or Dad.
Even as adults, we seek such a place of refuge. Often, our homes – or a room in our house – serve this purpose. Walking in the neighborhood I see men in their “man caves” – their finished garages – watching TV and drinking a favorite cold beverage. Such a perfect refuge from the busyness and uncertainty of daily life!
There’s no doubt about it – we live in tumultuous times:
- economic woes associated with slow recovery from the recession (and more recently, from the government shutdown);
- school shootings earlier this week in Sparks, NV, and Danvers, MA;
- on Wednesday, pirates captured two Americans off the coast of Nigeria;
- on Thursday, an earthquake (7.3 Richter scale) rocked Japan;
- more car bombs in Bagdad and Mosul; and
- dealing with a pastoral transition here, all the natural uncertainty.
Closer to home, we know what it’s like to get a sudden word from the doctor (“The test results indicate something’s not right.”), or the boss (“We are downsizing the department; today’s your last day.”), or our spouse (“I love you, but I’m not in love with you any more.”), or the pastor (“I don’t like how things are going, so I’m leaving.”), and suddenly, the foundation of our life has given way, and it feels like we’re in a free-fall, with nothing to hang onto.
Few of us like to live with uncertainty, but that’s the condition in which we find ourselves right now. Given that, there’s something very appealing and life-giving about God being our refuge and strength. But what might this mean for us today?
A God of Refuge
Hear again the words of the psalmist:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. (46.1)
Perhaps you caught it, but just when, exactly, is God our “refuge and strength”? Only when things are going well and we are happy? Only when our faith life is humming along and we are feeling close to God? No, God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. There are two encouraging words to me – and perhaps to you as well – in this statement:
First, our faith doesn’t magically protect us from experiencing trouble. Perhaps you’ve heard others suggest – or even claim outright – that since becoming a Christian, life should be filled with nothing but sunshine and roses. Now, maybe that’s been your experience, but it’s not been mine. Individually and as a family, we’ve had wonderful seasons of joy, and we’ve had painful seasons of loss and disappointment, and even times when we’ve simply scratched our heads and wondered what in the world is going to happen next. The words of the psalmist suggest to me that our faith gives us no guarantee that sadness or disappointment or grief or persecution or challenges of some kind won’t cross our threshold. The words of the psalmist suggest to me that we will face one or more of these things at some point in our life.
And that leads me to the second encouraging word: God doesn’t hesitate, but rather, God enters into our trouble, joining us in the challenging, dangerous and lonely places life takes us. For God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. The words of the psalmist suggest to me that God doesn’t use challenging or painful times to punish us. God is our very present help in trouble, not a prosecuting attorney or a superior court judge. Through Jesus, God is “Immanuel” – “God with us” (Mt 1:23). In the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of communion, God enters into our lives in a touchable and tangible way creating a base for us that grounds us in faith and connects us to each other and to God in a bond of love that nothing in this life can ever break. Isn’t that what the apostle Paul tells the believers in Rome:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38–39)
What does this mean for us? The psalmist points the way here:
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. (46:2–3)
For those of us who are children of the Reformation, you see, the ups and downs of life, the world events that seem threatening, the personal troubles that shake us to our foundation – none of these things can make us afraid because God is our refuge and strength . . .The Lord of hosts is with us.
A God of Strength
Ours is a God of refuge; but also, a God of strength.
Perhaps this conjures up for you an image of God who is like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his earlier days: someone with huge, bulging biceps, legs as thick as tree trunks and chiseled, six-pack abs. (Me, I don’t have six-pack abs, I have beer-keg abs!) Well, to be sure, God’s strength is sometimes demonstrated in larger than life miracles: the creation of the world (Gen 1-2); the Exodus – 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea (Ex 4-15); the prophet Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Ki 18); and the blessing of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2), to name just a few.
But ironically, God’s strength is known as often in weakness as it is in miraculous powers. God’s saving power was revealed first, in Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. Yes, Jesus was later vindicated through God’s power revealed in his resurrection. But God’s strength is revealed through both weakness and power. This paradox continues with God’s disciples even to this day. Hear the apostle Paul, again; this time, in his first letter to the Corinthians:
26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. (1:26–29)
Throughout God’s entire relationship with humans, God has consistently chosen to work through people on the fringes of society, the nobodies, the have-nots; average, ordinary people like you and me. God does this so that the fruits of our work cannot be traced back to us, to our smarts or our energy or our proficiency, but rather, to the Holy Spirit at work in us and working through us.
God’s strength reminds us that we are dependent on God. That God is the “just justifier” (according to our reading from Romans) of those who have faith in Jesus. In our reading from Romans, God’s strength reminds us that God is the actor, making us right through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, not through anything you or I could ever do. Our only response is to be thankful and to live out our gratitude in lives of loving service and witness. We are freed from the power of sin, death and the devil as a gift from our living and loving God. We are freed for a life of ministry that demonstrates God’s loving and forgiving presence in the world. This freedom means we do not need to be afraid. The Lord of hosts is with us. Our God of refuge, our God of strength. Amen