When I was in eighth grade, I decided that, despite attending church every Sunday, being in the Church Youth Group, and being a pastor’s kid, I was not in fact Christian. As I saw it, there were too many beliefs, ideas, and propositions that I either couldn’t figure out or couldn’t get behind, so, with much thoughtfulness, sincerity, and all the wisdom of a fourteen year old boy, I set out to figure out my own religion: a set of beliefs, statements, and positions that I could fully get behind. It took me about an hour, and came out to a little more than one page, single spaced, in Microsoft Word. I picked a cool font, slapped a title on it in WordArt, and called it done.
That was about nine years ago, and while I hope that my relationship to Christianity has matured somewhat since then, I have to admit that I often find myself back in eighth grade, struggling with a complex faith, trying to figure it all out in my head, trying to make it work intellectually, to make it logical and comprehensible. It often feels like Christianity is a puzzle that I am trying to solve. Trying to somehow get it right.
And soon enough I reduce God to an idea, an intellectual problem to be solved. God slips into abstraction, gets banished from my body and my heart, and is exiled to my intellect.
But for the Psalmist, whom we heard today, God is not just an idea:
“In you, O Lord, I take refuge…deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me and save me. Be to me a rock of refuge.”
For the Psalmist, God is a refuge. “Rescue me!” he cries, and in the face of this raw cry for help, all of my attempts to fit God and faith into a neat little intellectual box seem entirely beside the point. When I am battered and broken and lost, I do not need an idea, I need refuge. I might want an idea—something logical and manageable and comprehensible—but I need a refuge—I need the safety of solid ground in the middle of our broken, fragile lives. I need to know that when everything falls apart, I am not alone, and that death will not have the final word. And I don’t always know this. I don’t always feel the strong rock. But I need it. Our world––broken and battered and lost–– needs it.
This is what the Psalmist cries out for.
This is what I believe all seven-and-a-half billion souls on this planet are crying out for, whether they know it or not.
And I believe this is what a real relationship with the living God promises: not that everything will always make sense, not that we’ll eventually get it right, but refuge—deliverance, salvation, hope. A solid place to stand when everything seems to be shifting.
“For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust.”
This hope, this trust, does not look just one way.
It is a few moments of precious silence when the world seems to be going insane.
It is the comfort of a familiar prayer whose words are etched on your heart, or a hymn that makes you feel, against all odds, that you are home.
It is a kind word, or a gentle touch, or a friend who knows how to make you feel heard.
It is the quiet assurance, deep within us and yet utterly beyond us, that nothing—absolutely nothing—can separate us from the love of God.
None of this is intended to belittle intellectual curiosity or theological debate. We can and should think critically about our faith, and efforts to describe our experience with language and theoretical frameworks help us see the world more clearly, and help us examine our own positions and assumptions. I’m glad we have theology, and I’m glad that fourteen-year old Nathan sat down to try to figure this stuff out.
But our ideas about God––no matter how beautiful they may be––are always secondary to our need, to the Psalmist’s cry for help, and to the lived experience of God as our refuge. It is an experience that bursts the confines of our mind and inhabits our entire being, an experience that we are called to live out with every cell in our body and every second of our lives––nothing less.
And ultimately, the refuge of God is not just something that we experience for ourselves, it is something that we are called to offer to others. Because the threats we face to our humanity are real. And so the refuge we offer to one another, the love we show one another, must be just as real.
So we cry with the Psalmist: in you, O Lord, I take refuge, let me never be put to shame.
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