Candle-wishes on birthday cakes are fun and meaningful, like childhood songs, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight.” We whisper and hum what we hope for. But, once we blow out candles, what do we hope in? Pandemic times like these demand anchors for our aspirations. Our wish needs a way. According to Psalm 91, the anchor, the way, is God.
Pandemic Takes Place in the Presence of God
The songwriter begins by putting the pandemic back where it belongs, beneath God’s presence. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. (vs. 1)”
Resilient hope begins here. News of pandemic wants to make you feel like nothing else exists. Pandemic acts like a god taking center stage. It is like the noon-day sun heating the sky to wither us (vs. 6). But the pandemic isn’t the only character in our story. In fact, God is so near, that God is like one standing next to you in the sun. His shadow shades you.
Some tell us that we must separate public knowledge from private faith. Science, public health and faith don’t belong together. But this follower of God disagrees. It is time to re-connect our earthly experience with our faith in God. After all, the ancient pandemic spoken of in Psalm 91, took place under the same sun and moon that you see every day and night, on land that you could visit right now in the real world if not for expense, social distancing, and quarantine. The story we tell is this:
Pandemic is on the move, yes. But so is God!
We look pandemic in the face and take our stand. “I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust” (vs. 2)
Overcome Your Anxiety by Noticing Your Dwelling Places
But maybe you struggle to take hold of this shade. It would make sense if you did. Maybe anxiety agitates and fidgets you. You can’t feel the shade. God and your world are fragmented.
Anxieties have crawled over my life for years. When anxious I search for dwelling places. Certain dwelling places only inflame my worries. Like a two-day-old mosquito bite. Scratch it once and the itch reignites. Sometimes we are tossed about by everything we dread but cannot find anchor, partly because of where we are choosing to dwell. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High” says the Psalmist (vs. 1). “Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place,” says the Lord (vs. 9). Sure, you might say, but how can you hold an anchor when your hands shake and your grip fails you? I’m trying to say, “exactly!” That’s the whole grace of it.
You don’t steady an anchor. An anchor steadies you.
So, pause today. Notice your dwelling places. Ask yourself this question: “Do the dwelling places I choose anxious me or anchor me?” Perhaps you’ve made the news your dwelling place. Perhaps you are scrolling, scrolling, scrolling to find dwelling places that in the end aren’t steadying you at all. What would it be like for you to let this Psalmist invite you to a different dwelling place? What would it be like for God and His promises to be your dwelling place today?
Overcome the Distance Between You and God by Considering the Metaphors
But, maybe thoughts of God only increase your anxiety. I get it. As we’ll talk about in our next post, even this Psalm gets misused to hurt people. God’talk doesn’t feel anchoring for you because of wounds. Or feeling agnostic about God you say you can’t know whether the God this Psalmist describes is real. Perhaps your apathy says, “It wouldn’t matter if we could know.”
Maybe any idea of God makes you anxious, hesitant or skeptical, especially from a God-talker like me.
But, if you were willing, what metaphor would you use to describe God? Anxious and pained, maybe you’d say, “God is tantrum-prone, a perfectionist jerk.” Agnostic, maybe you’d say, “God is like a fog.” Or, “God is a black void.” Or, “God is an introvert. He doesn’t like social interaction.” Apathetic, perhaps you’d say something like, “God is like the appendix in our bodies. We have no idea what use it is.” Or “God is a tree ornament. Fine to look at but makes no practical difference.” Read Psalm 91. Consider who the songwriter knows God to be. God is:
- A Bird Carrying You Beneath His Wings
- A Shield
- A Buckler
- A Dwelling Place
- A Commander
- A Guardian
- Name Knower
- With you in Times of Trouble
What if you chose one or two of these metaphors and grew curious about them? If it was your day to blow out the candles, which descriptors of God would you wish for? Which descriptors feel like the kind of place you’d like to dwell and hope in? How might your life change if these descriptors of God were true?
For more, see How to Handle a Pandemic, Part 1 OR Watch/listen to my sermon entitled, “How to Handle our Fear in a Pandemic”
People are afraid. Pandemic has found them. The songwriter offers hope. “Don’t be afraid!” he says. But hope must be realistic to help. Amid its sturdy promises, we mustn’t overlook the realism that Psalm 91 uses to describe pandemic conditions. How do we even begin to handle a pandemic? First, we have to get honest about it.
Learn to talk realistically about the help we need
The writer of this song, likely a leader in Israel, has “pestilence” on his mind. Pestilence refers to what we call, a pandemic. First, notice how honestly he names the situation. The situation is “deadly” (vs. 3). The sickness is a “terror,” like something that creeps in the night undetected. Even in the daytime, it bypasses our defenses (vs. 6). He calls it a “plague” (vs. 10). Second, he realistically assesses the number of people who could die. A thousand may fall. Maybe ten times that much (vs. 7). Third, notice the words of empathy for this evil experience throughout the Psalm. He tries to name how this all makes us feel. People feel ensnared and trapped (vs. 3), exposed and unprotected (vs. 4). People feel the need to be guarded, rescued, helped, saved (vs. 11-16). People are afraid (vs. 5) and this songwriter/leader wants to strengthen their faith and resolve.
What does this mean for us?
1. When listening to leaders, look for those who are honest, realistic and empathetic; voices who neither dismiss nor exaggerate, who are unselfish in putting themselves into our shoes, and rather than playing to our fears, they enter them and seek to give us real, not false, hope. If you are a leader of a nation, a company, a school, a classroom, a church, a bible study, a family, this path is your guide.
2. When thinking about our own spiritual life, we are not meant to act naively (“it isn’t a big deal,” “it will all be fine”) or foolishly (“it’s all going to hell so get out of my way–I gotta get mine”). Grace will invite you to wise realism instead.
3. For those who follow Jesus, we read this psalm and are reminded of his realism. “In the world, you will have trouble,” Jesus says (Jn. 16:33). He has in mind that his followers will resist naive romanticism about their lives as occupied minorities beneath the Roman empire. Take note. If you follow Jesus, he will teach you to speak more, not less, truthfully about the help you and others need. This means that if you are prone to underestimate, shrug-off or exaggerate the sometimes terrifying plight of being human in this world, Jesus will counter you with grace. Discipleship with Jesus means in part, learning his honest, realistic talk about life under the sun.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Jesus won’t stop there. The songwriter of Psalm 91 won’t stop there either. By grace, neither will we. “In the world, you will have tribulation,” yes. “But take heart,” Jesus says. “I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). Jesus will teach us to name the realistic help we need. He died to secure such wisdom for us. As we’ll talk about in my next post, our realistic help, when handed over to God, has the power to lead us to a resilient hope. But before we get to the hope, we must start here, in age-appropriate ways, realistically naming the help we need. Wisdom calls for it. Christian life assumes it.
What is One Step You Can Take?
Honest naming isn’t safe for many of us. We’ve grown up in family systems or institutional environments, that either punish those who try to be honest or damage others in the name of being honest. We won’t get it perfect. But we can take this imperfect step.
Notice words of pain used by the Psalmist to describe the experience of those going through the pandemic; words like snare, deadly, terror, evil, arrow, stalks in darkness, destruction, plague, trouble, needing rescue.
- Ask your friend or niece, your spouse or kids, your employees or congregation, students or neighbors, “What words come to mind to describe what you are experiencing?”
- Now, if they use a word like “terror” or “evil” or “deadly” or whatever word they use, receive it, give it dignity. Meet them where they are. Hear them. Don’t story steal (you think that’s bad? Let me tell you about me) or immediately coach (you know you really shouldn’t describe it that way, let me tell you the right word you should use).
- Now put yourself in their shoes. Imagine what it must be like if the world really was a place like they describe it, a place of terror or night-stalking. Say, “That’s frightening. How are you getting through?”
- It’s not that promise and hope don’t arrive. We’ll talk about this next time. But it is obvious when you read through this Psalm, that the promises offered are a response to first having listened and understood the trouble experienced.
This being in somebody’s shoes to understand the real help they need reveals part of why Christians cherish the cross of Jesus. Jesus paid for our bluffing, shoulder-shrugging, neighbor-dismissing, naivete, in times of deadly pestilence. He paid for our blustering, reactive, selfish, price-gouging, “to hell with it all” responses in times of disease and death. He paid for leaders and people who mislead or leverage rather than help and heal. Jesus conquered and rose to forgive us these follies, to heal those of us who’ve been sinned against by them, and to recover the grace of realistic honesty intended for the good of those who inhabit God’s world.
For more, listen to my sermon entitled “How to Handle Fear in a Time of Pandemic”