|Lofoten Island, Norway|
When I was in college, I spent the large part of one summer sleeping on a 3 foot round papason chair cushion on the floor of an apartment five friends were renting in Dinkytown. At one point, we ran out of toilet paper and went through all the napkins, coffee filters and finally, Far Side comics, before someone finally bought more. But whatevs. We were young.
When Andy and I graduated from seminary, we were in our mid-twenties, and were willing to go anywhere in the US to start our next life chapter. Coast? Desert? Mountains? Big City? Tiny town? Sure! Why not! Andy applied to programs all over, and when we moved to Princeton, New Jersey, we packed up all our things in a u-haul and drove from LA for five days across the country, each day listening to Harry Potter cds and eating sunflower seed and drive-through food; each night parking the truck with everything we owned in the world, towing our only car, strategically where we could watch it from our motel window so it wouldn’t get stolen.
There are times in our lives we anticipate change. We expect it; invite it, even. We are totally open to upheaval, happy to cooperate with a little chaos.
But I think we think that is supposed to stop. That you go through your change and chaos phase, and then after that, things are supposed to be predictable and secure.
But life never stops changing. Children, homes, illnesses, adjustments, they just keep coming. That first friend to get divorced becomes one of many. That dream job you pursued falls through, that church you loved falls apart, and that person you trusted falls away. And they take your favorite show off the air, and stop making your favorite ice cream, and tear down your favorite diner to put up another Starbucks. The president you loved is replaced by one you can’t stand, and that woody place you found silence and solace as a child has become a crowded, rowdy resort.
And instead of settling down, the changes seem to speed up. More friends move away, drift away or pass away. Your doctor retires and your phone becomes obsolete, and every ten or so years, your body seems to have become a completely different shape than the one you’d adjusted to last. At 62, you discover, a job loss is nothing at all like it is at 22.
And these are just the little changes, the everyday, ordinary, constant upheavals. That is to say nothing of global crises, natural disasters, or community violence, of catastrophes, bankruptcies, life-altering diagnoses and devastating deaths.
Change doesn’t restrict itself to phases, and chaos doesn’t play by any rules. Trouble, tumult, seismic shifts happen in our lives and in the world all the time. From birth until death, living with the unexpected and in the midst of constant change is part of what it means to be human.
Also part of what it means to be human is to try to diminish change. We like to act as though we have more control than we do; we mitigate risk and bolster security however we can. We depend on all sorts of things to make us feel safe and stable, because, as it turns out, we are dependent beings; we can’t do this life thing all on our own. We need to find our strength and security somewhere.
So we rely on our intellect or our bank accounts, our health history and insurance policy. We trust institutions and governments, leaders, pastors and teachers. We depend on the climate, community and culture to give us predictable ways of living in the world, and then we act like they can’t, or at least shouldn’t, change.
But they do. It turns out that none of these things, ultimately, can do a thing to protect our lives. They can make us feel secure for a time, but anything can change at any moment.
So what are we to do?
Our Psalmist, in this opening line, sums up the theology of the whole book of Psalms in these words: God is our refuge and strength.
God is the One we are to depend upon. God is our safety. A very present help in trouble. Not a helper in the midst of trouble, but Help itself. Very present help. Right here. Right now. Right in the midst of it.
Therefore we will not fear.
Even though the earth changes. And mountains fall into the sea, and tsunamis and storms and whirlwinds roar through our world, and the very ground seems to shake beneath our feet and turmoil and tumult overwhelm us. Even though. Not because these things don’t or wont happen, but because they will, and do.
Still. We will not fear.
Why? Because God is our refuge, our strength, a very present help in trouble.
What does it look like to trust God? To find refuge in God?
What does it look like to trust or find refuge in anything, really?
We believe things will make us safe. We act as though it is so. It soothes us to depend upon something or someone else for our ultimate stability. It completes our dependent selves to depend on something outside of us.
The question is simply, what or who will we depend on?
We’ve been talking these past two weeks about repentance.
Repent! Jesus says, For the Kingdom of God has come near! Turn around, change your mind, look at things differently! For God’s reign and God’s way is already unfolding among you.
Repentance has been a primary focus of Lent for centuries, so I think we should keep talking about it these next five weeks. Repenting is setting down your way of seeing things to take up God’s way of seeing things.
And so, first, it exposes the things we turn to for refuge that are not God: the flimsy counterfeit security we find in camping out with those who are just like us and shutting out those we don’t understand. The sense of well-being we get from a well-paying job, or a well-spoken compliment. The measuring and comparing, are we more or less secure than those others are? And the soothing lies and half truths that ease our conscience or pacify our egos. The protection we feel from hatred, blame and anger. We find refuge in all sorts of voices, places, and things that cannot ultimately save us or make us any safer or more whole, and mostly just make us trapped by the trouble we are seeking to escape. Repenting helps us turn from those things back to our true source of life, God.
And then, repenting leads to confession and forgiveness, or confessing and forgiveness lead us to repentance, in either case, it causes us to recognize our sin, that is, the places in our life where we have, either on purpose or accidentally, put up barriers between ourselves and God or others. Because when we repent and see things from God’s perspective instead of our own, it reveals where we have brought pain, suffering and harm on ourselves and others, so that we can reach out for healing and forgiveness, and let God make us whole.
But repenting is hard.
And we avoid it because it brings trouble.
Did you take something that didn’t belong to you?
Did you say something about someone else that caused them embarrassment or pain?
Did you cheat on a test, or your taxes, or your spouse?
Who among us would jump at the chance to come clean for any of these things?
We tell ourselves that maybe we’ll avoid trouble if we avoid repenting. If we hide our violation and move on, pretending we’re secure, maybe that’s almost as good as being secure.
But to repent? That’s just walking into trouble.
But, wait, this God of ours is found in trouble. Is very present there, in fact!
For those who’ve had trouble brought down on them by others, and those who bring trouble upon themselves, God is Help itself.
Will you spend your life trying to avoid, diminish or escape trouble?
Or will you find refuge in the God who is a very present help in the midst of trouble?
Will you wall yourself off ineffectively from chaos and guard yourself unsuccessfully from change?
Or will you rest your being in God who is our strength and our refuge?
When we repent, we are brought out of self-protection, judgment, blame and fear, back to the trust and dependence on God that the Psalms invite.
We are set free from pretending chaos isn’t chaotic or changes stop changing.
We are released to speak honestly about trouble and walk into trouble by speaking honestly.
We are allowed to acknowledge how tumultuous it all is, and how vulnerable we sometimes feel, that we hear the roar of the storm and see the shaking of the earth and sometimes tremble with the constant change and threatening chaos, and still, still we find our refuge and strength in God.
God is our refuge and strength. A very present help in trouble.
Therefore, we will not fear.
Not because trouble doesn’t find us or find others because of us,
Not because the chaos dies down, or the earth remains tranquil,
or our lives stay stable and unchanged.
But because right in the midst of trouble, chaos and change, God is our refuge and our strength.
The psalm pauses here, as it will at the end of each of our three stanzas in our Lenten psalm, with the word “Selah.”
Selah is written right in, part of the text, and while it is never clearly explained, it is thought that it means something like: Pause. Breathe. Take it in. And Praise God.
Pause, Breathe, take it in, and praise God.
So here are our Lenten practices, my friends:
Second, Pause, breathe, take it in, and praise God.
God is our refuge and strength. We begin here.
 Lent has traditionally been for fasting, repentance. 40 days of preparation for Easter (minus the Sundays, which are always mini-Easters, celebrations of the resurrection). But both of these are incredibly useful practices. Fasting, is to refrain from something that is ordinarily part of your life for a set period of time, most commonly food, in order to turn that attention normally given to that thing, to God instead. It shifts your perspective off of yourself, by breaking you of your routine and patterns, and requiring you to sacrifice something, notice the emptiness of it, the space it occupied in your consciousness, and opens up that space and attention for God. It is a physical act of repentance.