In last week’s blog, Pastor Bill MacLean reflected on the wisdom, poetry, and prayer of Psalm 90, focusing on this central petition: “Teach us to number our days so that we may live wisely.” In other words, as he put it, “Teach us to be aware of how short life is, to value each day as a gift, and to live knowing that one day we will die.” He told beautiful stories of the kind of dying that we hope for: after a long life, surrounded by friends and family, at peace with ourselves and God.
Of course, this is not always how it goes. One friend recently shared a story on Facebook about her seven-year-old nephew who was killed in a freak accident while playing “church” with his siblings and cousins. Another lamented the sudden death of three dear friends: a mother, father, and child suddenly killed in a head-on collision.
Life can be Fragile. Unpredictable. Incomprehensible.
The last eighteen months have hammered home this reality again and again. We have numbered our days and numbered the dead. Our protective cocoon, the coping skills that psychologically shield us from countless impending disasters which we cannot fathom let alone control, has been punctured. We talk about this in a variety of ways.
We lack the emotional bandwidth, this far into a global pandemic, to respond with calm and ride the waves of upsets in daily life. Equanimity is more fleeting, in part, because we are tired, and understandably so. The rush back to “normalcy,” even a new normal, is bumpy. One small church I know couldn’t find volunteers for Sunday setup—something that was not a challenge before the pandemic. But now the regular helpers and stalwart do-ers had run out of steam. Wisely and communally, they decided to postpone in-person worship another six months.
Put another way, our surge capacity is depleted. How many surges can we endure? We are now in another one, and our collective anxiety is rising. Close friends traveling to Europe wonder if they are going to make it before new lockdowns there keep them in place here. Mask mandates have returned in a few places in the United States and the CDC has altered its guidance again.
How do we live well and number our days in our current milieu? Some days, to be honest, I read through the news headlines on my phone and can read no further. Things like:
- Wildfires threaten boundary waters
- Gooseberry Falls dry up
- COVID cases rising in the state of MN due to Delta variant (and now there’s a Lambda variant, too)
- European flood death toll surpasses 125
- U.S. life expectancy sees biggest drop since WWII
In the midst of this chronic upheaval, Psalm 46 (and others like it) encourages us to place our gaze upon God. Known as a Psalm of trust, this ancient prayer affirms three times, in the beginning, middle, and end, that God is our refuge, our safe and secure dwelling place. I encourage you to read it in full and to pause briefly every time you see the word “selah.”
This Psalm of trust is broken into three parts. Each part acknowledges very real threats to human life and to the earth itself. Each part affirms confidence in God. And, each part ends with an intentional pause, a slowing down, an invitation to breathe and reflect.
The first part of the Psalm (vv. 1-3) depicts mayhem in nature. Natural disasters are real and menacing. The Psalmist’s words conjure up images of earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and other catastrophes like that Florida condo crashing to the ground and burying 98 people while survivors peered over a precipice where their living room walls once stood.
“Though the earth should change,” writes the Psalmist, “we will not fear.” Though a microscopic coronavirus mutates faster than we can convince people to get vaccinated against it, we will not fear. Though wildfires rage and the small town of Lytton, British Columbia burns to the ground, we will not fear. Because, as Old Testament scholar Daniel Estes puts it, “God’s protection transcends earthly collapse” (Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms).
The second part of Psalm 46 (vv. 4-7) references political upheaval. Nations totter and convulse. Unwise and unhinged rulers are serious threats; their weaponry and treachery have the power to extinguish life. Nevertheless, affirms the Psalmist, God will bring peace, sustenance, and joy, like a river teeming with life, quenching our thirst and refreshing us in body and mind.
The third part of the Psalm (vv.8-11) portrays God as fierce and compassionate. This Warrior God destroys destruction, deals death to deadly weapons, and restores creation so that the earth (and all living things) can flourish. This Warrior God speaks mightily and definitively: Peace, Be Still, and Know that I (and I alone) am God.
The main claim repeated through the entire Psalm is this: God is our refuge. God is our help. God is our strength.
The Almighty God is an impenetrable defense, transcending both nature and politics and bringing order to a creation spiraling out of control. But this does not mean that God is distant or aloof. God is “with us” says the Psalmist; God is “in our midst,” in the heart of all the chaos and confusion, loss and loneliness, exhaustion and burnout, disorientation and uncertainty. We are not alone. God is near and knows our suffering from the inside out.
Therefore, we need not fear.
Martin Luther wrote the hymn, A Mighty Fortress is our God, in response to his meditations on Psalm 46. It is one of the most famous Protestant hymns of all time, and, in my opinion, never sounds better than when played on a pipe organ inside a majestic cathedral. The first two verses read:
A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he, amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
does seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great,
and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right Man on our side,
the Man of God’s own choosing.
You ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth his name,
from age to age the same;
and he must win the battle.
No one is sure when Luther wrote this hymn, but the best guess is sometime between 1527 and 1529. Lutheran theologian Albert Collver describes these years as “some of the darkest in Luther’s life.” As Collver explains, in 1527, a plague broke out in Wittenburg. In 1528, Luther’s daughter, who was born ill, died at the age of six months. Meanwhile the Protestant Reformers were tearing each other apart, bitterly fighting over the proper meaning of the sacraments. When his family, church, and country tottered, Luther took comfort in the promise of God’s strength.
Life can be fragile, disorienting, and traumatic. It can be exhausting and anxiety-producing. Whatever the circumstance, Psalm 46 invites us to pause and reflect on God’s promises to be with us, to help us, to be our strength, and to bring serenity, peace, and wellbeing to all.
This blog is a shortened version of the Sunday radio program, Faith Alive, posted on Aug 1. To listen to the full program, visit Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church.
Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).