“They say of the Lord…”
For all the strange formality of Scripture, all the Thees and Thous, all the mystifying stories, all the water-into-wine miracles and genocides and talk about the Son of God, there are times when the Bible makes me laugh with its plainspoken, downright folksiness, and this is what caught my eye in the Psalm today.
“They say of the Lord…” the Psalmist sings in Psalm 91. I picture these words coming out of your grandmother’s mouth as she sits on the back porch drinking tea, like she’s sharing gossip about someone’s cousin’s nephew.
Like old men gathered for morning coffee at a local breakfast dive.
Or playground banter, or any setting of comments traded about among people in the know.
“Have you heard about the Lord? They say…”
That is what the Psalms do: they give us words and language to share, they help us to know what to “say of the Lord.” The Psalms school us in holy gossip.
The Psalms give us names for God to stretch our imaginations as we work and worship. Shepherd, Almighty, King, Rock, Light, Helper, Guide, Joy, just to name a few names. The psalms go on and on, placing new words for God in our mouths. They school us in holy name calling.
“They say of the Lord, ‘God is my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust” (Ps 91:2).
Tonight we hear the good news that God is a “refuge,” a place of safety and protection from pursuit, danger, or trouble. A refuge is often a place to live, to hunker down and continue to find ways to go about daily life. If God is a refuge, then God is a home, a protected shelter from wind and rain, from the threat of rising waters and rolling skies, one that will not leak or breach, one where the lights stay on and the sandbags always hold. God is a haven, a [place] where we can rest even while trouble persists outside the windows. God is the [place where we are safe right in the middle of danger at its worst.]
“They say of the Lord, ‘God is my refuge.’”
The Psalm makes no bones about the dangers of the world, nor does it offer apologies or solutions for the chaos. It just lists terrible things: snares hidden to capture anyone who dares to flee, deadly pestilence, the terror of night, arrows flying, more pestilence, and a plague raging right out in the open midday. Thousands falling all around you from war or disease or some combination, lions and cobras biting at your ankles. Danger is all around, some of it hidden or covert, some of it obvious.
And the people who face these dangers are vulnerable to start with. Verse 10 says they live in tents, an image for us that calls to mind refugees in camps, homeless folks in tent cities, people seeking disaster relief in temporary shelters after storms. The Psalm leaves no doubt: these people need saving (91:3), rescuing (91:14), salvation (91:16).
And so God provides refuge. “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” Those who make their home in the Lord, the people of God—when danger surrounds them, God is their refuge. Plain and simple.
God is a stalwart, effective refuge, one whose foundations are so secure that the people can sleep through the raging night, resting in the shade of God’s protection. God’s refuge is like Jesus falling asleep in the boat with his disciples. “The boat was being swamped and they were in great danger,” the gospel of Luke tells us. And Jesus sleeps like a baby in the hull (Luke 8:23).
“If you say, ‘The Lord is my refuge,’ and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent,” the Psalmist continues. “I will rescue them, I will protect them…I will be with them in trouble, I will deliver them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them and show them my salvation” (91: 9-10, 14, 15-16).
And while the Psalm is clear about the strength of God’s protection, it imagines that protection rather oddly. The protection of God’s refuge is not a stone temple or castle with protective towers. It is not a fortified city. It is not a compound of steel guarded by missiles and tanks. No, God’s refuge doesn’t look anything like that.
Because in this Psalm God is a bird. God has wings. God’s refuge is made of nothing but feathers.
God “will cover you with [God’s] feathers, and under God’s wings you will find refuge” (91:4). It sounds a little ridiculous, and none too safe, hiding out under a bunch of fluff. And not even tucked under God’s muscular shoulder joint, shielded by bone. No, we are hanging out under the “pinions,” to be exact, the lightweight flight feathers of the bird, the outer edges of God’s wings, the thinnest, loftiest structure we could image.
God is so absurd, building blanket forts of downy feathers for people under siege. The image is as delicate and precarious as the people fearing for their lives. The Psalmist refuses durable images, subverting the notion of a fortress, even softening the sturdier bits, describing “your shields and ramparts,” your walls of protection, simply as God’s “faithfulness” (91: 4). No actual shields and ramparts, just wings and faithfulness. There are no rocks, no cornerstones, no high towers here. Just a nest and covering of soft feathers.
And everyone in this Psalm has feathers of some sort. God has wings. Angels appear in verse 11 to guard the people, carrying them aloft on their winged hands to safety. Even the people have feathers, for we too are imagined as birds, offspring of a winged God sheltered in a nest, protected from the fowler’s snare.
Everybody has wings. God spreads wings over those in danger and they are saved. God commands the angels concerning the people in danger to use their hands, gather the people into their wings and raise them up clear of stones, lions, serpents. The question lingers, hanging in the air if we dare to see it: the people’s wings, what are they for?
There is a rather obvious corollary to all this that I feel like we need to voice out loud, especially in our current political roils. If God is a refuge, them God is the God of refugees. God shelters refugees who flee danger because that is God’s name, it is who God is. The ones who can declare most literally, “God is my refuge” are refugees seeking refuge.
Psalm 91 is a song for refugees, sung by mothers who shelter their children through the night in detention, even as Katherine told us a few weeks ago happened for her. Her mother sang Psalm 91 to her and her sister. She sang of God’s protective, saving feathers as they sat encased in a steel cage. She sang a song of God’s refuge to her children for comfort and hope and promise. She sang a song which their captors, tormentors, and interrogators could not begin understand.
And I believe there is another, more subtle but also obvious corollary to Psalm 91. It has to do with all these wings and feathers, including the image of the people as baby birds with wings like God’s.
The work of the people of God is always to join God in what God is already doing, and occasionally to listen to the prophecy of angels in our midst. In Psalm 91 God’s work is providing refuge, assisted by angels. The follow through for us to join that work, to make spaces of refuge. To care for those seeking shelter from danger, disease, and the terror of night. To spread our wings as wide as the Lord our God.
We, like the angels, are commanded to this work. Sometimes it will look like literally providing shelter for refugees, making space in our sanctuaries for Rosa and Jose Chicas and others to live in safety. Sometimes it will look like a politics that announces welcome as an unnegotiable platform. Sometimes it will look like [speaking to our neighbours, or contributing to legal fees, or not calling the cops.]
But that is not all. Making spaces for refuge is about the politics and policy and the public life of welcoming political refugees—let’s be clear, making spaces for refuge must be that, by definition. But it is that is not all. Making spaces for refuge is our appropriate, our Godly, if you will, response to our encounters with anyone faced with danger and difficulty.
We make refuge for each other. When we face the pestilence of illness, of cancer, of depression, of sorrow, we make a refuge for one another. When we face the fear of violence, we make a refuge of resistance to war. When we face the evils of imprisonment, we make a refuge of protest. When we face fear of death, we make a refuge for grief. When we face arrows of betrayal, we make a refuge of reconciliation.
You do this more than you realize. You are people of refuge, I have seen you in action. You may not always know it, but your celebrations and your meals, your songs and your embraces, your communions around sawhorses and at rallies, your words and your kindnesses to one another make refuges in a world fraught with danger.
Keep at it. Keep using your wings the way God does, cover one another with your feathers, absurd as it all may seem.
But do so with this in mind:
That we, we who labor to provide refuge for others, who believe God’s refuge is no metaphor, who believe that God is the God of refugees, who believe that God is the one to whom it is safe to flee to, the one who protects with a delicate, effective fierceness—we must also believe that God is our refuge.
“They say of the Lord, ‘God is my refuge” (Ps 91:2). We can only “say of the Lord” what we know, and we know most deeply what we have experienced for ourselves.
I know this not because I am so great at receiving the love and protection of God. Truth be told, I find the love of God hard to receive most days because, like most people I know, I don’t love myself nearly as much as God does. Sometimes I personally have a hard time taking refuge in God’s faithfulness. But I know some folks who are pretty good at it.
One is Ms. Jackie. Ms Jackie knows about the refuge of God. She is in her 90s. She talks about God’s faithfulness and refuge with a clarity that astounds me. She sits and tells me about her faith with rolling waves of gratitude. I sit and listen as she talks about living through times more difficult than I can imagine. An African American woman, she has lived through Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, the failure of white people like me to live up to the Civil Rights movement. She has buried children and grandchildren. She has sat and listened to her grandmother’s tales of slavery, “a wonderful woman,” she tells me, “even though she had to drink a little corn liquor to survive. Slave times were hard, you know.” She tosses that off to me casually.
And Ms Jackie remains. She talks to me about God with voice filled with joy, exclaiming over all the “that Lord has brought me through.” I read her a Psalm last week and she looked up at me, her eyes shining with light through a film of dementia and hard times, “It’s so beautiful,” she exclaimed.
She tells me with a strength as delicate and simple as the feathers of bird’s wings: “God has been my refuge.”
I believe her. What’s more I trust her joy. When Ms Betty “says of the Lord, ‘God is my refuge,’” I know it must be true.
And I pray it would be true for us all.
That we would say of the Lord with deep confidence, “God is my refuge,” even as we work with God to make spaces of refuge for others.