I had pulled it out before going on a call the other day: these resounding words of the Psalmist which have strengthened countless struggling ones and which ring out in our minds and hearts this Reformation Day in Martin Luther’s triumphant rephrasing of this ancient message.
I pulled it out to take with me on a call as I went to sit with one whose life is near the end now. At least this life here and now. And is there a better, more fitting time to be reminded that:
“God is our Refuge and Strength, a very present help in trouble…’?
I still had it up on my computer screen then as I sat down to draft a letter to our congregation. It is clear that given the rise in the number and percentage of Covid-19 positive cases in our county that reopening for in person worship is not likely any time soon. So far no decisions have been made, but our council was meeting to deliberate what to tell people, especially about Advent and Christmas. Since we had not offered anything at all definitive yet, it was important now to let people know where things stand.
My own grief, reflecting the grief of many, welled up as I stared at the screen. And I started to write then to the people of First Lutheran Church, beginning with these same words:
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its water roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”
And yes, this aging Lutheran went right to Martin Luther’s words in the first verse of A Mighty Fortress in a way I’m not sure I ever have before:
“A mighty fortress is our God, a sword and shield victorious;
he breaks the cruel oppressor’s rod and wins salvation glorious.
The old satanic foe, has sworn to work us woe!
With craft and dreadful might, he arms himself to fight.
On earth he has no equal.”
For the promise is certain in the Luther’s paraphrasing of the Psalm, isn’t it, accompanied by the clear naming of the strength of that which opposes?
As with many hymns, it is difficult to trace exactly when it was written and even if that can be unearthed, often the only actual window we have into the poet’s heart are finally the words on the page which have been passed down. We whose place in the body of Christ is “Lutheran” tend to hear this as the anthem of the Reformation, of a not so quiet revolution, if you will. And it has long been that. And yet, we can be pretty certain that was not entirely Luther’s intent. Rather, I hear it as much more personal now, knowing as we do that ‘the old satanic foe’ threatened him with the sorts of ‘woes’ one could only begin to understand if one has been there.
- The heart-wrenching, life altering death of a child, to name but one.
- The days and nights of struggling to hold on to faith when the Church which had borne the faith to him no longer lived up to its promises.
- The fear which must have possessed him as his very life was threatened.
As the “old satanic foe” threatened then, it surely still does. And without a doubt, Luther bellowed these words, for that often seemed to be his mode of communicating. And yet, for me these days, I am wondering now what it would be to hear these ancient words not only as triumphant cry, but as comforting promise.
- As one not necessarily accompanied, by brass but by violin.
- As one that not only strengthens for the struggle, the fight, but as one that is balm for all that is hurting within and between us now.
In fact, I found myself moving even further in this direction as I paused in Robert Alter’s translation The Hebrew Bible: A Translation With Commentary as he looks at Psalm 46. I found myself catching my breath in recognition when I read his take on verse 11. Most of us know this as “Be still and know that I am God.” Instead, Alter translates it, “Let go and know that I am God.” Furthermore, in his commentary he offers that this verb ‘let go’ etymologically means to relax one’s grip on something.’ He goes on to say that “it might be an injunction to cease and desist from armed struggle, to unclench the warrior’s fist.” (p. 123) He concludes finally that the point is that God is declaring God’s supremacy over all of it.
All of it.
This being so, this is a powerful invitation isn’t it?
- To let go?
- To loosen our grips — especially our ‘warrior’ grips which have us in a mode of attacking and/or fighting back?
- And oh, isn’t it so that we find ourselves there too much these days — you and I, all of us who find ourselves living and serving in a time unlike any other with what too often feels like inadequate resources both internal and external with which to respond?
Indeed, is this not as much a promise for a whole community of believers living in a time of uncertainty and anxiety as it is for the individual who is nearing the end of his life now?
And yes, it came to mind again as I sat deep in conversation with one who was just diagnosed with COVID-19. One who, like many, her symptoms came on quickly. One whose heart is now heavy with fear as to who may have been inadvertently exposed, not through her fault, but because of circumstance:
God is our refuge and strength… Let go and know that I am God…
And once again as I sat with a wedding couple via Zoom, trying to figure out how to cut back on those who will be at their wedding, given the increasing mitigations in our community. How might this promise sound for this couple, especially these precious ones who actually met in church (how often does that happen any more?) who had long dreamed of a big church wedding, and are doing the right thing for the safety of aging family members and the larger community. Letting go of what they had long imagined:
God is our refuge and strength… Let go and know that I am God…
Might not all of these and so many countless others be uplifted by the promise that is ours today that God is our refuge and strength and we, you and I, can loosen our warrior grips on all that we hold tight, knowing that God hold it all, holds us all?
So yes, this year I am not listening for trumpet and brass as we give thanks that God is a Mighty Fortress. I am not listening for the triumphant shout, but for the whisper of hope which helps me to let go of:
- That which I cannot control,
- That which I have, no doubt, been fighting too long — both inside and out: expectations about how to do this right and how much is enough, to name a few,
- And yes, all of hat which has I have allowed to batter away at me in turn…
Oh yes, I am wondering where and how I am called to loosen my own ‘warrior grip.’
For God is our refuge and strength. And this means that for me, at least, it is long overdue time to let go…
- How do you hear Psalm 46 this year? How is it a triumphant shout? Might it also be heard as a whisper of hope?
- How is the ‘old satanic’ foe making its present known in these days?
- What would it mean for you (and those you are called to serve and to serve alongside) to ‘loosen your warrior’ grip and know that God is God? How might we practice doing so day by day, hour by hour?