What does it mean to take Refuge?

How many of you have asked the question at some point in your life, “Where is God in real times of trouble?”  or “How do I take refuge in God?” In Psalm 46, the Psalmist writes 3 times that God is our refuge. In the very first line, we read, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Then in verse 7, the writer says, “The Lord of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge.” Lastly in verse 11, the psalmist ends his writing saying, “The Lord of host is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

Taking refuge in God begins with finding a place of safety.  In the book I just co-authored with my friend Pema, one of the participants in our study reflected on the meditation practice we taught her.  In the meditation, you repeat the words, “I take refuge or I take safe direction.”  So in one of her daily posts she wrote something that has really stuck with me. She wrote that in all her years of attending a Christian church that she did not remember an emphasis on God as a place of safety and that no one had ever talked about what it meant to take refuge in God.

For me, taking refuge in God is a part of Christian Centering prayer which some of us are practicing during this season of Lent.  I find that I have to sense that I am safe before I am able to find a sense of rest in God’s presence. Jane K Ferguson writes about centering prayer in the book Contemplative Practices in Action. She writes, “The essence of desert spirituality is expressed by the term hesychia, the Greek word for rest as well as stillness or silence in prayer. This rest has little to do with the absence of conflict or pain. It is a rest in God in the midst of intense daily struggle.”

The practice of Centering prayer invites us to daily rest our awareness on a loving presence or the presence of the divine. We don’t have to retreat away from the chaos of life, all we have to do is turn inward and open our awareness.  It is there when our minds are directed to the awareness of God’s presence that we find that God is not absent, but God is very present and a real help in times of trouble. Our minds have this amazing ability to pay attention to the presence of God, but our minds also get very distracted by planning, creating, remembering and so we forget the presence of God. It’s almost like I can hear God saying to me when my thoughts have wandered off from resting in God’s presence, “Amber, Still your mind! Know me!” That makes me smile and all of a sudden I am back to resting in God’s presence.

And these words sound very similar to our Psalm for today. Now, We are somewhat familiar with Psalm 46 from the beautiful words that we sang this morning but the very melodic tune  takes away from how verse 10 is actually meant to be read.  It should be read in a way that asks you to snap to attention to drop whatever is distracting you and focus on God. In the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh’s reading, this verse should sound like “Stop! Desist! Realize that I am God!” So that really changes how this verse sounds in our minds!  Be still! Know! I am God!

We are in the season of Lent. We may think of Lent as a time of self-denial or a time of deepening our spiritual practice and these are all good things, but this season I am challenging us to think about Lent as an ancient path where we find rest for our souls. Lent is a time to consider the many words found in the psalms that talk about the complex human experience. When we open the Psalms, we find words about human struggle, feelings of abandonment, remorse, cries for justice, and finding refuge in God. The Psalms are like opening the private prayer journal of a people. It is very intimate, personal, but also very communal in how it wrestles with what it means to live life in relationship to God, human beings, and all God’s creation. There is a connection point across generations because if you are feeling something and wondering if others have felt the same way, when you read the psalms, you will find that you are not alone.

Our Psalm for today, Psalm 46, falls into three sections. First, the psalmist talks about the earth. In this Psalm the writer is frightened that the earth is falling into total chaos.  The mountains are shaking and the waters are roaring. To the writers and the first readers of this text, there was much fear when the mountains or the foundations of the earth began to shake.  There was much fear when the waters which are the source of life acted in destructive ways.  Today, we might not even take shelter during an earthquake because we know what is happening. We might not even make preparations when a hurricane is coming our way because we know it is just a category 1.  It was understood that God created and gave order to the earth and so if the earth is descending into chaos and disorder then the logical conclusion was that God was no longer present.

You can imagine the people crying out, “Where is God in our time of trouble.” We can imagine the people filled with anxiety, worry, fear and running around spreading their anxiety to anyone who might listen.  In the midst of their inner and outer chaos, we hear God’s voice, “Be Still! Know! I am God!”

Then, if you jump down several verses, you will see that the writer shifts from the chaos of the earth to political chaos, but the writer uses similar words. Nations are in an uproar; Kingdoms are tottering. Roaring and shaking just like the mountains and the waters.  The writer is speaking about another effort that is happening in the political world to try to undo God’s dream for our world. 

If the Nations and Kingdoms are falling into chaos and disorder, then you can imagine the people asking, “Where is God in our time of trouble?” We can imagine the people filled with anxiety, worry, fear and running around spreading their anxiety to anyone who might listen.  In the midst of their inner and outer chaos, we hear God’s voice, “Be Still! Know! I am God!”

But look back up to the words we skipped over…Nestled right in the middle, right in the heart of the text, we hear about a place where the water is not roaring, but the rivers and streams are moving gently. The water is nourishing the land and people. The water is bringing joy. The Kingdom is not shaking or tottering, but remains steady, unmoved.  I was reminded by a good friend Ngakpa Dawa Norbu that this city sounds like when Jesus spoke about building our house upon the rock. Remember the words he used. He said the winds blew and the rain fell and the floods came, but the house did not fall. 

To the people who are asking, “Where is God?” The answer comes that God is the one working in the midst of the chaos of the earth in the midst of the Nations in uproar. It is no coincidence that the writer placed these words right at the center of the text; right at the heart of the passage.

God is very present. God is with us. Emmanuel. And what is God doing?  God is loving all of the people. God is loving the people by destroying the tools used for war. Our text reads, “God breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; God burns the shields with Fire.”  God is not punishing the people, but taking away their ability to hurt one another.

So, let’s come back to our first question, “what does it mean that God is our refuge?”  One way to think about it is that we as God’s people are invited to recognize that God is present with us no matter where we find ourselves.  And that when we are aware of God’s presence that we find a sense of safety…that no matter what happens with the earth or in the political world that we can find that place at the center of our beings that helps us calm down and rest. Remember that when we had come to the end of our road in the discernment process and voted 7 to 7 which meant that all of that work and all of your diligence did not amount to a decision. When we cried out “Where is God?”  God reminded us through the Christmas season that God is with us. Emmanuel. And that this God would is with us is Love. That love is at the center of our lives. That is where we take refuge.  God is not out away from the chaos, away from the political destruction, God is in the midst of the tornado, in the midst of the earthquake, in the midst of the hurricane, in the midst of Russia and Ukraine. And we can take refuge in God in love and this love will conquer our fear. 

If finding love at the center of our lives is how we take refuge, then we must ask what do we do when we are like the people in our Psalm and our anxieties are high, when our fear is overwhelming, when all around us is in chaos.  Well, it is here where Jesus’ words about building our house upon the rock fills out this picture.  Before Jesus talks about the house being built on the rock, he tells us how we contribute to this city that is unmoved and unshaken.  Jesus says, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock.  So, what do we do? We continue following the path of Jesus.  We read his words and we act upon our understanding of his words. We trust that this path is the path to peace.

But there is also something about Love conquering our fear that we now understand more about why fear and love does not mix. They are actually two different operating systems and we have a choice of which operating system we want to live out of. Our fear response is a sympathetic nervous system response that we must act quickly to fight, flight or freeze. Fear is a way to protect us from danger.   But love is a parasympathetic response that takes a while to kick into gear. When we live in fear, we live in an operating system that cannot seek understanding or work in loving ways.  But when we take a moment to get centered as in the practice of centering prayer, we give ourselves the gift of time so that we can shift into the operating system of love. Love works for understanding, seeks reconciliation, and has no room for the fear response. 

God is love and love is a very present help in trouble. 

I must confess that I never really thought about how God is my refuge. I remember singing songs and hearing the words especially from this Psalm but not really understanding what it meant to take refuge in God.  It wasn’t until I was using the words on a daily basis in my time of meditation that I became curious developing my own understanding.

As I did the meditation, I focused on taking refuge in  God, Jesus and the Spirit.

So to say I take refuge in God is to take refuge in God as my Creator and since God is love and it is through God’s love that I live and move and have my being.  Taking refuge in Jesus means that I see in Jesus the word of God made flesh. Jesus is my teacher and my healer; I take refuge in following Jesus and in following Jesus my house is built on the rock. It is steady and stable and I find a sense of safety.  Here is where I want to add the third aspect of what it means to take refuge. When I said that I take refuge in the spirit, I mean that there is a community of saints that the spirit draws us together to guide, provide wisdom and encouragement and comfort. There is a community of people in this city that is unmoved.  There is a community of people in this city whose water provides joy.  There is a community of people who are building their own houses on the rock and that contributes to safety, the people contribute to everyone’s ability to trust the path we are on, and the people contribute to the wellbeing of the community as a whole through encouragement to continue to the safety and the trust in the path that we are on…the path that will help us find rest for our souls.

Taking refuge in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit is to come back to center and find love to be the source of my strength and an ever-present help in times of trouble.

So, my friends.  God says, “Be Still!” Cast all your cares upon God. Remove the things that are distracting you from being aware that God is at the center of everything…that love is your center.

God says, “Know!” Turn your attention to God’s presence. Rest in God’s love. Dedicate time to creating an intimate relationship with the Divine.

God says, “I am God!”  This is where I reside.  Right in the midst of the shaking mountains and the roaring seas.

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