When my father died, and that is now thirty something years or so ago, I found myself reading the comforting words of Psalm 16. Thinking back across the years to that significant day in my life, I realize that it’s hardly a coincidence that the psalm to which I was drawn begins with the straight-to-the-point opening line; ‘Keep me safe, O God, for in You I take refuge.’
My Dad, I suppose, had embodied for me through the course of my life the wisdom and patience and stature and strength of the Lord: from my earliest days as an infant and child, right on through the first decade and more of adult life, I knew that if there was a problem which I couldn’t solve I could pass the matter on to him – and he’d then always fix it, as if by some strange magic: if there was an issue which I didn’t know how to handle, he’d help me think the whole thing through until the answer seemed quite clear: if there was a challenge which was scaring me, he’d step between the challenge and myself and bear the brunt of it himself.
I guess without our ever really thinking it out loud, he was for all us children what a can of WD40 seemed to be for him – the remedy for every sort of problem. He afforded us guidance, support and protection: he was patient and wise and so strong.
And with him around we were safe.
Little wonder that when the man died, a stream of latent insecurities poured in: as if the shield which he himself had always been between us children and the scary, untold vastness of eternity had been removed: and I was left then, semi-orphaned, to discover in a whole new way the truth to which, in all he’d been, my Dad had been no more than just a pointer and a sign.
No wonder, then, that I found myself turning thus to the words of that psalm. It was safety I suddenly sought all over again.
And that yearning for safety is one which we all of us know. Events can be complex and cruel: our experience can become overnight both perplexing and bitter and dark. The upheavals and turbulence marking the world of today builds dark and threatening thunderclouds, and creates in society’s soul a certain restless unease, a sense of dread and foreboding which is hard to dispel; and the lightning bolts of terrorist bombs and tower-block fires, and who can tell what’s next, wreak havoc not just on the streets of our nation’s cities, but deep in our spirits as well.
We’re suddenly all the more conscious of how vulnerable always we are, how fragile our existence invariably is, how ‘exposed’ we all are when the walls of protection we thought that we had are discovered now not to be there. We yearn for safety.
And, of course, the message of the Bible, through and through, is really addressed to just that. Where can our safety be fully and finally found?
That’s what David, the psalmist, is asking (and answering) time after time in the psalms: he’s facing opposition and the odds are stacked against him – where is his safety going to be found? ‘Keep me safe, O God, for in You I take refuge.’
That’s what Jonah is asking (and answering again) when he prays from the great fish’s belly: it isn’t any hostile opposition which has brought him there, just his own perverse opposition to the call and summons of God: it’s his own folly, a moral mistake which the man has made in presuming to snub the Lord’s will: it’s an undetected weakness in the man, a ‘blind spot’ in his walk with God – it’s that which has brought him into such terrible straights. And in the face of our own fearful foibles, our own innate weakness and errors – in the face of that, where is his safety, where is our safety, ever going to be found? ‘Salvation (our safety) comes from the Lord.’
And that’s what Ruth and Naomi are asking as well: famine was hardly their fault, after all: and the triple bereavement the women must bear was simply the way things turned out. Neither foes on the outside, nor sin within: just .. well, just ‘life’ as we sometimes will put it. And in the face of the fact that disaster and tragedy happen – out of the blue, and with all their collateral damage – where will their safety be found? ‘The Lord, the God of Israel, (is the One) under whose wings you have come to take refuge.’
Refuge. A safe place. That’s the whole message of the Bible. God is our refuge. A very present help in time of trouble. No wonder we invariably find so much comfort in reading the psalms: they’re full of this. Because the psalmists, they live in a world where there are angry, frightening enemies; where drought, disease, disaster, death and dreadful disappointment are never far away: and where the knowledge of their own frail, flawed humanity alerts them to the mess they’re likely always to end up in.
‘Keep me safe, O God, for in You I take refuge.’ And He does. Come what may.
That’s what they’re always affirming. He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and fortress (my safe place), my God in whom I trust.’ (Sometimes you need to say it, to say it out loud, if only to yourself). Surely He will keep you safe .. He will cover you with His feathers, and under His wings You will find refuge..’
That’s the heart of our message. Jesus is the one ‘safe place’ there is.
And because it’s the message we preach, it must be the people we are as well: if it’s in Jesus alone that our safety is found, then His church must be a ‘safe place’.
We know there’ll be some hostility we’ll have to face, as followers of Jesus – there always is. We know there’ll be adversities we’ll have to bear as we live out our lives in this world – there always are. We know there are all our own infirmities, too, the fruit of our fallen humanity – we’re never finally released from such until we reach eternity.
In the face of all that, the Bible affirms it’s in Jesus alone that true safety is known. And the people of Jesus must, therefore, themselves ever be that ‘safe place’ for those seeking refuge in a baffling, belligerent world. A relational ‘city of refuge’. A modern-day ‘cave of Adullam’ where “all those who were in distress or in debt or discontented” will gather around the Lord Jesus. And find, at last, a ‘safe place’ (see 1 Sam.22.1-2).
What does it mean for us, as the people of God, to be a ‘safe place’ in these days?
Infirmity. Someone spoke with me the other day, wary of too close or too full an involvement in the life of the church until this individual was quite clear that it was ‘safe’ now so to do. The person had doubts and questions, and wanted to know if membership meant there were loads of doctrinal boxes which had to be ticked. Is it ‘safe’ not to be sorted? Is it OK to be not OK? Is it safe to admit you’ve got questions and doubts and you’re still working lots of things through?
And, of course, the answer to all of those questions is ‘Yes!’ We’re learners. Nothing more. In terms of our conduct we all of us make our mistakes: in terms of convictions we’ve often got all sorts of questions.
Are we able to be such a people, our life and our ethos reflecting the message we preach – that the only safe refuge there is in the end is Jesus Christ?
Because to be a ‘safe place’ in the face of the varied ‘infirmities’ all of us have, it means we’ll not come down like a ton of bricks when the conduct of people falls short of what we think that it should be: it means we’re patient with each other, understanding of each other’s varied frailties, bearing with the manifold shortcomings we all have.
Adversity. About the same time, someone else also used the same language of ‘safety’ in speaking with me. ‘When I come through the door of the church,’ the person volunteered, ‘I feel safe: this is a safe place.’ It’s a struggle, for all sorts of reasons (which I well understand), for the person to get that far: but getting through that door and into the church, well, it’s ‘safety’ the person felt.
It’s tough ‘outside’. Life in the midst of addiction is a complicated, messy sort of thing. And dangerous, too. This person is physically beaten in the ‘jungles’ of the streets of Aberdeen. There isn’t really anywhere the person can be safe: not even in the flat the person has.
To come through the door of the church, you must know, is a struggle for someone like that. Battered and beaten, their life an observable mess, and fighting a losing battle against dark and dreadful demons, which opens up a torrent of adversity each day – it’s an effort indeed to walk through the door of the church: but ‘when I come through that door, I feel safe.’
But, again, to be that sort of ‘cave of Adullam’ today, where those in distress and in debt, where those who’re enslaved and who’re despairing of any release, where the discontented, disaffected, disillusioned multitudes who struggle in the face of life’s adversities – to be such a ‘cave of Adullam’ where those who are toughing it out in the jungle of modern-day life can feel, and be, safe – well, that means there’ll be compassion, care and practical support being expressed to one another in a range of different ways: it means we’ll share each others’ burdens; and it means we’ll live with all the noise and mess there’ll often be in what C T Studd once famously described as ‘running a rescue shop within a yard of hell.’
Enmity. Refugees from other lands are now a common feature of our city’s life. And because it’s now before us on our doorstep, we see a bit more clearly that enmity against the child of God is real and raw and wretched. Men and women and girls and boys are persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ: their homes burned down, their heads cut off, their earthly wealth all seized.
The psalms make sense to all such. ‘Enemies, like lions, are all around me’ (Ps.56.4). And it’s important, thus, that our life as the people of God makes sense to all such as well: that we are a ‘safe place’: a city of refuge for the hunted and haunted today.
Our message is simple. God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in time of trouble: safety is found in Jesus alone. May our life as His church give expression to that more and more: a ‘safe place’ indeed.
Yours in the service of Christ Jesus our Lord