Confident in Love Psalm 46 July 26, 2020 – Eighth after Pentecost by Rev. Dr Kristin Philipson Do you remember that famous line from the movie, “When Harry Met Sally”? Sally gives a bit of a vocal performance in the deli where she and Harry are having lunch and the woman sitting at the next table looks up at her waiter and says, “I’ll have what she’s having?” I’d like some of what the author of Psalm 46 has; I want that same confidence in the Divine, to feel the psalmist’s feelings, to share their sense of assurance. “God is our refuge and strength,” the psalmist writes, “a very present help in trouble.” “Nations are in uproar, kingdoms totter,” but the psalmist is convinced that “God is in the midst of the city.” The Divine Presence is active, it’s a Presence that can be felt; God “makes wars to cease to the end the of earth,” the author writes; God “breaks the bow and shatters the spear.” The psalmist imagines God’s speech as though the Divine Presence were a cosmic warrior, ready to vanquish all human foes: “Be still, and know that I am of God,” they can hear God saying. Yes, I think I’ll have what Psalm 46 has, please, some of that same confidence and assurance, in fact, let’s make it a double portion – then I’ll have some to share.
It would bring comfort right now, when all around us feels chaotic, to find some confidence in a God whose power seems to stem from control, a God who “utters [God’s] voice, [and] the earth melts;” a Powerful Creator who commands the swirling to “[b]e still!” I don’t know about you, but I could use a boost of certitude. It is hard to remember right now what it feels like to stride assuredly along life’s path, full of the inner conviction you have when you are accustomed to your feet landing on solid ground, now that we’ve had to adjust for nervousness and apprehension, on the lookout for the physical and psychological equivalents of bony roots or slippery rocks, as we find our way through the path of a global pandemic. Confidence in a Power who makes that path smooth would feel comforting right about now. We stand on the edges of lives, uncertain, dipping a toe into water, testing it out, where previously we would have dived right in. Some of you used to know what was on the calendar a year in advance, now your long-range plans stretch only for the next few weeks, each entry in your calendar ends with a question mark; everything is suddenly subject to change. Those of us used to having a solid sense of the right course of action find ourselves muddling through a kind of haze. Should we drive across the country right now? Is it safe to reopen schools? What about our plans for in-person worship? What’s right? What’s best? We hesitate, we don’t know. A little of Psalm 46’s confidence in a God behind-the-scenes, a God who pulls the strings, would be nice right about now, to know that “the Lord of Hosts is with us;” to feel confident and not fearful, “though the earth should change, though the waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.” But the practice of faith is not really about having confidence in an all-powerful God – we know this. Sometimes we need to be reminded.
My first day of class in the Master of Divinity program at Emmanuel College was Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I’d arrived from Edmonton a couple of days before; I’d only just moved into my dorm room at Bowles Gandier House. I didn’t really know Toronto, hadn’t figured out its rhythms, but even so, the morning of Tuesday, September 11, I got ready for my first class with a sense that something was not right. There were no cars driving across the street on University Avenue at what should have been rush hour; everything was eerily still. I didn’t own a cell phone, so nobody was texting me news; I didn’t even have my own computer in those days (I would check my email at the University library and borrow their laptops too). I did have a little clock radio, though, and I immediately turned it on and tried to locate the frequency for CBC.
My first class that day was Old Testament with Dr. Gerald T. Sheppard whose son, it happened, worked in one of the towers at the World Trade Centre – and he would be okay – but Dr. Sheppard didn’t know that, as we all filed into the room and chose our seats that first day of class. Dr. Sheppard said he couldn’t concentrate. None of us could. “I want to set aside the lecture for today,” he said, and then he went on to teach us a powerful lesson, about the practice of people of faith, about embodying the confidence of the Psalms but not because we had confidence in a God who pulled the strings, a cosmic warrior, domineering, and powerful; it was not possible to find comfort and confidence in such a God that day. What kind of fortress is our God he encouraged us to ask, when God cannot protect us from vulnerability, from the unexpected, from the unknown, from the disruptive, from worry about our children, from planes crashing from the sky, from pandemic and pandemonium? What is the power to which people of faith witness in their practice, when we can’t place our confidence in the power of control? “Put away your books,” Dr. Sheppard told us, “put down your pens, don’t take notes,” he said. “We’re going to pray.” We focused on everyone we knew who needed help in that moment – the people in the plane, their families, the people in the towers, the people on the ground, the janitors, the hot dog stand operators, the firefighters, the security guards. The content of our prayer was an echo of the language of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change…. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter…. [But] the Lord of hosts is with us.”
Life – everyone’s life – even in untroubled times, is a series of unknowns. “Expect the unexpected” might just be the best advice to embroider on every baby’s welcome blanket. Last week I had a conversation with an old friend about, she’s a colleague in ministry, a mentor. “I don’t know how to move confidently,” I said, “when everything in life is always so uncertain, when I don’t know anything.” How do we impart confidence as people of faith, in the midst of experiences for which we have no precedent, when we have no sense of what will the final outcome will be, through situations that are fluid? In what power do we have confidence when it is not possible to have confidence in a God who dominates and controls?
Looking back I can remember that it felt very real, in the classroom at Emmanuel College on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the sense that God was our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble – what an extraordinary day on which to embark on the study of theology! God was in the midst of New York City, we said to each other, the Lord of hosts is with us all; not because we were confident in God’s power to control but because our confidence was grounded in our conviction of the power of God’s love.
“Your only job, as a person of faith,” my colleague said to me as we spoke this week, “is to be a loving presence.” This is each of our callings, as people of faith. When we find ourselves facing the new and unexpected, when we don’t know how things will turn out, when we’re nervous about how things are going, when we’re happy, when we’re not, the practice of a person of faith is not to face all things with certitude in God’s control, but to face all things with certitude and confidence in God’s love. Paul said it best, he whose faith didn’t protect him from jail, or failure, from uncertainty or the unexpected: “[i]n all these things we are more than conquerors through God who loved us,” Paul writes, “for I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I’ll have what he has, confidence in God’s love. Despite everything we can still hear the call to Love. It’s incredible. In Portland, people are out protesting even though it’s dangerous, even though they could get sick, why? Because they’ve heard the call of Love. Protestors protected by a wall of moms, hearts full of Love, protestors who will not stop saying that Black Lives Matter; Love that will not stop loving! Look at all the people now, waiting in line for a Covid test, of course they have a long list of other things to do, other places to be, but a proven negative means access to a nursing home, a visit with an old friend – an old friend – a friend who hasn’t had any visitors in 20 weeks. Love keeps moving in people’s hearts even when it’s inconvenient, even when it’s risky. We can still hear God’s call to love; how much more confidence do we need? Despite everything, Love still calls. Despite everything, people still feel Love. Despite everything, people are still astounded by Love. Love is still here, love never ends, love moves and is moving and we are Love’s witnesses, called to be loving presences, that’s it – that’s everything. Let me close with the words of Psalm 46, in contemporary translation.
Psalm 46 Psalms for Praying Nan C. Merrill
The Beloved is our refuge and our strength,
a loving Presence in times of trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though
the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the
heart of the sea;
Though the waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble
with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams
make glad the Holy City,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
The Beloved is in the midst of it,
it shall not be moved;
Our loving Creator is an ever-present help.
The nations may be at war,
countries left in ruin,
yet is the Voice of the Almighty heard,
melting hearts of stone.
The Beloved is with us,
the infinite Heart of Love.
Come, behold the works of the Beloved,
how love does reign even in
For the Beloved makes wars to cease,
shining light into fearful hearts;
loving even those who oppress the weak,
refining hearts of steel!
"Be still and know that I am Love.
Awaken! Befriend justice and mercy;
Do you not know you bear my Love?
Who among you will respond?”
O Blessed One, You know all hearts,
You are ever with us;
May Love ever guide our lives!