Scripture: Psalm 91:1-14
I do not know if this is part of your plans tonight, but given that it is Halloween I imagine a lot of people are planning to watch a scary movie. Horror movies tend to be a love it or hate it type of thing. The people who like them tend to really like them and the people who do not avoid the genre completely. I know for me, I tend to like the idea of horror movies a lot more than I like watching them. Usually the premise of horror movies and the general aesthetics of them are appealing to me, but the experience of actually watching the movie is less so. I think for me the issue is I enjoy a night of undisturbed, nightmare free sleep a lot more than I enjoy a good horror movie so I tend to skip them. However, a lot of people have a different experience from watching horror movies. For some people the feelings that horror movies generate are desirable and the experience can even be oddly comforting.
Psychologists have spent time studying why so many people enjoy horror movies, because on paper we really shouldn’t. After all terror is not something we normally seek out. The flight or fight response it triggers is one that exists to keep us safe from mortal danger, and in general we go out of our way in everyday life to avoid situations that causes our heart rate to spike. It seems because horror movies trigger this response in us though, is why some people enjoy them. Ultimately, a horror movie is a safe experience because we know it is fake and the monster or ghost on the screen cannot truly hurt us. Horror movies allow us to experience what is normally a negative emotional response, being terrified, in a way that is safe. For some people being able to process the feelings of being scared without having to live in literal terror has an almost therapeutic effect. This is why horror movies have so many diehard fans who keep coming back to get scared again and again. For some horror movies are a way to confront, overcome, and internally know they can survive their fears.
While the bible does not have any jump scares, it does not shy away from covering scary topics. The bible also has a consistent message when it comes to terror: Do not be afraid. This morning’s scripture from the Psalms is one such scripture. The message of this scripture is clear we do not need to fear the terror of night or that which stalks the darkness, or whatever wickedness may come because the Lord is our refuge, our protector, and our savior.
A lot of the psalms are written for a specific context. For instance a lot of the psalms of David can be reasonably placed to what life experience may have prompted the psalm’s writings. Some of the other psalms show a clear influence of the exile experience the Israelites endured and can be placed with in that context. This Psalm cannot be placed in any such context. Biblical scholars cannot agree on the origins of this Psalm. For instance some think this would have been a psalm sung by new converts or those who have been restored into full community. Others have reason to think that this was a psalm the priests sang as they entered the temple. One of the elements that most scholars agree on is that this psalm was (and is) liturgical. It was meant to be used as part of formal worship services. This psalm praises God by acknowledging, as Paul later wrote in Romans, “God works for the good of those who love him.” This psalm provides comfort in stating that God will protect those who seek God and love God.
In a time when raids by belligerent neighbors were common fearing flying arrows was a legitimate concern. Over the past two years, we have experienced firsthand how scary plague and pestilence can be. That is with us living in an era of modern medicines where vaccines can be miraculously developed. In a time without antibiotics, the terror of a virulent outbreak must have been increased. Today, especially in the Western world, we have for better or worse eliminated much of the fear of wild animals. Many of the predators or animals that can cause us true harm have been hunted to extinction or pushed out due to habitat loss. Yet in a world that was wilder and less developed being attacked by a wild animal was a much more legitimate fear.
The terror inducing thing mentioned in this psalm all have one thing in common, they are fears that we have no control over. War, disease, and wild animals are elements of the world that can strike anyone at seemingly any time. The people of the ancient times could do everything right, they could be as safe as possible, and still fall victim to one of these horrors. We may not have the exact same fears but there are similarly scary things today. Cancer for instance is far scarier than any ghost story and I suppose the randomness of being in the wrong place and the wrong time to be hit by a drunk driver has the same feelings of senselessness that wild animal attack might have caused. While our circumstances are different, just like people have throughout all time we face existential threats that are wholly beyond our control. Just like it was in ancient times, this can be terrifying and anxiety inducing. In light of those potential fears, this Psalm provided comfort and can inspire confidence. It lead the original hearers and worshipers to trust in God, for God will protect those who seek God’s protection.
This psalm has long been one of comfort and confidence for both Jewish and Christian communities. It has several verses that can be put over serene pictures to make great social media posts or inspirational posters. However, I think this morning’s scripture also raises an uncomfortable question. Verses 9 and 10 state, “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.” But what happens when harm does over take us? What about when disaster does hit too close to home? What if we seek God with all of our being as our refuge and something wicked still comes our way? The question that this morning’s scripture seems to essentially dodge is when our worst fears end up coming true where is God?
This is the question that C.S. Lewis called the problem of pain. If God loves and cares for those who seek God, then why do those that God cares for still suffer? It’s a complicated question without an easy answer. Unfortunately our thirst for easy answers, sometimes leads us to the wrong ones. For instance when someone who seeks to follow God finds themselves in danger or on the brink of disaster, we can unhelpfully offer up bad answers. Often this takes the form of victim blaming. It is not an uncommon experience for seemingly well-meaning people tell someone who is suffering that if they just had more faith the ordeal would end or worse what they are going through is divine punishment for some sort of sin. This is unhelpful and wrong because it takes something out of a person’s control and makes it their fault. Perhaps these unhelpful answers make the person giving the answer more comfortable but it does little to help the person who is struggling.
I think that this scripture can cause problems for us because of the assumptions we sometimes bring into our reading of it. This morning’s scripture promises that God will protect those who love him under God’s wing, like a protective mother bird. This morning’s scripture promises those who love God will be protected, rescued and saved. The faulty assumption we bring then is that any suffering or any trouble those who love God experience must somehow negate this scripture. That is not so. This scripture does not problem a life free of suffering and pain, it promises that those who dwell in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. In light of our questions and assumption, to best understand how this scripture can bring comfort and confidence I think we should consider the experiences of Kevin McKeehan.
McKeehan is much better known by his stage name TobyMac. Since 1990, TobyMac has been a fixture in contemporary Christian music first with the band DC Talk and then as a solo act since 2001. If you even occasionally listen to contemporary Christian radio then you likely are familiar with. He has won 7 Dove awards for Christian music and had six singles be number one on the Billboard’s Christian music chart. No doubt for decades now his music has been an encouragement to others that helps them trust in God. Despite that, especially in recent years, he has also suffered and experienced personal tragedy. In 2015 his father passed away, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he faded away. He passed only after an ugly and prolonged degenerative phase with ever increasing dementia. Then in 2019 TobyMac experienced the ultimate terror for any parent when he had to bury a child. It was that year his twenty one year old son died of a drug overdose. Since that time, TobyMac has not released a lot of music as he has understandably been focused on family. However, earlier this year he put out a new single that clearly is inspired by his experience and I think speaks to this morning’s scripture.
In the bridge and then chorus of his song “Help is On the Way (Maybe Midnight)” TobyMac sings: “Well I’ve seen my share of troubles, but the Lord ain’t failed me yet. So I’m holding on to the promise y’all that He’s rolling up his sleeves again. It may be midnight or midday. Never early, never late. He Gon’ stand by what He Claim. Lived enough life to say, Help is on the way.”
TobyMac had endured some of the worst horrors in life. Yet, as he stayed faithful to God he discovered that God stayed faithful to him. This morning’s scripture does not promise that loving God is going to lead to a suffering free life. This morning’s scripture promises that God WILL Protect, God WILL rescue, and God WILL save. It may not happen when we think it should or how we think it should, but this morning’s scripture is a promise that help is on the way.
I know many of you have also seen your share of troubles, and some of you feel knee deep in the middle of it right now. Perhaps when this morning’s scripture states that “no harm will overtake you and no disaster will come near your tent” sounds hollow because you feel just about ran down by the trouble you are facing and you feel that your tent is teetering on the brink of absolute disaster. Perhaps instead of comfort you feel darkness, and instead of singing a psalm of praise you can only give numb silence. If any of that describes you on this day, then may you find some measure of encouragement in this scripture. Because God is still God and God still love you. God is in the silence. No matter how dark things seem, by the grace of God a new day always breaks through and the light shines again. You can trust that God will cover you, and under his wings you will find refuge. You can an unshakeable assurance that help is on the way and no matter what wickedness may come your way you can still say that God is your refuge, your fortress, and the God in whom you trust.
If you have lived enough life that you can also testify that help is on the way, then may you be quick to share your story to encourage others. May we all continue to love God and trust God. May we believe that help is on the way. May we take the words of our God to heart. “because [you] love me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue you, I will protect you, for you acknowledge my name.”