Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
“You Are My Refuge and My Fortress”
It is no coincidence that on the first Sunday in Lent when we read a gospel account of the devil’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness that we also read from Psalm 91. Psalm 91 is about God’s protection for the faithful. It says that those who trust in the Lord need not fear peril. Some of the perils or dangers named in the Psalm are human foes; others are demonic forces.
Our family was living in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1991 at the start of the first Gulf War, Desert Storm. My husband pastored a church that was located in the middle of the Air Force base, the Navy base and the naval weapons station. I was a campus minister at The Citadel. It was a frightening time. At The Citadel I gathered with cadets there who had family members headed to war.
One student, whose father was an officer in the army, said, “Let’s read Psalm 91. My father says in the Army they call it the soldier’s Psalm.” And I remembered how in the fall at the opening chapel service when the fourth classmen reported, the choir director sang an arrangement of Psalm 91 called “On Eagle’s Wings”.
So we read words from Psalm 91, “because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge will come near your tent.” I saw how much the words of that Psalm meant to those young adults.
Four years later in 1995, I was in another frightening place. I shared a few weeks ago in worship about the time when a brain tumor threatened our son’s life. We were told that the surgery for it might not go well. So before taking Will to the hospital, which happened to be on Valentine’s Day, my husband and I sat down and planned Will’s funeral. “What should we have for special music?” my husband asked. And I said immediately, “That song on Psalm 91, the one that says “angels will guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
Will came through the surgery o.k.; we did not have his funeral. That time we did not read or sing Psalm 91.
Our son convalesced, and Easter came. Then on the Wednesday after Easter, we were numbed as a nation with the news of the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in a terrorist act committed by one of us, an American, a Desert Storm veteran. The loss of life, including young children in the day care, was overwhelming, more than we could take in.
I was serving as an interim pastor at the time. And on the Sunday afternoon of the memorial service for the victims, I was driving home from the church and listening to the service on the car radio. A prayer was prayed, then there was a pause, and I thought, “I wonder what kind of song they could sing that could possibly connect with the incredible pain of this occasion.”
Then the voice began singing words from Psalm 91, “You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, who abide in his shadow for life, say to the Lord: “My refuge, my Rock in whom I trust.” Then came the words: “And God will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of God’s hand.”
It was the song I had picked. Only it was not being sung for my son’s funeral. It was being sung at a service for sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers who were dead from an act even more senseless and cruel than a brain tumor. And I pulled my car over onto the shoulder of the highway, and I sat there and wept. Actually I did not weep; I sobbed, heart wrenching sobs
Four short years later in 1999 once again we found ourselves as a nation numbed as we watched with horror a scene at Columbine High School in Colorado. Once again we heard stories of incredible loss, youth and a teacher. How could this have happened?
Once again I was driving home when that special worship service was broadcast. And once again, when it came time for the music, from the soloist came the words of Psalm 91. “The snares of the fowler will never capture you, and famine will bring you no fear: under his wings your refuge, his faithfulness your shield . . . And God will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of God’s hand.” I knew what to do. I pulled over to the side of the road, and I wept.
Two and a half years passed. And it was September 11, 2001. This time the tragedy was even bigger, even more horrific, with even more loss.
At the church where I was serving at the time, we gathered in our numbness for a service of prayer. We turned to Psalm 91.
We had thought we had a good national security, but we learned no security was beyond penetration. We had thought our financial district was strong enough to survive just about anything, but we saw our treasures flattened. We had thought we had an invincible defense, but suddenly we found weak and vulnerable. We had thought America was a safe place to live and work, but now we wondered.
“Now we realize,” I said, “where we must place our trust.” We must say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
Since 9/11 there have been many deaths, tragedies, wars to think about as we read Psalm 91. In this room there are many who have experienced first-hand tragedies, losses.
I have read verses from Psalm 91 and with them lines from the hymn named “On Eagle’s Wings.” The interesting thing is there is actually no mention of eagles in Psalm 91. The hymn “On Eagle’s Wings,” was written by a Catholic priest, Father Jan Michael Joncas when he was visiting a friend and his friend received word that his father had died. Joncas wrote the hymn to be sung at the service for his friend’s father. He used the metaphor of eagle’s wings in the refrain to depict God’s high, secure places.
Down here we have accidents, diseases, natural disasters, and acts of terror, acts of violence. But we are not left down here to deal with these trials alone. We are covered by the high, secure shadow of the Almighty. It is under God’s wings that we find refuge. It is God’s hands that lift us up. The message is as true today as it has ever been: Our God is a God who protects, who shelters, who delivers us. So today our words of meditation are an affirmation of faith from Psalm 91.
We put our trust in a sheltering God and say:
“You are my refuge . . . and my fortress.” “You are my refuge . . . and my fortress.” “You are my refuge . . . and my fortress.” Amen.