Below is the text of the message from Psalm 46. I shared it in worship on May 29. Some folks have asked for it–
I did not understand what the words really meant. As a little girl, the words struck me as frightening, some of them even violent. And, yet, these were the very same words that gave me great comfort and courage.
You see, I spent the first 12 years of my life in a house filled with fear. My mother’s own life was not going as planned, and (we know now) she was suffering from significant clinical depression. In the absence of a diagnosis, she gave her depression another name. She called it “spirits.”
“There are spirits in our house,” she would whisper, with her eyes small and intense. “Spirits.”
She believed that our house had been built over an ancient Native American burial site. In reality, she and my oldest sister had read and re-read Jay Anson’s Amityville Horror and William Blatty’s The Exorcist too many times. She had seen the movie The Manitou. In some toxic jumble of possession film genre, latent Lutheran Sunday school lessons, and who knows what flight of imagination, she had convinced herself that demonic spirits explained our family’s problems and—more to the point—my father’s behavior. (My father’s problems had nothing to do with possession, but that’s another therapy session altogether.)
A recent rash of similar possession films merited mention by Michael Calia in the Wall Street Journal: “Possession stories can also resonate in a society worried about moral decay in general, a growing inability for individuals to take responsibility for their actions and be held accountable” (Michael Calia WSJ October 28, 2015).
My mother married a man who didn’t love her, nor did she love him. A move from Michigan to Arizona had only deepened her isolation. Poverty and my father’s long absences as he worked two jobs left her alone, afraid, with no one to hold responsible except herself, which she could not do. So, instead she insisted that the “spirits” were our problem. My oldest sister was already showing some signs of mental illness herself, so, between them, they spun more and more elaborate explanations for what filled the shadows in our home.
Remember that wood paneling we all had in our houses back in the ‘70’s? Well, my mother would wander around our bedrooms with my sister, seeing faces in the patterns of the paneling. “Those are the spirits,” she would say.
The front toilet that would run intermittently because of water pressure issues? That was La Llorona coming to get us. In southern Arizona, we saw La Llorona everywhere, so it wasn’t much of a stretch.
Every creak, every groan, every draft of wind. Everywhere, everywhere, there were “spirits.”
I was the youngest and earliest to bed. I would go to my twin bed at night alone at the far end of the house, pull my blankets to my nose, and watch as one by one the other rooms went dark. I would lay, absolutely rigid with fear, as I nightly watched through my open door down a long hallway for the “spirits” that were coming to find me. I’d lay awake watching until I could not.
Somehow, at some time, though, probably from my grandparents, I had inherited a bookmark. I liked the picture of the pink rose at the top. And, printed below the pink rose (now, I realize, rather incongruously) were the words of Psalm 46.
God is our refuge and strength.
I would tuck my sheets and blanket between the mattress and box spring, tight all around, and scoot from the top to until only my face was exposed. My eyes would see the spirits coming, I supposed, but I had hidden the rest? It was flimsy protection, so a better refuge did seem like a good idea.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. (Ps. 46:2-3)
I was unlikely to muster any personal courage on those long nights. I would fear a lot but I liked the idea of not fearing anything, even earthquakes, and roaring waters. I taped the pink paper flower on the wall next to my bed, so I would see it at night before I contorted myself under the covers.
The words I clung to most fiercely were these:
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. (46:8-9)
Ironically, the images frightened me, even as they comforted me. A God who could stop wars and destroy the weapons of war was surely big enough to protect me from the manitous, La Llorona, and my mother’s ever present, ever growing terrors.
The commentaries I read now tell me that Psalm 46 demands our trust in God. In fact, it is grouped along with other psalms such as Psalm 91, as a Psalm of Trust. Psalm 46 is unique, though, in focusing its attention on the city of God, on Jerusalem, where the Most High lives. God protects His home. God protected my home, too.
Psalm 46 alone describes in great detail just how bad bad can get. The mountains were understood to be the foundation that held up the sky and held the land. The collapse of the mountains into the seas represents the collapse of creation. The world is falling down around the people of God, but they don’t fear.
It is a portrait of the pervasive terror possible in this world, and the complete protection of our God who created it.
At the age of 8, huddled under my Strawberry Shortcake coverlet, I didn’t trust a God I didn’t know, but somehow I trusted these words. I trusted the idea that there was indeed a Power that was greater than anything that lived in our house. The verses, the rose, the slick paper they were printed on, all became for me a talisman to ward off the so-called “spirits” that filled our house.
Now, of course, I do trust God and give thanks for that small token of courage I received those nights, repeating those words, over and over again. Now, my heart swells every time I hear children speak of the courage they have from knowing God. Not only words on a page about God, but God, God’s own Self.
The words of scripture—in a Bible, on a bookmark—point us to power. If we’re ever tempted to forget it, and treat scripture as anything less—a history book or a rule book or a book of fables—remember my story, or the stories of countless other men and women who have found their protection in it.
The words of scripture—wherever we find them—have power to save, power to heal, and power to protect.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. (46:7, 11)