Safety and Security in the Rock of Ages Ps 71

Safety and Security in the Rock of Ages Ps 71

“The Scream” is the popular name given to a work of art created by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch in 1893. On May 2nd, 2012, the painting was sold in 12 minutes for $120 mil. 

The story behind the painting was that Munch and two friends (seen in the background) went for a walk. Suddenly, there were two piercing sounds that rang out from both sides of the road. They were sounds of fear, hysteria, and deep dismay. It was so bad, not only in volume but in emotional intensity, that the listener had to cover his ears!

On one side was the hospital for the mentally ill people where his sister was, and on the other side was the terrified sounds of a herd of cattle from a slaughterhouse. Everything was just too much for Edvard, his whole being becoming a scream! (Johann Symington – Red Roses Magazine July 2012)

Why did this painting attract so much attention and achieve such a high price? The painter is not known to be one of the greatest masters. And, looking at the painting, it’s not really a pretty painting. It is instead a painting full of fear and anxiety. Look at the anguish on his face, body, and hands. It vibrates with fear leading to a scream!

But the agonized face in the painting has become one of the most iconic art images, symbolizing the anxiety of the human condition. This painting resonates with the feeling that so many people in the world are experiencing today. The intense fear and anxiety that is unbearable. Cruelty, violence, senseless war, suffering, fear, anxiety, and hopelessness make people scream.

Interestingly, the first version has a barely visible pencil inscription in Norwegian. The writing has always been visible to the naked eye, but with an infrared camera, you get a clearer picture of the inscription. Translated in English, it says: “Could only have been painted by a madman.”  Originally thought to be a comment by a Danish art critic. New research at the National Museum in Norway reveals that the handwriting belonged to Edvard Munch himself! It is also a depiction of his own inner experience.

The painting invites us to think about our own emotional turmoil. Did you ever feel intense fear and anguish? How do you respond to the inner turmoil? How do you relate to fear? Do you think it is normal and reasonable to be afraid, or maybe, you feel that you are not supposed to be scared?  Is it okay for a Christian to be frightened? Where do you look for support? Did you find help and hope somewhere?

Fear is part of life. We can share many stories today about how each of us has experienced fear. It could have been one dramatic, intense situation or something that gradually grew stronger and more intense. Sometimes fear is like a thunderstorm that is still far away, but we expect it to come our way. We expect it to bring suffering and pain.

Fear influences many aspects of our lives! How you deal with anxiety affects your happiness, inner peace, self-esteem, choices, health, energy, relationships, intimacy, risk-taking, and your relationship with God.

Many poets of the psalms share times of intense fear. They experienced fear of a physical threat; sometimes, it was anxiety over emotional violence from others and even anxiety due to mental struggle.

In Psalm 71, we meet an older man (71:9,17,18) who has been in danger of death many times; enemies persecuted him (71:4,10,11), and others falsely accused him (71:13). Numerous times, he felt unsafe and anxious. Although he was a believer, he experienced fear.

Even Jesus experienced intense anxiety in Gethsemane before the crucifixion: “Grief and anguish came over him, and he said to them, “The sorrow in my heart is so great that it almost crushes me.” Matthew 26:38 – NIV

Paul writes in 1 Cor 2:2, “I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.”

So, we cannot simply dismiss all fear as wrong and unhealthy. Fear is, therefore, not just something to be ignored, conquered, eliminated, or suppressed. Fear has a voice to be listened to first!  Bring the fear into the Light! 

Many people think fear is a sign of weakness and unbelief, something I should not experience. Some feel that fear is only bad for me. But FEAR has a message and an invitation! To such an extent, healthy fear can indeed be a gift that can protect you with wisdom!

–           Fear makes you aware of the danger and awakens your senses to a threat

–           Fear prepares you for a big challenge

–           Fear stops you from doing things that are not to your advantage

–           It can also help you remember the lessons of the past so that you can avoid them in the

future

–           Fear is also energy!

–           Fear focuses our attention on the threat.

People sometimes live with fears for years without listening carefully and attending to them. There is wisdom in acknowledging and listening to your fears. For example, you can be reminded to sort and transform something from the past. Fear can be a messenger from within, reminding you that it has not yet been revealed.  Fear can reveal that your foundation in life is in the wrong place!

When you fight or ignore your fear without honestly listening to it, you only make it worse and bigger and put yourself at risk. You must listen to what you feel because then you can follow a discernment process between what dr. Andrew Weil calls “Bad Worry” and “Good Worry.” There are healthy fear/worry and unhealthy types of fear! He invites his readers to respond to fear, or worry by getting a new perspective, a broader view of the issue at hand!

If you bring your fear into the light, it can be submitted to the test of the truth and facts. Sometimes fears will disappear into thin air or be significantly reduced in the Light! The Light dispels the darkness. When you bring your fears into God’s presence, it brings a new perspective. Sometimes FEAR is False, Evidence, Appearing, Real!

The core of the problem for a believer is that fear focuses our attention solely on the issue, and we sometimes miss the bigger picture and resources like the photos of the Rock and waves.

The old poet in Psalm 71 passes on what he learned during his life to the new generation. His FEAR led HIM TO RUN TO GOD and TRUST in GOD! He asked God to intervene (71:4) because he trusted God his whole life (71:5-6), and there is no one like Him (71:19),

A confession accompanies the poet’s prayer for salvation (71:2-3) repeated three times that GOD IS LIKE A ROCK!  He takes refuge in the Lord (71:1), and one can find safety (71:3). Although it sometimes feels as if God has abandoned him and given him over to the power of his enemies (71:9-10), the poet’s whole life is a miracle, a sign for others (71:7).

It can be a bit strange in our day to refer to God as a Rock. But if we keep the context of Israel in mind, you will understand better. There are extreme weather conditions with freezing and sweltering days with many changes in weather conditions. There are also numerous dangers from nature and other people!  That is why a Rock is a safe, secure fortress to rest.  Many times believers compare God to a Rock!

Psalm 18:2 – The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,

   my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,

   my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

The emphasis in psalm 71 is what God is doing our Rock and Refuge:

In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;

incline your ear to me and save me.

You are to me a rock of refuge,

a strong fortress, to save me,

for you are my rock and my fortress.

Rescue me,

are my hope,

you who took me from my mother’s womb.

You are my strong refuge.

You who have done great things,

Who is like you?

You will revive me again; from the depths of the earth

you will bring me up again.

You will increase my honour,

and comfort me once again.

It is interesting to notice the kind of rock that Psalm 71 refers to. This poem employs two different words, but since both are translated as “rock,” English readers don’t know the difference. 

In the first instance of “rock,” the poet uses the word tsûr. In the second instance, he uses another word, selaʿ. As opposed to tṣûr “rock,” with which it is often used interchangeably, which emphasizes a more massive rock; cf. Aramaic ṭûr “mountain.” Salaʿ refers basically to a cleft or split in a rock.

When the poet writes, “The Lord is my rock,” he uses a metaphor for hiding places.  His picture of a rock is one with caves, and clefts, where people can find safety.  What matters with ṣûr is its safe presence.  The old hymn captures the thought:  “Rock of ages, cleft for me; let me hide myself in Thee.”  Safety and symbol; God is my rock.

The Hebrews 12 passage gives a fascinating perspective by contrasting the experience of God by Israel and Moses on Mount Sinai to believers’ experience in Christ:

18-21 Unlike your ancestors, you didn’t come to Mount Sinai—all that volcanic blaze and earthshaking rumble—to hear God speak. The earsplitting words and soul-shaking message terrified them, and they begged him to stop. When they heard the words—“If an animal touches the Mountain, it’s as good as dead”—they were afraid to move. Even Moses was terrified.

22-24 No, that’s not your experience at all. You’ve come to Mount Zion, the city where the living God resides. The invisible Jerusalem is populated by throngs of festive angels and Christian citizens. It is the city where God is Judge, with judgments that make us just. You’ve come to Jesus, who presents us with a new covenant, a fresh charter from God. He is the Mediator of this covenant. The murder of Jesus, unlike Abel’s—a homicide that cried out for vengeance—became a proclamation of grace. 25-27 So don’t turn a deaf ear to these gracious words. 28-29 Do you see what we’ve got? An unshakable kingdom! And do you see how thankful we must be? Not only thankful, but brimming with worship, deeply reverent before God.

The former was established in an atmosphere of dread. A blazing fire raged, darkness and gloom were everywhere. Even Moses trembled with fear (21, but cf. Dt. 9:19 and its context). But not so the new: there is about it an atmosphere of joy and peace and confidence, though at the same time awe. Here there is a festal gathering.

The mountain of God as a place of safety and homecoming in the mids of the storms:

It is essential to notice that the poet’s problems don’t just magically disappear like fog in the sun. He articulates the attacks and challenges clearly. Yet he finds rest, comfort, and strength amid the situation!

ONLY WITH GOD do I find rest… most profound rest amid circumstances

If you realize there is a place to hide, you find safety in God. You can’t fall further than God’s hands! God provides you with the strength and gifts to face your circumstances!

Again, not that bad things won’t happen to you, but stability and comfort in the storm.

One of the characteristics of a mature spiritual person is an inner peace that’s not dependent on the circumstances. If our inner peace depends on circumstances, it kind of goes like this:

You wanna talk about inner peace; you want to talk about feeling safe? I’ll tell you what;

You talk about inner peace when my marriage is falling apart. Only when it heals can I have inner peace.

If you tell me that my medical diagnosis isn’t real and goes away, I’ll have inner peace.

Please don’t talk to me about feeling secure and safe when my son or daughter is in a hurtful situation.

You want to talk about inner peace when my home went into foreclosure. We have to move out. I don’t know what we’re going to do. And you say God is Rock and a Refuge?!

The mature spiritual person also feels pain, fear, and discomfort because they’re human. Being faithful doesn’t mean they’re not angry or fearful or sad; it doesn’t mean any of that. Instead, our hearts are established in the realm of the Spirit, The Rock of Ages, and utterly transcends the circumstances of this world, even as it permeates through and through and through the intimate hurting edges of life in this world.

Jesus said: “My peace I give to you is not as the world gives to you.” The realm of the Spirit is a realm that utterly transcends suffering. It’s a realm of eternal peace. His peace is the peace that’s utterly beyond time and space.  But it’s not dualistically; this peace utterly transcends the world’s suffering by mysteriously permeating the world’s suffering. It permeates the heart of the mature spiritual person established in that peace.

So why wait until the nursing home before you go through this process?  Why not try it now?  Why wait saying: when I have about a few hours left, I hope this kicks in.   

Maybe you had the privilege to be with someone with terminal health.  When you visit, it is an incredibly sad situation. You enter the room; she’s in bed, and there’s a chair in the corner. You sit over in the chair.  She’s having a hard time talking, and you say to her, “you don’t don’t need to say anything.”  You just sit here, pulling up a chair, and hold her hand.  You’re watching this. It is so, so sad, and yet it’s not just sad. You can feel the gift of love filling the room. God’s love is incarnate in the love for each other. It doesn’t take the sadness away.  But together, there is a holy atmosphere, almost want to get down on the floor and kneel down on the floor like you’re on holy ground in the presence of God, holding both!

It is incredibly important to all of us, all the time in my life, that we would be so much better off if I had this awareness every moment of my life.  How can I prevent the circumstances alone from determining the state of my inner world?  What if the most profound peace and safety we know is the peace and safety we have because we’re embraced in the safety of the Rock of Ages every moment of our lives?

But what if I don’t have conditions conducive to safety and security? Do I then lack safety and security? We can re-mind ourselves and ground ourselves in the deathless love that utterly transcends all of this! God that mysteriously permeates our body permeates our heart, permeates our life.  

How can I learn to find my way to that safety and security?   This is where prayer and spiritual practice comes in. The deep question for all of us it’s very, very deep; how can I learn to find the inner peace that’s not dependent on conditions conducive to peace

Thomas Merton once said, if you wait for the world to cooperate so that you can become a contemplative, you’ll never do it; you have to make the decision now.

Rollo May, an existential psychotherapist, has a lovely little essay called “The pause”. “The pause.”  He said if you look at an Olympic high diver standing on the platform just before they dive, they pause. The dive is eloquent because they dive out of the pause. If their ego would stand there, all these people are watching me, cameras are rolling, their ego would dive, and it wouldn’t do it’s eloquent dive.  But when you get grounded in the pause, the taproot of the diver’s heart is sunk in a certain blessedness, and they somehow flow with that.

Worship, prayer, and especially contemplative spirituality practice the pause. It grounds us in the being of GOD even if we face a high cliff to dive off!  We become aware of the embrace of the Rock of ages in which we are safe in sickness and health, in sunny conditions and the sad.  

So, we can pause and relax into the gracious God so that we can flow little, by little, by little. We can live grounded in the heart of Life!

ENDING

What are the most significant challenges that create fear in you?

Look at the waves approaching; they may be real, but be aware of your strong stance on and in the Rock of Ages. Go with God to face the giants!