The world can be an unsteady and dangerous place. In recent days we have watched helplessly from a great distance as a devastating hurricane ripped through our home state of Texas, killing people, destroying homes, and wrecking lives. Recent monsoon floods have caused much greater human tragedy in South Asia, with more than 1,200 lives lost in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Dozens have been killed in Mexico in the strongest earthquake in a century. Wildfires have ravaged the western U.S., destroying homes and forcing thousands to flee. More dangerous hurricanes are on the way in the U.S. and Mexico, promising more destruction. Hurricane Irma has already caused great destruction on its way to the U.S. mainland, in Barbuda, St. Martin/St. Maarten, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and many other places in the Caribbean. It's one hit after another.
Of course, the storms of this life are not limited to the weather. The newspapers on all sides of the globe are filled with daily stories of racism, genocide, human cruelty, crime, terrorism, war, and human suffering. Every day at work Thais and I are confronted with real-life examples of human trafficking and exploitation of the poor and the vulnerable. This very year we have watched the deteriorating political climate in both our permanent home and our 2017 home (example from this week, with no comment, at this link), with growing unease and worry. Like all of you, we have family, friends, and loved ones who are fighting personal battles that are constantly in our thoughts and prayers. And we have battles of our own. We all do. It can feel overwhelming -- a storm surge that threatens to drown out all else.
Where to turn?
The Psalms tell us that "God is our refuge" in a time of storms and trials. This word appears repeatedly -- God is our refuge, and we can take refuge in God. (See Psalm 7, 9, 11, 14, 16, 17, 18, 31, 37, 46, 57, 59, 61, 62, 64, 71, 73, 91, 94, 118, 119, 141, 142, 144.) But what does that mean?
This was a question that we discussed recently in one of our devotions at work, as we were reading through Psalm 62. What does it mean to find a place of "refuge"?
After a long period of silence, I volunteered an answer. The image that came to my mind was a specific location my family had visited in England when I was 14 years old. The famous hymn "Rock of Ages" was written in 1763 by Reverend Augustus Toplady. He was caught in a terrible storm in a gorge known as Burrington Combe. He found a crevice in the craggy cliff that was large enough for him to hide himself and take shelter -- to take "refuge" from the storm. He reportedly wrote the hymn in that very spot: "Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee." My example was well received, and I was momentarily feeling a false sense of pride, like a student who thought he had given the correct answer in class.
That feeling was short lived. I quickly learned -- again -- that mine is most assuredly a sheltered, privileged, and first-world perspective.
Our Cambodian friends were pressed to comment, and a much more compelling narrative emerged. As recently as the late 1990s, this country was still engaged in a fierce, dangerous, and violent battle. The Khmer Rouge had been ousted from power by the North Vietnamese in 1979. But there were still many pockets throughout the country where the Khmer Rouge had power, influence, and people with weapons. It's hard to believe or accept now, but the U.S. and other western governments continued to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia through much of this period, despite the horrific genocide of the late 1970s. The fighting in Cambodia continued until Pol Pot's death in 1997. Our staff spoke of nightly bombings and gunfire. Their childhoods were a daily and nightly struggle for survival. Most of their families had used shovels to dig makeshift bomb shelters under their huts, where they could hide and protect themselves during nightly fighting. When the sounds of gunfire and bombs filled the night, this is where they would take shelter. This was their hiding place for safety and security. This was their place of refuge.
The dictionary says that a "refuge" is a place that provides shelter or protection. While it's nice to find a refuge from a storm in a gorge in England, the stories of our work colleagues pierced my heart. They have faced struggles and hardships I assume and hope I will never know. They have lived through a daily fear of violence that is completely foreign to me. They understand what it truly means to find a place of refuge.
The Psalms tell us that "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble." (Psalm 46:1.) With God as our refuge, we need not fear -- we will not fear -- even as the earth gives way and as the waters roar. (Psalm 46:2-3.) Our souls can find rest in God, and in God alone. (Psalm 62:1.) God is with us, and we can "be still" when we face struggles and storms, and know that our God is God. (Psalm 46:10-11.) That does not mean the storm will magically disappear. It means that God is with us, and we need not be afraid. It means we can take comfort in being in God's presence, trusting in the promise of eternal life. It means that the creator of the universe cares about our daily struggles and shares in them with us. God with us -- Emmanuel.
And then, after finding our refuge in the presence of God, we roll up our sleeves and help those in need. Because that's what we do. That's what God calls us to do. It has been inspiring to see people from all walks of life step forward to do just that for our brothers and sisters along the Texas coast. We wish we could be there with you. For all those who have answered the call, we salute you, and we thank you. We are praying for all those affected by the storms.
For anyone struggling with how to cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, or really any kind of struggle, I recommend Jill Williams' excellent sermon -- "Out of the Chaos." It is filled with wisdom, spiritual perspective, and practical ways that all of us can "move toward places of pain" and "become wounded healers to God's wounded world." If you don't have time to hear a 22-minute sermon, here is a link to information on Covenant's website, with specific ways you can help.
God bless you all, and stay safe.