Who is my Keeper?

16 01 2011

I lift up my eyes to the mountains. From whence does my help come?

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot stumble, he who watches over you will not doze off.

He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.

The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.

The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

Psalm 121

This is one of my favorite Psalms. A Psalm of comfort and hope but within it is buried a question which I wrestle with…a question which calls me deeper into the text…into the heart of God.

Today, driving through the hills…the mountains…would be pleasurable – no worries. For the writer of this psalm, venturing into the mountains raised anxiety and heightened the sense awareness – the possibility of harm from hidden bandits or wild animals was real. So giving yourself a pep talk…remembering…reassuring yourself that the Lord– the Creator of people and of animals – is the One that is your help, would only seem natural. Then to have others – community – give encouragement…hopefully from experience…is soul nourishment for the journey: “The Lord want let you stumble…God won’t fall asleep or even get drowsy. The Lord will keep you from heat stroke (a very real threat back in the day…and now); and will keep you safe from lunatics (a conditioned believed caused by exposure to the moon’s rays). Even more, God will not only be your guardian, but God will watch over you for the length of your life. God will keep your life.” Now this gives hope and comfort.

We teach, preach, and believe that the biblical text is relevant for us today. So is the case for Psalm 121. So this brings me to that question that, for me, keeps surfacing from this psalm – “What does it mean…God keeps my life?” But there is even a deeper question that lives within us…that drives us…that invites us deeper into the heart of God – “Does God keep my life?”

As we read this psalm, there is a notion (spoken or not)…that God will provide protection from evil. God won’t let us stumble. We find comfort and security in the words here. This notion helps us as we take our first steps out the door and into the world each day. My sense, however, is that there is still a lingering question…a deeper longing for total security for we all have been touched in some form or another by things, people, life experiences that have caused us pain. There are those among us – maybe even you – who feel that they have been touched by evil: sickness comes and debilitates or takes too young a life; broken relationships ravages the spirit and the core of self; natural disasters leave people homeless; jobs are lost; violence reaches out, unexpected, and inflicts devastation. Our experience of life’s pain dredges up that deeper question, “There has got to be an explanation…right?” We turn to logic, we rationalize, to explain the unexplainable…to grab back some sense of order – “If God keeps us- protects us – then I must have done something wrong…I must not have trusted the right way…I must not have had enough faith.” So we revert to naming God as “punisher” rather than remembering truth – God is Love.  Sometimes bad things just happen – there’s no logic to it.  What does it mean then…God keeps our lives?

And what about those times when it seems God cannot be found. We cannot feel God…we cannot perceive God…we experience a dark night of the soul. Our spirit feels like its walking in the arid desert. We wonder if God is sleeping? What does it mean God keeps our lives in these seasons?

Where does this question lead us? What kind of relationship is God inviting us into? Are we being asked to rethink about our notion of what protection means? Is there something more to our relationship with God than…”I will say my prayers and do what God expects in order to insure God’s protection?”

My struggle with this question of God “keeping” us began in earnest when I lost my uncle in a construction accident…standing by his side. He was a good man…honest…caring…a lover of God. He loved me and mentored me…he allowed me to make mistakes and then gently taught me another way. Then he was gone. Pain and suffering came. Questions for which I once had sure answers to now screamed. Was God my uncle’s keeper? Is God my keeper? Is God our keeper?

This is where my struggle with this question has taken me thus far…

Over the years…I searched scripture…I took classes on suffering and anger…I signed up for a theology class with a professor who had recently lost his wife knowing he was most likely struggling with the same issues…I went to counseling. Slowly I gained courage, acknowledged my anger, and confronted God directly, “Where were you? Did you want this? Aren’t you our Protector?” Many more emotions, words, and questions burst through the damn I had built. Life seemed to reach the valley in which I was living. The lifeline of relationship with God…with others…began to flow again. God was not a sleep – in reality it was I who went away…hid myself…went to sleep.

There are still questions, but I have come to believe that God did not want my uncle to die. God does not want pain and suffering. God’s anger rises too when His creation experiences pain and death. God feels sadness and sheds tears for the one who is loss and the one who lives with loss. God is with us…sits with us…walks with us. God keeps watch over us. But maybe not in the way we perceive it should be.

I have always known in my head that everyone experiences bad things, but I liked things simple…I do my part and God does God’s part with some assurance that nothing bad is ever going to happen to me.

Yet, if nothing bad ever happened to me, this would mean God would step in every time I was about to “stumble” and change the circumstances.  However, living in these parameters, I would feel like my free-will would be voided…I would be puppet-like…the gift of God’s trust and grace would lose meaning…the potential for a deeper relationship with God would have a barrier in the way.  I find then, that my desire for freedom…for a deeper intimacy, is stronger than the desire of the absence of pain and suffering.

So we spiral back to the question, “What does keeper mean?”

In the dictionary, “keep” has many interesting meanings which can apply in many different ways here: to fulfill; to care for; protect; guard; defend; watch over; preserve; to hold oneself back; to live; reside or stay the strongest innermost central tower of a medieval castle to maintain a set rhythm, beat, tempo to avoid from swerving; forever; to continue; persist in.  And keeper is defined as: guardian; custodian; caretaker

In Psalm 121 we find the Hebrew, root, šamar – “attentive care” or “watching over.” In Psalm 127, šamar is used to denote the watchman whose job it is to guard the city and warn the inhabitants of any danger; this becomes a picture of the God’s own “watching” activity. That which is essential in the work of a watchman is that the watchman stays awake. The Lord, says Psalm 121, is the Good Watchman who remains alert, neither dozing off nor sleeping.

So God is “watching over” us, giving “attentive care”…helping to warn us of any danger – not taking away the danger…but giving us a heads up. Immanuel… “God with us.” This is what’s most important…God is with us – all the time…8The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore. This then is our hope. God is always moving with us…moving toward us…loving us enough to give us free will as to how we will live life – respecting our choices…even when they can have dire consequences. God sits with us in pain…God knows pain – “My God, My God…why have you forsaken me?”

And when our soul walks through desert times…when it seems God is no where to be found – remember God is with us…the Spirit working on our behalf even when we are unaware…always initiating relationship.

And what is our part in this relationship? What is our responsibility? We are asked to be awake and aware of God’s movement in our lives and in the world. We are asked to engage in conversation with God and in community. We are asked to love the Lord our God with all our strength, mind, and heart…and to love others as we love ourselves. We are asked to lose our lives for Christ sake. We are asked to not define ourselves by the seduction of power and control, nor by the manipulation of fear but to find our identity in God – trusting that God is keeping us…watching over us. Our part is to sometimes just say, “I don’t know” and trust that those moments of grace we have known before…those moments of forgiveness…those experiences of sacred space…those indescribable times of Holy Presence are from the One who says I will never leave you nor forsake you…are from the one who takes children into his arms and blesses them…who stands over a city and sheds tears…who weeps at the death of a friend…who turns over tables in the temple at the presence of injustice…of the One who notices a sparrow when it falls from the sky.

This is what I’ve come to believe that God keeping us means…God watching over us…God attending to us…God with us – always, in good times and bad.

I look up into the mountains…into the city…into my pain and sorrow…into my fears and anxiety…

into my addictions…into my pride. From where does my help come?

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

 

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