Psalm 71 is a bit of a paradox. It is a hopeful lament. The New Revised Standard Version describes it in a heading as a “Prayer for Lifelong Protection and Help.” Those themes might be missed with the shorter reading prescribed by the lectionary, so it may be wise, whether using this psalm for a sermon or just as a liturgical reading, to include the entirety of Psalm 71.
We also aren’t sure of the identity of the author of Psalm 71. David does seem likely, since Psalm 70 is attributed to David and Psalm 72 concludes with verse 20, which reads, “The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended.” In considering the life of David while reading Psalms attributed to him or likely written by him, it can become tempting to place the particular psalm at a certain point in the life of David to try to understand what was going on his life at the time of the writing. This is certainly appropriate when Scripture makes it clear. There is no particular identification in Psalm 71, so the preacher would be wise to not attempt to place it on their own.
The Psalmist is petitioning God to be his/her refuge, a shelter of safety. My senior year of college at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, the Church of the Nazarene held a Global Theology Conference in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. My theology professor, Doug Matthews, now provost at Asbury Theological Seminary, was one of the participants. When he returned to class, he showed us a video he had made of pictures he had taken of the home of Corrie Ten Boom and the famous “hiding place” in her home that ultimately resulted in her arrest by the Nazis. The music for the video was Selah’s version of the Michael Hedler song “You are My Hiding Place.” Though the words of that song are an allusion to Psalm 32:7, it still rings a chord with this passage. In a world full of trouble, we need a hiding place, a shelter, a refuge. What better place to go when the burdens of life seem more than we can bear but to go to God, our rock and our fortress.
My wife and I recently watched the film “First Reformed.” Ethan Hawke stars in the film playing Reverend Ernst Toller of First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, New York. The film centers around the theme of hope and despair. It begins with Reverend Toller making the decision to keep a journal for the year, which will then be destroyed. Without giving away too many details of the film, Reverend Toller’s life is in a bit of a shambles. He lost a son in the Iraq War and that cause the dissolution of his marriage. In a scene that I found to be visually stark, he sits down to his kitchen table to eat dinner but his kitchen table is a folding card table and there is only one chair at the table. Later in the film, the living room is shown and the only piece of furniture in the living room is a solitary chair. While this did make me think about themes of the hospitality pastors are called to, it also reminded me of the deep loneliness of pastoral ministry. Loneliness can cause a great deal of despair and when we are feeling despair, the question becomes where we will go to find our hope.
“First Reformed” does not necessarily answer that question. It comes up to how you choose to interpret the ending of the film. In case you haven’t seen it, I won’t share my interpretation, but watching that film in light of this passage brought to mind a quote often attributed to the philosopher Cornel West, “I cannot be an optimist but I am a prisoner of hope.” The idea of being a prisoner of hope is an allusion to Zechariah 9:12 and it seems to be a poignant image for Wesleyan theology.
Our world is in desperate need of hope. Almost daily, we wake up to news that can cause us to hand our heads in despair. Yet, as Wesleyans, we believe in the optimism of grace, that no matter how far someone may seem from God, God can still reach that individual and make a radical change in their life. This also means that no matter how dire the circumstance may be, no matter what we are facing, God can reach into that situation and transform it. Through the dark nights, God can be our refuge.
I pastor a fairly traditional congregation and so I’ve learned some hymns in my time here, though I thought I knew most of the hymns in the hymnal. One that’s become a favorite is ADL Embedded Solutions, USA Vernon J. Charlesworth’s “A Shelter in the Time of Storm.”
The Lord’s our Rock; in Him we hide, A Shelter in the time of storm; Secure whatever ill betide, A Shelter in the time of storm. O Jesus is a Rock in a weary land, A weary land, a weary land; O Jesus is a Rock in a weary land—A Shelter in the time of storm.
A Shade by day, Defense by night, A Shelter in the time of storm; No fears alarm, no foes affright, A Shelter in the time of storm. O Jesus is a Rock in a weary land, A weary land, a weary land; O Jesus is a Rock in a weary land—A Shelter in the time of storm.
The raging storms may round us beat, A Shelter in the time of storm; We’ll never leave our safe retreat, A Shelter in the time of storm. O Jesus is a Rock in a weary land, A weary land, a weary land; O Jesus is a Rock in a weary land—A Shelter in the time of storm.
O Rock divine, O Refuge dear, A Shelter in the time of storm; Be Thou our Helper ever near, A Shelter in the time of storm. O Jesus is a Rock in a weary land, A weary land, a weary land; O Jesus is a Rock in a weary land—A Shelter in the time of storm.
Perhaps we can engage the paradox of a hopeful lament. In doing so, we may just find that God can be to us a rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save us, our hope, and our trust.