Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by. (Ps 57:1, ESV)
Preparing to ‘weather out’ the current epidemic through staying at home brought to mind this verse. Waiting for the virus to pass has something of the feel of waiting for a storm to pass.
In particular, I was aware of my feelings in the week before the current restrictions, as the situation gradually worsened. It became clear that we were in a grave plight, the full effects of which would take a long time to become apparent. I found this deeply disturbing, as I began to speculate what the long-term consequences might be. Yet at the same time, life continued much as normal. For that first week, before we were required to stay at home, there was little direct impact on my day-to-day life. So why was I so troubled? Why was there a deep level of anxiety pervading my outlook?
I reached the point of articulating what beset me as ‘threat’. I felt threatened. There was a possibility of serious harm or negative outcomes. There was something coming that could not be controlled and which had an air of malevolence. I felt fearful and I felt out of control.
To be affected by a threat is difficult to respond to. How do you deal with something that is merely a potential, a possibility. The use of ‘threatening’ language is powerful for exactly that reason. It creates fear without providing anything concrete to deal with. It keeps all the power in the hands of the one who threatens. It is invisible, undefined, unknown. And yet its power lies in the assumption that harm will surely come, in one form or another, even if it is simply the ongoing psychological harm of living under such threat.
The language that we use conveys this. We live ‘under’ threat. So the threat is ‘over’ us, implying power, control, burden. But we also use the language of threat in a less sinister way in relation to the weather. We talk of the skies looking ‘threatening’, by which we usually mean there’s probably rain on the way. No great hardship in that case, but at other times it is more serious. There have been severe storms in the UK this last winter. Thanks to modern weather forecasting, we are used to knowing about such storms beforehand – even to the extent of having a good idea of how much damage they are going to cause. And some people have well-developed plans for preparing, when they know that a storm is threatening.
So I wonder whether preparing for the threat of a storm provides us with any clues how to live under the threat of Covid-19? When faced with an unspecified threat, the psalmist uses exactly this imagery. He speaks of taking refuge until the storm of destruction passes by. The image of refuge is primarily one of protection. It is a place, so to speak, where you will be protected from the damaging effects of the ‘storm’. This is not to deny the destructive potential of the storm, nor to freeze in light of its uncontrollability. Rather it is to positively position yourself so as to be sheltered from its effects. ‘Run for cover’ is the message.
Where does the psalmist run to for refuge? The short answer is ‘in God’, which is then detailed as ‘under the shadow of God’s wings’, evoking the image of a mother bird who takes the full force of the storm herself but shields her chicks from it.
What does that look like in practice, if we are to seek refuge in God during a time of threat? I have two thoughts: about time and about prayer.
Unspecified time periods can be difficult to tolerate. ‘Till the storms of destruction pass by’ voices several different moods. In moments of fear, it says ‘what if this never ends?’ In moments of pain, it says ‘please just make it stop!’ In moments of trust, it says ‘I know you’ve got me, however long it takes.’ God can tolerate our shifting perspectives on time.
To take refuge in God is primarily about prayer. It is the voicing of our responses to the unseen ‘threat’, so that its psychological menace can be dissipated. It is in relating to God in prayer, voicing honestly and listening earnestly, that we may find refuge from the distorting isolation of living under threat.
I do think that it is a visceral, gut-level form of prayer, forging an earthed relationship with God, that brings us to the shelter of God’s wings. The psalmist provides a model of doing this.
In Songs for Suffering I wrote about the reality of crying out to God in times of turmoil, following the pattern of the psalmists. Amy Perry, who provided the artwork, found that her mind went to the disciples in the boat – another storm! – and depicted their situation. Perhaps this image might be a catalyst for our own crying out to God in this time of threat.