Ps. 91: No Protective Screen to Refuge
Reverend Doctor Shively T. J. Smith serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament at Boston University School of Theology. Teacher, speaker, and scholar, Smith is dedicated to extending academic theological studies and interfaith and ecumenical conversations into the public square. She has appeared on the History Channel Documentary, “Jesus, His Life” and presented at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Smith is also the author of Strangers to Family: Diaspora and 1 Peter’s Invention of God’s Household. Currently, she is a 2020-21 Teacher-Scholar of the Calvin Institute. An ordained itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, she proudly serves as member and resident scholar at the historic Metropolitan AME Church (Washington, DC).
"I say to the LORD, “You are my refuge, my stronghold! You are my God—the one I trust!” CEB, Psalm 91:2
"God will protect you with his pinions; you’ll find refuge under his wings. His faithfulness is a protective shield." CEB, Psalm 91:4
"Because you’ve made the LORD my refuge, the Most High, your place of residence—" CEB, Psalm 91:9
I love the assurance and hope offered throughout the poetic stanzas of Psalm 91. As one formed in the ecumenical spaces of Baptist, Pentecostal and African Methodist Episcopal pastors, preachers, teachers, elders, bishops, and so forth, the declaration of God as “My refuge and my fortress” (Ps 91:2) is a familiar and stabilizing word of assurance. It reverberates with the sound of trust and hope as well as personal and communal resilience.
Yet, during this season of much uncertainty, violence, and disregard for the care and histories of our neighbors, I find myself reconsidering the place of refuge this season. Seeking refuge as what Howard Thurman calls “a protecting screen” may in fact be the very spiritual and social posture we as interfaith people need to resist. Though social distancing measures require us to cautiously interact with one another, walling ourselves off from the struggles of communities near and far—especially the communities and neighbors we are least familiar with—is not the kind of refuge that secures flourishing for ourselves, families, communities, and society at large.
Now, I find myself rereading Psalm 91 from a new angle—specifically from the words of Howard Thurman. Rather than the imagery of finding refuge in God as a means to hide ourselves away from the world or a form of escape, Thurman recreates the experience. In his book, Meditations of the Heart, Thurman reconfigures refuge as an opportunity for “opening up” and “coming out” to God and the world in his meditation called, “We Lay Bare All that We Are.” Here, Thurman talks about the many internal dispositions of the spiritual person. He characterizes the spiritual decision to resist hiding from God and from the world as one of those inward moments. In reference to refuge, Thurman invites us to rethink our perspective by saying: “We know that somehow we must be totally exposed to Thee, holding back nothing, seeking refuge behind no protecting screen or darkening shadows.”
This week, I am reminded that refuge in God does not always mean escape. In this season, some of our spiritual work requires laying bare who we are and where we are in this historical moment. It means turning our faces toward that which is “unsightly,” difficult, unnerving, and harmful while trusting Spirit, God, ancestors, and the great cloud of witnesses surrounding us in our living as we journey toward wholeness, healing, and care of ourselves and our communities. This is not the season for the protecting screens of refuge, which set us off and away from each other. It is the season for refuge that comes from being out in the open together, laying bare our disappointments, fears, hopes, and our collective resilience that transgresses all human forms of division, destruction, and dehumanization. God is our refuge and fortress so “We Lay Bare All that We Are.”
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.