Psalm 23 like many of the Psalms are written to bring comfort to the listener. And they have performed that role for generations up to this day
Psalm 9:9 – “The Lord also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble.”
Psalm 23:4 – “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”
Psalm 27:1 – “The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall, I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Psalm 34:17-18 – “The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart and saves such as have a contrite spirit.”
Psalm 46:1 – “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
Psalm 91:2-4 – “I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress; My God, in Him I will trust.” Surely, He shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the perilous pestilence. He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge…”
I have been struck by how many of the hymns of comfort, of God’s love and support there are, and most are inspired by the psalms. You can look at the scripture index of the hymnal and count how many hymns the psalms inspired. And that is not counting the psalter which is also in the back of the hymnal.
And we need such comfort.
The world does not always make sense. Death is real. Tragedy strikes, and we can see that in the daily news from Covid 19 to racial injustice to a politics that seems angrier, more polarizing, and filled with more anxiety in a way that can wear us down.
So, we return again and again to the scriptures and our hymns, to lean on God’s care, and to trust that God can find a way out of no way.
I work as the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at MSU Billings. In that role I get the privilege to work with college students, and they face much of the same anxieties as the rest of us do but there is a hitch. They experience those stresses in higher numbers and greater intensity. Salon had a recent article on this, and they note that:
“According to the American Psychological Association, 68 percent of Centennials (those born after 2000) feel very or somewhat stressed over the nation’s future. Moreover, they feel this stress over social crises at a level that is higher than the rest of us”.
And it makes sense. They are going to inherit our planet. So, the debates about racism, climate change, the worries about student debt it’s going to fundamentally affect them for a lifetime.
And it is worse for students of color, first generation students, kids from lower income families and those raising families. And those are MSUB students by and large. For this demographic, over 85% of them are carrying student debt and at higher amounts than more privileged students.
Students often take course loads of 15 credits or more. They also struggle to get the courses they need for their majors and their general degree requirements. 6 years for an undergraduate degree is the norm. And with work and family and keeping up with classes, this creates anxiety. The kind that does not account for any personal life issues that can pop up in the middle of this intense period. While MSUB does have a counseling service, and I can be a listening ear, most students absorb this all their own.
And that is too much. No one should absorb all the hurts and worries on their own.
Now at United Campus Ministry some of these issues are unpacked in personal coaching. Sometimes it is unpacked in our faith discussion group, Table Talk, where students share their lives to ask questions about the Christian faith. We are the church for them on campus.
One issue that comes up often goes by the name theodicy, that is, where is God in the mix of all this? With family issues, work issues, struggling with classes, student debt, and a Covid what does it mean to talk of God’s love, God’s care and support in this?
I can read the students the Psalms I will say that for many of my students this doesn’t bring comfort, it brings more questions that trouble them.
If God rescues those in need, what do we do with the rising rates and deaths due to coronavirus? God is with us in our troubles, why do so many struggle with debt, financial worries and more? These verses for them do not bring comfort. They bring questions, even incredulity.
I’m grateful for the students who ask these questions of Christian faith and grateful they believe UCM is a place where they can raise them. But what I wanted to do is borrow from the Jewish tradition which has a long history with these questions.
I want to speak of the predicate theology of Mordecai Kaplan which says of the question, where is God in all of this, answers, God is found in those places where the predicates of God are expressed in the world.
So that when Paul writes in Philippians
4:8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
What Paul is really saying is we ought to think of God. God is to be found in whatever is true, whatever is honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, anything worthy of praise.
And when Isaiah writes
For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces.
Then what which serves as a refuge to the poor and needy, the feeds people, that gives them shelter from the elements, that wipes away our tears is God.
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
And when the 23rd Psalm writes
That he restores my soul and comforts me,
We can look to what acts to restore your soul, who and what provides you comfort, ensure that you do not lack.
I have a number of students from hard lives and to the question, where is God, I start asking, who are the rescuers, where did you find deliverance, comfort, where were you honored, what allowed you to succeed when the odds were against you? That is holy, that is what it means to encounter God.
I know a student facing deportation if they couldn’t pay tuition, after losing family support. I know several staff who worked overtime to find the financial resources to keep that student in school. Those officials were the arms and legs of God for that student.
Fixing student debt, that would be a genuine deliverance for many students!
So in the face of climate change, where do you find God in the world?……climate strike, Greta Thunberg
In the face of Covid and in the face of personal health challenges, where do you find God in the world?…………………doctors, medicines, hospitals,
In the face of personal worries, where do fine God in the world?……………………..friend, family, church
“My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.” Mr Rogers
This makes our words more concrete. Folks cannot experience the love of God unless they experience loving people. People cannot experience the healing of God without people who reach out in that way. People cannot experience the God of support without someone offering this.
When we find God expressed in the world, then to ask the theodicy question, is to ask a question for ourselves…are we the encounter of God that other people need in their lives? Are we the ones that will prove to be the arms and hands of God in the world as your bulletin cover says. Then our scripture will come alive and be genuine good news for a hurting world.
Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings