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a reflection on Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

The book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis begins this way: “Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids. They were sent to the house of an old Professor who lived in the heart of the country, ten miles from the nearest railway station and two miles from the nearest post office.” Perhaps the details about the house sitting ten miles from the nearest railway station and two miles from the nearest post office seem peculiar, but as I re-read them this week, I realized what Lewis wanted us to feel as we read these details. The children were sent to the safest place you could imagine — a place most unlikely to be a wartime target. The Professor’s home was a place isolated from air raid sirens and fear, in addition to being isolated from the hustle and bustle of civilization.

When the Pevensie children first arrive at the Professor’s home, they are amazed by how spacious it is. They had never been in a home so large and elaborate before, and it isn’t long before their curiosity begins to get the better of them. As they are exploring, Lucy ends up inside of a wardrobe filled with long fur coats. She leaves the door open slightly, and makes her way through the coats. Perhaps you know how this story goes. Lucy continues moving through the wardrobe, and rather than finding the back of it, she finds herself in a wood. In that snowy wood, Lucy realizes that there is much more to the Professor’s house and the wardrobe than meets the eye. 

As I re-read the opening pages of this marvelous little book, I couldn’t help but think about Psalm 31. There may not be air raid sirens or distant homes or magical wardrobes, but Psalm 31 has a lot to say about space. Let me explain what I mean.

Psalm 31 is a cry for help. The psalmist is suffering, and even though we do not know exactly what the trouble was, clues in verses 9-13 suggest that the psalm writer might have been experiencing some kind of physical suffering as well as emotional distress. And in addition to these sufferings, he was also suffering at the hands of his enemies and neighbors. Verse 11 says, “I’m a joke to all my enemies, still worse to my neighbors, I scare my friends, and whoever sees me in the street runs away.” Can you imagine the suffering the psalmist must have been feeling? He felt defeated, hopeless, and like an outcast from society.

Psalm 31 may begin with repeated trust in God – six references to God as a place of safety in just four verses. But, the psalmist wasn’t writing these words of trust because things were good. The psalmist needed to remind himself over and over that he trusted in God because things were tough. In verse 9, the psalmist wrote this, “Have mercy on me, Lord, because I’m depressed. My vision fails because of my grief, as do my spirit and my body.” The word that the Common English Bible translates as “depressed” here is a word that can be translated as “distress” or “affliction.” At its most basic, the root of this word means “to be bound up, restricted, narrow.” Think about a time when you were really struggling. How did it feel? Did you relate to words like “bound up, restricted, narrow?” I know for myself, when I’ve gone through seasons of difficulty, it can feel like the world is closing in on me. I can feel trapped. When we struggle, we can feel confined, shut in, or like we’re in a very narrow place in our lives. 

As I read through this psalm over and over, I was amazed – by the psalm writer’s honesty about the struggles, and by the psalm writer’s trust in God in the face of those struggles. I was amazed by the way this psalm was both open and real about how tough things are while also not losing faith and trust in the goodness of God. Even though the Revised Common Lectionary of Scripture texts was put together long before May 10, 2020, these words are exactly what we need today. 

As we look at Psalm 31, I want us to focus on two things: time and space. First, let’s take a look at time. Verse 15 says this, “My future is in your hands. Don’t hand me over to my enemies, to all who are out to get me.” The word that is translated as “future” is the Hebrew word for “time.” Some translations word this verse like this, “My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.” While it is true that our futures do belong to God, I think translating the verse this way focuses us on the distant future to the exclusion of our present moment. Our past, our present, our future — all of our time is in God’s hands. This moment – this very moment is in God’s hands. Tomorrow is in God’s hands. The day after that is in God’s hands. Our job is to receive each moment as it comes. 

The psalmist realizes that each moment is held in God’s hands, and it is this realization that enables the psalm writer to be honest with God. As a kid – and even sometimes as an adult – I felt this sense of responsibility to make everything in my life look as perfect as I possibly could. I was afraid that when things went wrong, that it would reflect poorly on me. People would see those mistakes and messes and realize that I really didn’t have it all together. As an adult, I still struggle with this sometimes. Perfectionism is a formidable enemy. As he writes Psalm 31, the psalmist shows us that we don’t have to put on a perfect face in front of God. God holds all of our times securely in God’s hands, and because of this, we do not have to be afraid to let our guard down in front of God. God loves us. God cares for us. God wants good things for us. Because our time is in God’s hands, we can be real with God. We can approach God with honesty and boldness because our time is in God’s hands.

This Psalm is about time, and it is also about space. Verse 16 says this, “Shine your face on your servant; save me by your faithful love!” The word translated here as “save” comes from the root word that means to widen or to broaden. Remember back in verse 9 that the word “distress” is about narrowness, being confined and trapped. In verse 16, salvation is just the opposite. When God saves us, we are no longer trapped. We are no longer confined. We are set free into wide open spaces. The psalmist imagines – and invites us to imagine – the light of God’s face shining on us. Our time is in God’s hand, and we are set free by God’s love – freed to wide open spaces filled with the light of God’s face.

Psalm 31 has had me asking this question this week: Is it possible to find the wide open salvation of God in the midst of closed-in times? Or, asked another way: when we are in distress, when we are going through narrow times, is it possible to experience the wideness of God’s mercy? The psalmist seems to answer this question with a resounding, “Yes.” The distress and struggle are still ongoing, and yet there is security in God, there is wideness and space. Friends in Christ, we may live in narrow times, but we serve a God who is not bound by them. We may feel distressed and turned in and closed off, but we are being invited to be opened up, to entrust our time to God, and to spend time in God’s glorious and spacious light. 

In the Glory to God hymnal, there is a hymn text by Frederick William Faber called “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy.” The hymnal contains just two of his stanzas. This week I discovered the first stanza of the original hymn, which was at that time called “Come to Jesus.” With the first stanza included, the hymn goes like this:

Souls of men, why will ye scatter
Like a crowd of frightened sheep?
Foolish hearts, why will ye wander
From a love so true and deep?
Was there ever kinder shepherd
Half so gentle, half so sweet,
As the Savior Who would have us
Come and gather round His feet?

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.
There is plentiful redemption
In the blood that has been shed;
There is joy for all the members
In the sorrows of the Head.

For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of man’s mind.
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more simple,
We should take Him at His word;
And our lives would all be sunshine
In the sweetness of our Lord.

This week, let’s take courage! We are invited to bring our struggles and our cares to God with honesty. Our times are in God’s hands, and we can entrust everything we are going through to God. In our narrow spaces and difficult times, may we experience the wideness of God’s mercy, the broadness of God’s love, and the vastness of Christ’s embrace.