Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.
(Psalm 91:1, 4-6)
How is your stress level right now? In the midst of this pandemic, I imagine that most of us are experiencing a higher-than-usual level of anxiety or stress. That might arise from our concerns about the illness itself (to date, more than one million people in the U.S. have tested positive for the virus). It might stem from related concerns, like employment and finances (26 million people now find themselves out of work). We may not even be able to identify the source of our worries, but we can see the symptoms—from restlessness to sleeplessness, from grieving our present losses to fearing our future prospects, to lashing out in anger at anyone not wearing a mask!
Some psychologists have begun to name this condition “pre-traumatic stress.” Like its more familiar, post-trauma cousin, this PTSD is a reaction to all the disturbing experiences and images associated with natural or man-made disasters. But unlike post-traumatic stress, the pre-traumatic condition stems from an anticipated tragedy, rather than a realized tragedy. What we are experiencing in this time of pandemic, they tell us, is not unlike military recruits awaiting their first deployment into combat.
The comforting, confident words of Psalm 91 could well have been composed for a time of pre-traumatic stress. Given the language and images in the song, scholars have speculated that it may have been addressed to Israel’s army on the eve of battle. Imagine the soldiers—young and old, inexperienced or battle-scarred—awaiting orders to engage the enemy. They can’t predict what will happen, but they also can’t ignore the worst of possibilities. They are restless, sleepless, and afraid. But the voice of the psalmist proclaims assurance, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty!” (vs. 1) Whatever they may be anticipating, whatever they may fear—the unknown terrors of the night, or the known terrors of the day ahead—God will be their shield. And if God is with them they need not be afraid (vs. 4-6).
The reason for their hope and confidence isn’t found in their own inner strength, or in their military superiority; rather, it is found in the love and faithfulness of the Lord (vs. 14-16). However great a threat they may face, God’s hand is able to save. In one of the most stirring images of the song, the psalmist reminds this earthly army of God’s heavenly host: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” (vs. 11-12)
[For a beautiful setting of these verses, listen to this excerpt from Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio, Elijah]
So what can we learn from Psalm 91? How can we help address our pre-traumatic stress during this unprecedented pandemic? Psychologists, counselors and social workers have a name for it…mindfulness. Being mindful means striving to experience the present moment rather than worrying about our future or reliving our past. That kind of mindfulness is helpful. But there is another sort of mindfulness for people who belong to God. It arises from being mindful of the same God of angel armies that has sheltered and delivered His people since time began. That Deliverer’s name is Jesus, who assures us that we have been redeemed from our past, that we are secure in our present, and that we can trust him in whatever lies ahead. Being mindful doesn’t mean ignoring the reality of our fears and concerns; it means allowing our minds to be filled with thoughts of Jesus…letting his presence in us displace the fruitless worry and anxiety.
The Apostle Paul knew the realities of hardship and suffering. And he knew that all of us need the kind of mindfulness that produces hope and peace. And so he writes to the church in Philippi:
Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. (Philippians 4:6-8, The Message)
Practice mindfulness today, and every day during this time of anxiety. Let Jesus guard your heart and fill your mind. He is peace for your soul; he is Living Water…always stay thirsty for him!
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