“In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.” (Psalm 31:1, NRSV)
There's been a lot of news lately about sheltering. Here are some of the conversations:
The obvious is the order to "shelter at home" as a way of averting the spread of COVID-19. With the easing of restrictions, it will be interesting to see whether sheltering was a good strategy or not.
We're also in Alabama in the spring, where tornadoes are common, and so storm shelters are often a topic of conversation.
I serve on the Homeless Care Council of Northwest Alabama, and much of our focus is on developing strategies to move unsheltered people either into a temporary shelter or into a place of their own. Having a place to call home is essential to a persons' sense of well-being.
Although tax day isn't until July this year, tax shelters could be part of the sheltering conversation, too, as people finalize their filings for the year.
Even animal shelters have been in the news recently with a need to find accommodation for animals that were abused, displaced by tornadoes, or whose owners have fallen ill or died from COVID-19.
The Psalms are filled with references to shelter, too. In Psalm 31, the Psalmist longs for the safety and security of shelter as he cries out to God, seeking refuge—specifically seeking protection from his enemies. Passages like this tend to gloss over the concept of "enemies" without indicating who those enemies might be. Were they soldiers in an opposing army? Were they neighbors with whom the Psalmist had some property dispute that escalated? Were they the families of someone who was accidentally harmed by the Psalmist and who were now seeking retribution? Were they philosophical enemies from whom the Psalmist was seeking metaphorical asylum? Or were they demons from a spirit-world? We can only speculate.
The Psalmist, at least in Psalm 31, is seeking shelter "from" some perceived harm that he thinks is about to occur to him. The idea is that once that threat has passed, he will no longer need shelter. In John 14, Jesus gives another picture of sheltering:
"In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also." (John 14:2-3, NRSV)
What Jesus offers is not just temporary shelter from a menacing enemy, but a place in the family home where we can experience the benefits of sharing life with others who become our family. In Jesus' offer, we will be sheltered "by" God, where we continue to live in community, and we're not just temporarily protected "from" some danger. When we are sheltered "by" God, the community in which we find ourselves can also turn our enemies into brothers and sisters, for in the same way God offers us shelter, his invitation is to all those who desire to live with him. You never know who might take him up on his offer!
For me, the church is God's beloved community, to which he calls all of us to participate. It's not a building, as we have learned through the restrictions of the pandemic. It's not just an institution, although it still has the baggage of structure and hierarchy. It's not irrelevant in a 21st Century world, although we need to continually refresh and renew our practices to speak to the current culture. The church is more like a family where we "do life" together. That's the kind of shelter I think I need most. How about you?