February 7, 2021

Help, Thanks, Wow! The Lord’s Prayer, VI: Strong Deliverer

Passage: Psalm 91

Assurance of God’s Protection

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.

For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.

A New Yorker cartoon in January showed a man at his kitchen table paying bills. He says to his wife: “I know it’s 2021, but on my checks, I’m still writing ‘yearlong fever dream of chaos and despair.”[1]

With all that we’ve been through in 2020 and continue to face in 2021, perhaps it’s good for us to come to the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation,” or maybe better, “Lead us not into the time of trial,” or “Lead us not into the time of testing,” or, “God, help me pass the test.”  And then, “Deliver us from evil.”

Annie Lamott says there are only three really good prayers: (1) “Help me, help me, help me;” (2) “Thank you, thank you, thank you;” and (3) “Wow.” “Deliver us from evil” is just a fancy way of saying “Help me, help me, help me.”

“Lead us not into the time of trial. Deliver us from evil.” The sixth petition is a doublet or a couplet, two parts. When we pray this prayer, we are asking God to save us from the chaos within us, and the chaos around us.

“God, help me pass the test.” Some of the chaos is of our own making. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I am my own worst enemy. I keep getting in my own way.  I never seem to rise to the level of my own expectations. Maybe you’re having better success at managing your work remotely, but sometimes I get to the end of day and say to myself, “What did you get done today? Where did all the hours go? What day is it? Whose wounds have you dressed, whose tears have you dried, whose sorrows have you gladdened? What word from the Lord have you amplified?”

My ego blinds me to the troubles and needs and hopes and dreams of friend and stranger alike. I keep getting in my own way. Some of the chaos is of my own making. “God, help me pass the test.”

Sometimes I even fail to take delight in the success of another. The other day there was wonderful article in The Washington Post about the reaction of New England Patriots fans to Tom Brady getting to his tenth Super Bowl without the Patriots, who, by the way, failed to make the playoffs without Tom.

Some Patriots fans were glad for him. After all, he was one of their own for 20 years and got them to nine Super Bowls and six championships. But others weren’t so sure. One of them said, “It’s like seeing your ex-girlfriend go off and live a happy life with someone else.”[2] I love that. Well, that has almost nothing to do with this sermon, but on Super Bowl Sunday, I just had to mention Tom Brady, University of Michigan, Class of 1999.

“God, help me pass the test.” But not all the chaos is within us; most of it is around us. It’s in the crowded, beeping corridors of our hospitals, and at the local morgue. It’s in the fallow, Facetime farewells many bereft Americans have to make do with just now. It’s in line at the food bank and unemployment offices. It’s in the vacant classrooms where hollow empty spaces separate our teenagers from their friends, their teachers, and their necessary lessons. It’s on Capitol Hill and in the halls of Congress.

And so we pray “Deliver us from evil.” Don’t you think Jesus might have had Psalm 91 in the back of his mind when he prayed that prayer? He would have learned it by heart at third-grade Hebrew shul at synagogue. Psalm 91 is one of the most beloved of the Hebrew songs because it is just dense with solid, vivid, familiar images. The Psalmist piles up the metaphors one atop another to get his point across.

There’s an image from the world of the hunt, the hunted, and the hunter: God will deliver you from the snare of the fowler, from the traps and dragnets and land mines that litter the forest path of the unsuspecting. God will show you where to step safely.

There’s an image from the world of the soaring Raptors of the sky. God will cover you with pinions, like the mother eagle who spreads her seven-foot wingspan over her nest. Have you ever seen a newborn eaglet? There’s nothing more pitiful and defenseless. It’ll be 12 weeks till they learn to fly. Until then, they find refuge under her wings.

There are several images from the battlefield. God’s faithfulness is a shield and buckler. Because God stands between you and danger, you will not fear the arrow that flies by day. A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come nigh you. Safe amid the chaos of the battlefield.

There’s an image from psychology: the destruction that wastes at noonday. Andrew Solomon wrote a brilliant book called The Noonday Demon. What is the Noonday Demon? Crippling depression, the kind that pins you to the mattress around the clock. Most of the time we think of depression as suffocating darkness. William Styron wrote another brilliant book called Darkness Visible; depression is a darkness so dense it crushes you, almost literally. But Andrew Solomon takes this image from Psalm 91 and calls depression the noonday demon, the blinding, stifling klieg light of the sun.

Most resonant for the likes of you and me just now, there’s an image from epidemiology: the pestilence that stalks in darkness. It stalks in darkness because you cannot see it without an electron microscope. The coronavirus is the unseen predator, an invisible stalker. It’s nothing more than a tiny packet of information. All it does is make copies of itself. Yet this infinitesimal Xerox machine has managed to infect 105 million human beings and to kill 2.3 million.

So a simplistic reading of Psalm 91 will not suffice, right? We do need to fear the pestilence that stalks in darkness. I don’t believe that God stands like a shield between the faithful and the virus or any other treacherous malady that threatens vulnerable body, mind, and soul. Bad things will happen to us. We will lose the ones we love, sometimes way too soon. Lovers will leave us. Our hearts will break. Some of us will face the noonday demon.

And yet in an ultimate sense, God will deliver us from final evil. God will guard our eternal destiny with watchful safekeeping, and nothing can ultimately separate us from the love of God.

And after all the ups and downs, the twists and turns, the dead ends and detours and U-turns, the comedies and tragedies, the laughter and tears, the joyful camaraderie and the isolating loneliness, success and failure, most of us can’t help but suspect that a stealthy providence has all the while been quietly working in the shadows and corners of our lives. Sometimes it’s even the things we most rue and lament and try to avoid that gets us where God wants us to be in the end.

Pat Conroy’s novel The Prince of Tides is one of my all-time favorites, top ten at least, maybe top five. Maybe it’s because I first read it 30 years ago while I was visiting a friend at Kiawah Island, South Carolina, in the coastal marshlands and tidal flats where the story is set, alligators and great blue herons stalking their prey, porpoises breeching the surface, shrimp trawlers dropping their nets in the ocean just offshore.

Protagonist Tom Wingo is in 40’s when he narrates the first-person story of his childhood and youth. He tells us he comes from a poor and dysfunctional family, but he earns a football scholarship at the University of South Carolina, the first in his family to matriculate at university, and his freshman year he rushes a fistful of fraternities, but not one of them offers him a bid. Not one. Tom is crushed. There’s never been anyone in his life who’s ever convinced him he’s worth anything at all, and now to be rejected by all the guys he most wants to be? It’s almost too much.

He finds a bank of phone booths to call home, and his sister Savannah answers, and Tom tells her his sad story, and she tells him to shake it off; those fraternities don’t deserve him. And then his mother gets on the phone and asks how the rush is going, and Tom lies and tells her he decided not to join any fraternity; he’s going to focus on football and books.

And when he hangs up the phone, he hears someone put a coin in the slot of the next phone booth over, and the caller asks to make a collect call, and then he hears her sob, “Oh, Mama, not a single sorority wanted me. Not one. They just didn’t like me.”

Tom waits through ten minutes of tears till she hangs up the phone, and, trying to be helpful, he leans over and says, “The same thing happened to me today. I just phoned home to tell my mother the same thing. Only I lied. I didn’t have the guts to tell her I didn’t get into a single fraternity.” “You didn’t get in?” she says. “But you’re so cute.” And then Tom the Narrator tells the reader, “And that is how I met my wife.”[3]

If the screenplay of our lives had been ours alone to script, we wouldn’t have plotted the drama the way God has. We’d have left out the sad parts, the foolish choices, the bad decisions, the wrenching loss, but sometimes what looks to us like chaos and despair turns out to be God’s good and wise deliverance, and at the end of all our days, maybe we’ll look back and discover that from the very beginning, a stealthy providence has been working quietly in the shadows and corners of our lives.

And He will raise you up on eagle's wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of His Hand.[4]


[1]The New Yorker, January 18, 2021, p. 13.

[2]Adam Kilgore, “Some Patriots Fans Are Rooting for Tom Brady to Win Another Super Bowl. Others Are Dreading It,” The Washington Post, February 3, 2021.

[3]Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), pp. 449–451.

[4]Michael Joncas, “On Eagles’ Wings.”