Life outside the bubble – Psalm 46

I assume you are all familiar – considering where we are right now– with the concept of the Canberra bubble!

Made popular by of our last Prime Minister and the Australian National Dictionary Centre’s 2018 word of the year, the Canberra bubble is defined as, “the idea that federal politicians, bureaucracy, and political journalists are obsessed with the goings-on in Canberra (rather than the everyday concerns of Australians).” Though it is also used to mean that Canberrans themselves are a little out of touch. (Do we sometimes resemble that remark?)

Thinking about how Psalm 46 was sometimes used, it seems Jerusalemites were also capable of a bubble mentality. This psalm is one of the Songs of Zion, the psalms that celebrated God’s presence in the temple on Mount Zion, a presence that promised security and blessing to God’s people. “But just how much security and what kind of blessing?” commentator Fred Gaiser asks, “Was Zion ‘inviolable,’ because it was the dwelling place of God? Was Israel guaranteed success?”

According to the ancient prophets, the answer was no. In Jeremiah chapter 7, Jeremiah stands in the gate of the temple and proclaims: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in the deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (Jeremiah 7:3-4) Religious slogans won’t cut it!

Contemporary Christianity can be equally focused on security and success – on remaining within a bubble. There is a tendency to use Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God,” as an excuse, as a justification, for withdrawing from the noise and chaos and suffering of our world, but the message of this psalm, the experience of our lives and the story of salvation, is that God is not hidden away in a bubble.

About twelve years ago I was at Woden with my children after school and in the middle of the centre was one of those attractions for children/money traps for parents. This one involved being zipped into giant plastic bubbles that bobbed about and rolled around in a pool of water. I don’t think Miriam wanted to do it, or maybe she was too old, but the other two did. We were standing on the edge, taking photos, when Zach’s bubble started to fill with water and sink. At first the attendants didn’t notice, but soon the noise of a panicking mother alerted them, and he was pulled out, completely fine thankfully, just dripping wet.

For all of us, at some stage, the bubble bursts.

We encounter failure, our own failure, or betrayal, a system that lets us down or other people who let us down, or perhaps it is serious illness, long-term illness, something that cannot be easily fixed or cured, or we open our eyes to a world in which there is injustice, where there are negative outcomes for a great number of people, where there is dire poverty and ongoing conflict.

Psalm 46 does for us what our bubbles can never do. According to Thomas Merton, Psalm 46 does what the Psalter, the book of Psalms, should do. It “[tells] us not merely what we ought to be but the unbelievable thing that we already are… we are at the same time in the desert and in the Promised Land. The Psalms are our Bread of Heaven in the wilderness of our Exodus.”

What this psalm tells us is; yes, the earth will change and shake; yes, the waters will roar and foam; but also, yes, God is our refuge and strength. Yes, the nations are in uproar; yes, kingdoms will totter and fall; but also, yes, God is our refuge and our strength. Throughout the psalm we are reminded over and over that; yes, we are in the desert; yes, we are experiencing real suffering; but also, yes, we are in the Promised Land, because God is our refuge and strength. The two realities sit side by side but the psalm keeps returning to the more enduring reality, the immovable, eternal reality that in every situation, in anything that we face, God is with us.

Cecelia can tell you I poo-pooed her three favourite hymns – particularly ‘How great thou art’. I have heard it too many times at too many funerals! But it helps to know its origins. The first two verses are a loose translation of a much longer Swedish hymn, by Carl Boberg (1859–1940). The inspiration came when Carl and some friends were walking home from church one afternoon near Kronoback in Sweden, when a sudden dramatic storm blew in and then subsided.

When I hear the voice of thunder in the storm roaring (says the original)

And the blades of lightning run out of the sky…

Then my soul bursts forth into praise: O great God, O great God!

Then my soul bursts forth into praise:O great God, O great God!

For Boberg, God was in the storm. But the meaning went beyond the natural world. According to his great-nephew, the hymn was significant for, “the ‘underground church’ in Sweden in the late 1800s when the [Swedish] Baptists and Mission Friends were persecuted.”

The ancient view of the divine, of the gods, was that they lived in a bubble, high above the troubles of the earth, that human beings had to engage in elaborate ritual, burning fragrant offerings or making a whole lot of noise to attract their attention.

That is not the view of God in this psalm. In this psalm God dwells “in the midst of the city”.

And in a fuller sense, God enters our world in the incarnation. We recognise that “the Lord of hosts is with us” in the one called Emmanual, God is with us (Matthew 1:23). We identify Jesus as “the holy habitation of the Most High”; as the new temple(John 2:21). “Now,” Fred Gaiser says, “Now God’s presence in Christ fully shares the tests and turmoil of temporal existence. The God who stood above creation has now entered creation. In Christ, God comes not to save us from all harm… [yes these sufferings are real – but also yes] God now bears with us and for us every personal, national, and natural distress.”

This is what the third verse of ‘How great thou art’ celebrates. It was written by Stuart Hine, a British missionary in the Carpathian Mountains, part of the Soviet Ukrainian Socialist Republic at the time, 1931. He and his wife, Mercy, heard a Russian version of a German version of the hymn “and started using it in their evangelistic services,” and adding new verses (in Russian) “as events inspired him.”

It was the Hines practice to ask if there were any Christians in the villages they visited. In one village they were directed them to a couple, Dmitri and Lyudmila. Remarkably Lyudmila knew how to read (she had taught herself by reading a Bible a Russian soldier had left behind years earlier) and as the Hines approached their house, they heard her reading, to a houseful of guests, the story of Jesus crucifixion from John’s gospel Then they heard people calling out loudly to God “saying how unbelievable it was that Christ would die for their own sins and praising him for his love and mercy”. The Hines decided their missionary skills were not needed, so they stayed outside and wrote down some of the words people were saying which became verse three of Hines’ hymn:

And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.

The message of the gospel, however, is not that having ‘taken away our sin’ God takes us away from the suffering of the world. We are still very much a part of the suffering of our world. Perhaps even more a part because suffering binds us with God who has bound Godself to our suffering. Jürgen Moltmann writes, “…when we feel pain we participate in his pain, and when we grieve we share his grief… People who believe in the God who suffers with us, recognize their suffering in God, and God in their suffering.”

I have always thought the final verse of ‘How great thou art’ was too triumphalist, that it promised Christians would simply escape suffering, but that is not the context in which it was written.

Stuart and Mercy were forced to leave Ukraine during the Famine Genocide that Joseph Stalin inflicted on that country in the winter of 1932–1933, and with the outbreak of WW2 they left Eastern Europe. But they continued their work in England among Polish refugees and Russian internees.

At one camp, they met a Russian who told them he had been separated from his wife at the end of the war and had not seen her since. She was a Christian, but he had only recently become one. “He told the Hines that he did not think he would ever see his wife on earth again. Instead, he was longing for the day when they would meet in heaven, and could share in the Life Eternal there.”

These words were the inspiration for the final verse of ‘How great thou art’ – the Hine’s experience of being with those who were suffering.

I said at the start Canberrans might resemble that remark – the Canberra bubble – but thinking about this community I don’t see people living in a bubble. I see people engaging with suffering in our world. I see people caring locally- for those who are struggling or refugees rebuilding their lives. I see people caring globally – about rising sea levels in the Pacific or rising tensions around the Pacific rim. I see a church that is compassionate, that is inclusive, that gives generously, that is committed to justice because we follow a God who – praise God – does not live in a bubble, but is our refuge and strength, our very present help in trouble.

Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to thee,

How great thou art! How great thou art!

Prayers of Intercession

Eternal God, the refuge and help of all your children,
we praise you for all you have given us,
for all you have done for us,
for all that you are to us.
In our weakness, you are strength,
in our darkness, you are light,
in our sorrow, you are comfort and peace.
We cannot number your blessings,
we cannot declare your love:
For all your blessings we bless you.
May we live as in your presence,
and love the things that you love,
and serve you in our daily lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

~ written by St. Boniface (ca. 672-754)