Psalm 121; John 10:1-10

We sing Psalm 121 at funerals, sometimes at other difficult moments: “My help is in the name of the Lord.” We call on God for help in trouble, but what help is God? What help is God when natural disasters threaten to become human-made cataclysms and our prayer seems to degenerate into desperation? What help is God when economic troubles, job loss, uncertain pensions, or the rising cost of living can undo our family budgets? What help is God when our families are in distress, when we struggle against illness, when we lose loved ones? And yet we claim that Jesus guards and protects us, at least at the level of our soul (if not from the events around us).

Other people and psychological forces will sell us their own help, even if Jesus calls them thieves and robbers. Insurers, military and political leaders, vitamin peddlers – if you buy what they’re selling, they promise to protect you from whatever you fear. Even more, there are religious leaders who would trade on our fear to sell us their “God.” They point to disasters as divine retribution for their pet sins. They suggest that increased giving to their church is the key to long-term (financial or physical) health. They tout their own prayers as some kind of magical healing power. In short, they try to sell upgrades to our outer circumstances in lieu of caring for our souls.

There’s that word again: ‘soul.’ Teresa of Avila pictured the soul as a castle within us, the mysterious place where God lives. Jesus holds the door open for us and guards the gate from everything else. I grant that this can become myopic, but it can also give us life in the midst of death. It’s like the girl suffering abuse at home. Every time, she goes out and sings, “I come to the garden alone…” It’s not my favorite song, but it held her in Christ’s love. It helped her claim a deep self that her abusive parent couldn’t take from her. (from an account by Tex Sample)

A little over a year ago, as I was preparing for this wild journey of actually being a parent, I realized that “God” had vanished. My spoken prayers seemed to echo in the emptiness. At the same time, I realized that I wasn’t scared. I could sense that what I missed was a nice warm-fuzzy feeling, not God. I’m still in some dark night of the soul, and God still feels vastly absent in many ways. But God is not gone. What’s missing is a face of God, but God isn’t limited to a face. God in the mystery of Love is still there.

Love walks with us through fear, pain, and death, and that’s the abundance of life Jesus came to give us. It’s an abundance that can even make the false prophets’ claims come true: there can be a devotional truth in watching the news, there is abundance to be found in radical sharing, there is a mysterious wellness in praying for others. But your Christ will die first; we’re dealing with mystery, not magic. Even so, it will be well with your soul. Christ stands at the gate of your deepest self, preserving the Life within your life from trials and true despair.

This (to me) makes theological sense only if the one with us is God, if I can affirm that the Word (the logic) of creation is turned toward suffering alongside humanity and all of creation. If the universe itself suffers and God suffers with it, so that God can be in our pain. Then the principle of new life, God’s transformative creativity, is present in the midst of our suffering, and the Christ dying on the cross will be alive again.

That’s what protects my soul and holds me against the storms of life. That’s the gate that keeps me safe.

Amen.

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