Monday, April 21, 2008

To guard you in all your ways

Monks read the Psalms, all 150 of them, as quickly as every week, depending on the monastic tradition. Me? Well, I just read one a day, like taking a vitamin (until I get to 119, then I break it into stanzas), year in and year out--since I was in college. Even in the years I had babies, and had no time for devotions, I at least tried to read my daily Psalm. In those years, the laments carried me far. These days, I simply let the day's Psalm roll around in my day. Though there are Psalms I like, ones I anticipate. I know when they're coming. When I get to Psalm 80, for instance, I instinctively start counting off because I'm only 4 days away from my very favorite, Psalm 84. But 51, when I need to repent (and I always do), is like taking a shower. But I also love 17 and 27. And 34, 37, 63, 72, 86, 88,...Oh, don't get me started.

But today, I've come to 91. I never read Psalm 91 without remembering one particular moment. In 1982, my friend Suzanne and I backpacked through Europe. In late November, we were up in Finland, in a small town, staying with some of her many Finnish relatives. Apparently none of her relatives like each other, because we'd been to three different feasts that day, that for some inexplicable reason all featured the same cake with white icing and fruit on top. It was very late, we were exhausted from the food, and the two saunas we'd taken--well, we had to be polite, after all!--when the grandmother of the family we were staying with(I can't quite figure out how she would be related to Suzanne), via hand-gestures and Finnish, summoned us up to her attic bedroom. She opened her Finnish Bible and spoke vehemently to us, pointing to the text, which was clearly 91:11 (we could read the numbers, of course) in what was clearly the Psalms. Of course, we couldn't understand a single word. She prayed over us, hugged us to her, and patted our faces with arthritic fingers. It was a holy moment to us, like having been prayed over in tongues. Maybe, after all, this is what the gift of tongues really is. We live in a world separated by languages, but, united by faith, the words we might not understand when they flow over us, reach God and we know we are hearing true and earnest prayer on our behalves.

When we went down to our room, we opened our own pocket Bibles, and read the words, which had taken on meaning larger than life. "...He will give His angels charge concerning you, to guard you in all your ways." Sat wondering at the words and the moments with her old, wise and prophetic relative and wondering what God meant for us.

The next week, with a Finnish tour group, Suzanne and I traveled into what was then the Soviet Union. We were the only Americans. Can you guess what all that meant?  For one thing, our US passports were instantly suspicious at the border,  where guards spent an inordinate amount of time asking us questions about our purpose in the USSR and searching our luggage. Every single item from my bag was swept onto the floor in a show of force, I suppose. But the peace we felt during their bullying made me certain of those angels that day. And, of course, for the tour, there was a Russian guide with a Finnish translator so we spent the entire time feeling deaf and barely having a having a clue what we were looking at. And you should have seen us when we came out of the Russian ballet--no tour bus and no way to get back to our hotel, because we didn't know the name of it--it had never been spoken in English to us. We stood there simply praying and amazingly (unless you believe in Psalm 91:11) a family from our tour group came up behind us, and helped us get back to our hotel. Angels guarding us? I think so!!!

Two weeks later, we left Finland to travel through Germany, intending to go to Italy. Only we were robbed on the train in northern Germany. It was a very scary thing, involved being taken to a police station holding tank in Bremen--like we were the criminals -- then sent back to the US consul in Frankfurt. However, we felt those angels that day as well, when the consul in Frankfort turned out to be from Suzanne's home town in Montana. I'll never forget sitting on hard wooden chairs in a room full of desks with busy people waiting to see him, when through an open door came a booming voice, "Helena, Montana--come on in here!" Like the sweetest music. Like angels' voices.

One of the things that got stolen on the train that day, was my Bible. My BIBLE!!! It was the hardest, hardest thing for me personally. I could hardly stand it. Yeah, yeah, Suzanne lost her passport, all her money, we were stuck in Germany until she got a new passport, more money wired. But my Bible? How could I live? Yet, all those Psalms, and all those other verses I'd learned since I was a teen were in me. I discovered that and it was a gift. And months later--like three months, I think, at the end of the train line in Paris, our things were found. My Bible was returned to me. Another evidence of being watched over, I thought.

I've seen it many times in the quarter century since--the times my Beve and I, after seeking God, stepped out on a very thin limb of faith, and we were watched over, kept safe. Toting our children behind us. We took these risks--moving without jobs, or homes--because of this sense of being watched, cared for, kept. In proportion to His call, of course. When He calls, He protects, we believe. "It's God's problem," the Beve will say. And angels are part of His solution. It's been our practice to live this way. I don't always remember, don't always do such a good job of trusting, of living like this is true. So I like coming back around to Psalm 91 every 150 days or so, to remember. To be reminded of angels. And His faithfulness--He who sets His angels to guard us.

Suzanne always wondered what her old Finnish relative had said to us, prayed over us. But I've come to realize she wasn't talking to us, she was talking to those angels. And He charged them to listen.

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