There’s a huge difference between God being your refuge and God merely providing you with one. Let me explain.
I will be conducting my father’s funeral next Tuesday. There are the usual complications of organisation, some family things to sort out, some family things that will never sort out.
I’m preaching on Psalm 46, arrowing in on verse 1: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
That’s the Psalm I read to Dad as he sat on his bed on his first day in a locked aged care ward three years ago this week. He had been diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia, and although not bad at that stage, and despite the fact he was not “a wanderer” or aggressive, the law states that once you are so diagnosed it’s a locked ward for you.
Our big problem was finding the right place. I saw dozens of places and none were suitable and some were downright scary. The best facilities were, naturally, booked up. The first one I looked at was the best. It was like a hotel; all single rooms, ensuites, beautiful grounds, lovely lounges and dining rooms. Full of course.
So Dad ended up in a government transition facility as I scoured the suburbs day in day out looking for somewhere remotely pleasant. It all seemed hopeless. You get 12 weeks in a transition facility while you look for a permanent place. If you don’t find somewhere by then they find somewhere for you. And they ain’t as fussy as you are, let me tell you.
We arrived at Dad’s new way of living holding shopping bags full of stuff, and were let through. It seemed like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but that was just the shock of a building full of dementia patients.
Dad was full of fear. I was torn. Neither of us could bear the thought of me saying goodbye and walking out. Dad’s biggest fear was having to share a room with anyone. That’s why I’d taken so long to find a place; because he was so private and would have withered away sharing with people who may be aggressive or far more demented than he.
We walked tentatively into his allotted room, and our first thought was “Phew, it’s a single.”
Until we heard that voice from behind the curtain.
“G’day mate – I’mmmmmm BARRY!”
Dad froze. I sighed.
It was Barry. Or BARRRRY, as he put it. Barry was big, loud, in-your-face, and was soon showing dad the delights of the room.
“YOU HAVE TO LABEL ALL YOUR STUFF,” bawled Barry, looming over us. I looked around for Barry’s bowie knife with “Barry wuz here” written on the shaft.
Dad sat down on his bed looking as small as I’d ever seen him. We stored stuff away, engaged in small talk, chatted to the nurse who took Dad’s details and commented to me how she could see the still indistinct beginnings of Lewy Body.
By that stage Barry was asleep on his bed behind the curtain. ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ! Nothing Barry did was quiet.
I had to go. I picked up Dad’s bible. I opened it to Psalm 46. I read it to him, and I said;
Dad, you know that I have looked everywhere for somewhere for you to stay. And I promise I will find you one. But do you see what this Psalm says? It doesn’t say that God will provide you with a refuge. It says that God WILL be your refuge! Wherever you end up Dad, and however this turns out, just remember that God will be the refuge you need.
That was as much a revelation to me as I said it. You see, for Dad, he’d been looking for a refuge of sorts over the years. And he had trusted in Christ in his twenties, before giving it all away, before returning to Christ in later years, and enjoying probably the best church community he could wish for.
However it’s one thing to ask God to provide us with a refuge. In fact he provides people with refuges all the time. He provides us with accommodation, large or small, impressive or unimpressive; what we want or what we can afford. The fact that he does so is a sign of generosity to both those who acknowledge him and to those who do not.
But for God himself to be that refuge? That’s an altogether different reality. That’s a reality that goes beyond personal safety in this life; goes beyond the things we want to keep us sheltered and comfortable in our three score and ten; goes beyond a building we make or design or renovate.
For God to be our refuge means that even as my Dad lay before my eyes, unconscious and labouring for breath on Sunday afternoon in his single room with his own ensuite (yes we eventually got him into that first place I looked at), Dad’s hope was not going to be left behind.
Dad’s hope – that God himself was his refuge, still is his refuge – was a hope that could not be dashed by death, and it’s a hope that has now come to fullness, long after even the refuge of his failing human body has let him down through death.
Is God your refuge, or are you merely expecting him to provide you with one?