The LORD watches over you—the LORD is your shade at your right hand. The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. (Psalm 121.5-6)
The last visit I recall with my maternal grandmother took place on a scorching Alabama day. My brother and I, seven and eight, played in the yard while the grown-ups talked inside. The heat didn’t affect us at all. Mama Dougal came outside to spend time with us. She spread an old bed sheet under a weeping willow and called us over. Dabbing our sweaty temples and brows, she said, “You children ought not play so hard in the sun. You’ll wind up sick.” She patted the ground beside her. “Have a seat and tell your grandmother how you’re doing,” she said. Once we got settled, she asked, “Now isn’t it so much cooler under this tree?” Steve and I glanced at each other as we mumbled, “Yes ma’am.” It was cooler beside her. But sitting in the shade held no appeal for us. Having raised 11 children, Mama Dougal knew she was trying our patience. After 10 minutes or so, she stood up, straightened her dress, and folded up the sheet. “Go into the house and get something cold to drink. Then you can go back to what you were doing.” As we ran ahead of her, she said, “But I want ya’ll to be careful out here. Don’t play so hard in this heat.”
At our age, we’d not yet heard of sunstroke nor lost any grandparents. We didn’t consider how raising a big family as a single mother shaved years off the far end of Mama Dougal’s life. She’d always been with us and we assumed she always would. Her warning about overexposure to the sun was just the way she talked. Naturally, we didn’t listen. Less than a half-hour later, I got dizzy. I went into the house, complaining, “I don’t feel so good.” “Son, you’re hotter than a firecracker,” Mama Dougal said. She dipped a cloth in cold water, washed my face, arms, and legs, and then tied the cloth around my neck. “Rest here a while and you can go back out. But I need you to promise to stay under the shade tree. Now you know the sun isn’t anything to fool with.” And so the last thing Mama Dougal ever taught me was the danger of overexposure to hot sun. But I had a lot more growing up to do before I learned overexposure to unhealthy elements of any kind could end with me feeling shaky and disoriented.
When the Fun Ends
Who can deny the allure of hanging out with dangerous people in dangerous places? Something about exposing ourselves to unhealthy elements boosts our sense of invulnerability. We dismiss warnings about overexposure as grandmotherly advice. Even with shady refreshment nearby, we insist on playing as hard as we can. And then we’re seized by dizziness. We don’t feel so good. When we realize we’re vulnerable to harmful influences, that’s when the fun ends. We run for shelter in search of help to regain our equilibrium. But we can’t hide from the world always. Once the queasiness lifts and our stability returns, we need to get back to our lives. Although it takes some of us a few times to grasp the dangers of overexposure, eventually we learn the wisdom of seeking shade from the world’s harshness. And the wisest of us, I believe, find the safety we need in God’s shadow.
A Distancing Exercise
“The LORD watches over you—the LORD is your shade at your right hand,” Psalm 121 tells us, promising, “The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.” Our protection from dangerous influences and elements comes in knowing we serve a watchful God. Lest we mistake His protective shield for invulnerability to overexposure, however, we should note His shade sits to our right. We shouldn’t count on God’s sunscreen when we go left and ignore His counsel to watch where and with whom we play. Countless times—more than many of us realize—His Word instructs to distance ourselves from detrimental people and places. For example, Paul quotes Isaiah and Ezekiel in 2 Corinthians 6.17: “’Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing and I will receive you.’” Our watchful God offers protection we need. He waits to receive us when we turn away from the world’s bedazzlement to seek His shade.
One of Lent’s richest benefits is its value as a distancing exercise. And it’s positively amazing how it works. First, it calls us away the world’s harmful influences. We leave daily dangers behind to search for God. Yet our quest draws us into a spiritual desert, where overexposure is a constant risk. Blazing sun and heat leave us dizzy and disoriented. In many ways, what we experience is no different than what happens when we surround ourselves with toxic people and atmospheres.
But there’s a big difference. God watches us as we wander, beckoning us to turn to the right, to walk in His shadow. He’s teaching us when we distance ourselves from the world’s dangers, we’re far removed from undue fear. “The LORD will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore,” we read in Psalm 121.7 and 8. Lent positions us to seek God’s shade, to trust His promises of protection, and to understand why turning to what’s right is so vital. God watches our coming and going now and forever. We leave Lent knowing if God can protect us from the desert’s unforgiving heat and sun, we can turn to Him for safety from the world’s dazzling deceits.
The desert teaches us to find God’s protection from the world’s harsh elements by turning to the right.
(Tomorrow: Fellow Travelers)