Wednesday, February 24, 2010


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)


claire said...

I cannot help but smile at your section on 'When the Fun Ends.'

It seems to me that 'fun' in the past 30 years has been much more dangerous than 45 years ago when I was young.

I can relate to the 'allure of hanging out with dangerous people'... Some of us have a natural talent to live dangerously -- just for a while when one is lucky -- and a bit too long for others.

Now that I spend some time with homeless, alcoholics and drug addicts, I see the danger of a certain lifestyle. But also how some people are predisposed to this life for having been abused as little children...

Those of us who have the luck to pull out in time usually have also been luckier as little kids.

I like very much your conclusion and pray that many many of us happen to come across Godde's path and feel drawn to stay on it for a while until they taste the wonderful sweetness of Godde's love.


Tim said...

Claire, thank you for adding leaven here by pointing out many suffer from self-destructive tendencies due to childhood abuse and neglect. Those I've known and worked with have been very clear that their habits and situations were never intended for "fun" and they submitted these dangers in search of protection from others they couldn't bear.

Yet knowing how tragically so many go this way should chasten those of us who flirt with danger in search of fun. Pleasure and excitement aren't legitimate reasons to indulge in irresponsible behaviors. What's more, they blur our perspective to the suffering of those who would be better served by our witness of self-worth and discipline than our participation in their self-destruction. How can we possibly convince someone that his/her habits are harmful if we're doing the same thing?

So yielding to danger's lures not only harms us, it also harms those who desperately need to escape its clutches.

And I agree, many of us outgrow the usual "dangerous stuff"--partying, promiscuity, rebellion, etc.--from youth only to settle in equally dangerous circles that promote material success, discrimination, cynicism, and other hateful things. In fact, I'm not sure we're ever fully out of danger, which is why finding God's protection is so important.

Thank you again for bringing this added dimension to light. It lends much clarity to the thought.

Blessings always,

genevieve said...

Looking back, I can see God's hand in my life. Like Mama Dougal, my parents taught me to stay away from things and activities that are not good. After seeing what those things do to people, I was convinced.

I was brought up as a Catholic and many of the tenets kept me from doing many things. Now that I'm a Christian, I'm thankful for God's hand in my life.

Tim said...

God has been so good to so many of us, Genevieve--giving us strong, wise parents and religious upbringings that steer us away from danger. We get into when the siren call of temptation seduces us into behaviors we've been taught were harmful.

Some of us (more than others) are a little more gullible when someone says, "Try it. You'll like it." And when we don't like it, we still feel pressured to learn to like it. (That wanting to be cool like the other kids syndrome.) Self-indulgence can be a lot of work!

Thanks for your testimony. It brightens my day!


PS: I've been thinking about and praying for you lately--for no real reason, other than going with the the Spirit's "flow."