It's been nearly three years since my dear friend Bill, in response to my request for advice about a job transition, shared with me this passage from Psalm 31:
I will be glad and rejoice in your love, for you saw my affliction and knew the anguish of my soul. You have not given me into the hands of the enemy but have set my feet in a spacious place (verses 7-8).
Psalm 18:19 reiterates the same theme: "He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me."
I've quoted these passages to myself and others many times since, because it gave me such encouragement. A spacious place--that was exactly it! As I blogged about this here last year (https://www.christianmusingsfortoday.com/post/expect-great-things-from-god), I learned that there are a number of passages in the Bible talking about the great freedom and...well....bigness that is our true heritage in the Lord. Galatians 4:27 says that "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free." This is said in contrast to Christians who were trying to put the "yoke of slavery" upon themselves and follow unnecessary rules that were actually harmful because of the self-righteousness and self-dependence they promoted. An "if you do this, you're in good standing with God" kind of faith. You know, the kind of religiosity that has been with us for pretty much all of human existence, in contrast to true faith.
I've learned recently about Dietrich Bonhoeffer's concept of "religionless Christianity." As he sat and wrote as a prisoner in a Nazi prison during World War II, he had the following musings:
What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, for us today.
He was in this prison because he could not convince the German Lutheran church to join him in even the most basic of resistance against Hitler, let alone the more active kind of resistance that Bonhoeffer ended up engaging in. So, he reflected on the contrast between where Christ was leading him in his faith versus these frustrating encounters with other so-called Christians:
Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious’…And if therefore man becomes radically religionless—and I think that is already more or less the case (else, how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any ‘religious’ reaction?)—what does that mean for ‘Christianity’?
He expressed faith that someday true faith would again arise among Christians, that they would truly live as Jesus lived--in contrast to those who engaged in the trappings of religion but actually were not in the Faith. He acknowledged that individual Christians would continue to live faithfully, but recognized that by and large, the church he grew up in had long been part of the "empire" (ever since Constantine, it was the Roman Empire before it was Nazi) and was therefore severely compromised and hijacked. It's important to note that Bonhoeffer was not advocating an Emily Dickinson-type hyper-individualized religionless Christianity in which one engages in some spirituality practices alone in one's room and calls it a day. Rather, the freedom we are given from the wordly sort of Christianity that surrounds us is the freedom to engage directly with Christ through prayer and engage in righteous action among humanity and to, ideally, do this in community with other believers.
Contemplation and action. And true freedom in Christ.
Anyway, I had indeed been seeking a "spacious place" in my vocation as an academic leader, and the Lord granted this. A place to engage creatively with curriculum and to interact freely with others to make a difference. To try to unite the various aspects of my calling and not be hemmed in.
And now I see that there is a third Psalm in the Bible that talks about the spacious place: Psalm 66. I remember this psalm as one that starts with great, "Shout for joy to God, all the earth!" I think I must have read over this other part quickly in the past, but reading it now makes my heart stop in my chest:
Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip. For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place. (NRSV, verses 8-12).
I'm astounded because this passage connects the "spacious place" idea that has been with me for years now, encouraging my family to enter into the plan that He has in store for us, with this passage from Isaiah that has guided us on our daughter's cancer journey:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you (Isaiah 43:2).
Looking at Psalm 66, I am indeed rejoicing that God has kept us among the living and has not let his feet slip. Besides the cancer diagnosis, there have been some strange things that happened these past few years, to the point that I turned to my husband this year and said, "I feel like I'm living in a Final Destination film!" (a film franchise I've never seen, but know the premise is Death chasing after individuals who, for a variety of reasons, cheated their deaths in the past). I don't know what happens behind the scenes in the spiritual realm, but sometimes things get pretty weird, and it's a good reminder that there is much we don't fully understand. I definitely do have the sense that all the prayers that have been lifted up on our behalf have contributed to protecting us from the various things we faced.
All of us can probably look at this list of metaphors from Psalm 66 and think of the various tragedies and challenges we've gone through and the types of tests that occur in life:
Trapped in a net.
Burdens on your back.
People riding over your head. (I looked into this idiomatic phrase. The Pulpit Commentary says it's reminiscent of the Egyptian and Assyrian practice of a king in his chariot riding over the bodies of the dead and wounded enemies. This puts "kicking you when you're down" in a whole new light!)
The big baddies of fire and water.
I've blogged in the past about how the sea was considered to be a frightful place in the ancient world, full of unknown horrors. And fire is one of the most destructive things known to humankind.
In many ways, I identify with this list. So many interpersonal challenges brought us inexorably to this moment that we are now in. And now we're walking through fire and water.
But I can say, with Psalm 66, "Yet you have brought us out to a spacious place."
And I can repeat, with Isaiah 43, these words from the Lord:
I will be with you.
The waters shall not overwhelm you.
The fire shall not burn you.
The flame shall not consume you.
The presence of the waters, or the fire, or the cancer is horrifyingly scary. No mincing words over that reality. But we hold onto these promises, in whatever iteration they get applied in our lives. I know of people who became overwhelmed, burned, and consumed from far less frightening things. We continue to pray these four things over ourselves and those who need it.
And, I will do what the Psalmist does in the very next verse in Psalm 66--give credit where credit is due, to the God who heard what I asked "when I was in trouble" (verse 14). We have been spared many, many things and have been equipped and provided the tools for us to face these challenges. Who knows the myriad things we are all delivered from on a daily basis (I'm thinking now of the 1980s Amy Grant song, "Angels"! ). If God chooses sometimes to not whisk us away from them but entrusts us to "pass through" (Isaiah 43), I'm thankful that provision can be given for how to do this. We have so much thanks for those who have literally been God's hands and feet to us, to be the means by which we become equipped and encouraged. Isn't it a pretty amazing thing to know that you have been so helpful and useful on a cosmic scale?!
May God continue to fulfill the purposes that He has for each of us in our lives, and may we find that spacious place where we freely act and engage in that purpose, whether through adversity or not.