The year was 1517. A German priest and theologian named Martin Luther was distressed over the Roman Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences to raise money — to Luther, this was tantamount to saying that you could buy your way out of punishment for your sin. He therefore wrote a long and searching letter to his bishop. Legend has it that he posted that letter, which came to be known as the Ninety-five Theses, on the door of the church in Wittenberg — but historians dispute whether this actually happened.
Luther was hoping to start a conversation, not a revolution. But unexpectedly, he experienced the 16th-century version of having a blog post go viral. Copies of his Theses were circulated and read, then copied and circulated again. Luther was thrust into the spotlight, becoming a figurehead for what would become the Protestant Reformation, a movement to correct the perceived corruption of the church and its underlying theology.
But Luther is not as well remembered as a songwriter. He loved the Psalms, and in his lifetime, wrote 36 hymns, including A Mighty Fortress is Our God, based on the opening lines of Psalm 46.
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Psalm 46 is broken up into three movements. The theme is given to us right up front, and then is repeated in a refrain at the end of the second and third movements. The psalm opens with the words, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (vs. 1, NRSV); the parallel refrain is “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” (vss. 7, 11). Although the NRSV uses the word “refuge” in all three instances, it translates two different Hebrew words. In verse 1, the word translated as “refuge” suggests a shelter, a place one might duck into to get out of the rain. But in verses 7 and 11, the word suggests a high and inaccessible stronghold: Luther’s “mighty fortress.”
In addition, I’m not keen on the translation “a very present help in trouble.” Who says that? It also seems a little too static, as if to say that God is a rather helpful chap who can always be found lurking about. The sense of what the psalmist is saying, I think, is something more like, “Are you in trouble? Expect to encounter God.”
I remember how, many years ago, my wife and I experienced what felt like a miraculous rescue. We were on the freeway, en route to a birthday party being given by friends for their toddler. Our two kids, still young themselves, were safely strapped into their car seats in the back.
Suddenly, the engine started to hesitate and buck. Not wanting to sit stranded with the kids on a busy freeway, I pulled off at the next exit and parked on the shoulder. It was a deserted area, in a time before anyone had cell phones. I would have to walk a long distance to find a phone I could use to call the auto club, and I’d have to leave my wife and babies alone in the middle of nowhere to do it.
As we anxiously pondered what to do, another car pulled up behind us and parked. I was immediately on the defensive, wondering what would happen next.
Then our jaws dropped.
From behind the wheel emerged a good friend of ours, who was on his way with his wife and kids to the same birthday party. He had recognized our car from behind and saw us pull off the freeway. Thinking something might be wrong, he got off the freeway as soon as he could and doubled back.
Mind you, we had already been running late. Moreover, our friends had started their drive from 30 miles to the west of us. The timing had to be perfect for them to arrive at just the right place on the freeway at just the right time to see (and recognize!) us before we pulled off.
Yeah, we thought so too.
We all squeezed into their car and drove back to our house, where I called the auto club. I never did make it to the party, since I had to wait for the tow truck (turns out the fuel pump needed to be replaced). But I’ve never forgotten that day.
You probably have your own story to tell. Perhaps the trouble seems minor, especially compared to the kind of complaints often found in the Psalms, or for that matter, the difficulties Luther faced in challenging the institution of the church. But it’s not about us. It’s about the God whom Luther calls a fortress, whom the psalm calls a shelter, a place of safety and refuge.
Things might not always happen the way we would wish. But we should expect to encounter God.