(for Anne McKee)

It does not say in Proverbs 31, that description of the “perfect woman”, anything along the lines of “she is a whiz at FreeCell.” I know. I looked. .

Giving up computer card games feels like about the right size of Lenten discipline: something I'm going to have to work at a bit. I'm not precisely addicted, but I do spend a fair bit of time playing one game or another--FreeCell, solitaire, gin rummy, or cribbage. I'm ashamed to say that I can even be reduced to playing Old Maid at times. But not for the next few weeks.... Instead, I am going to use that time for Virtuously Productive Purposes such as reading or crocheting. (Housekeeping may be Virtuous, but it is not Productive, at least not around here. It's more like shoveling fleas across a barnyard, to quote Abraham Lincoln).

So that's my giving-up thing for Lent. But Lent isn't only a giving-up time; it's a taking-on time, a season for stretching the spirit in new directions. And I got given that new direction on Ash Wednesday, very nicely timed, thank You. Over tea, a friend dropped a word I hadn't thought much of, and that word was “safe”. She was telling the story of one person who had been the safe place for a damaged friend--a place where the friend didn't have to pretend to be okay.

I don't know why it had never occurred to me before that maybe God could be a safe place. Not that I had any objection to the notion; it just hadn't turned up on my personal God-screen, until my friend used the word. Safety has not, in fact, been a major feature of life as I've lived it heretofore. Quite the opposite, in fact. Perhaps that's why I haven't connected the word with God before this. My own particular journey has taken me into some interesting bramble patches, and I know that God was with me all the way. But God as a place of safety--now, that's a novelty.

So I got to thinking about safety and non-safety, and the verse of an old song floated across the mental screen: “I leaned my back against an oak/ Thinking it was a trusty tree/ But first it bent and then it broke/ And so did my false love to me.” We don't see God as safety because we've gone through that sort of betrayal once too often. Friends break faith with us; we find out that they've been busy behind our backs while being sweet to our faces. Family don't come through in the crunch. Love lets you down, or so it seems. It's certainly a broken world, and like most broken things, it has sharp corners and cutting edges, and we bang into them too often and decide that this must be somehow all we can reasonably expect.

Moreover, our two heritage-models of God don't exactly go with a sense of safety either. The Jehovah we inherited from Judaism is a jealous God, always expecting us to live up to the mark and whomping us good and hard when we fail. True, there's always Psalm 91, but against that we have to set the hardness of history and an awful lot of Jeremiah. Nor is the other model, the Greek Unmoved Mover who comes to us through our Platonist roots, exactly huggable. So far from holding out his arms in love and welcome, he sits placid, distant, marble to our sufferings when what we desperately want is a little warmth and a sense of being cared about. Where's the safety in that?

Of course, for many people and much of life, safety is the last thing we need. The word of God is supposed to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, and a whole lot of us are far too comfortable for our own good: too sure of our own goodness, too quick to judge and condemn others, too complacent, too un-honest with ourselves about our very real failings, too unaffected by the needs and suffering and joys of others. We think we're the afflicted who need comforting, when in fact we mostly need to get off our keisters and get out on the Journey. And maybe when we're in this state, we need God to play a little rough with us--to be shaken up and out of our warm state of self-contentment/self-pity, or both.

But there are also times when we really are in trouble, panicky and lost and very much alone--just look at every third psalm, approximately--and what we most need of God is that sense of perfect safety. A friend of mine once spoke of longing to dig her fingers deep into the fleece of the Lamb and bury her face in its rough warmth. We want a God who tells us, “It is okay to be like this; it is okay to be broken and wounded and in need of healing.” What we need at these times is a God who holds us far safer than even the best of parents could ever do, a God who is steadfastly there for us, a God who doesn't mind how much our noses run when we weep. We need a God who is ready and willing to stay up all night with us, holding onto us good and tight, hanging in there with us while the very real monsters stir under the bed.

Paradoxically, our God is not someone we can take for granted or ignore. Safe in that sense, God definitely isn't. Perfection he's not interested in, but a certain reasonable willingness to try--*that*he expects of us. But this God is a safe place to stand, a ground rock-solid beneath our feet, wrapping us round as close as the air, a God who is indeed about our paths and our ways and knows us better than we know ourselves and loves us unconditionally, as we can never quite love each other or ourselves. With this God with us, who can prevail against us--even our sins?

And with that knowledge, it becomes possible to “pick up our hearts and look them straight in the face,” seeing what it is that we really do need to correct in ourselves, and that's often a whole lot more serious than an inordinate fondness for FreeCell. With God's firm and loving company, we can make ready to head into the wilderness for a time--or to head out of the wilderness, if that's where God is calling us this Lent. In God's safety, we can begin to change. In God's safety, we can even begin to hope.

Copyright © 2000 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 11 Mar 2000
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