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John Upton God is Our Refuge

It all started innocently enough. I joined the president of Baptists in the Bahamas, Anthony Carroll, the president of the Caribbean Baptist Fellowship, William Thompson, and about 12 other Baptist leaders to be received by His Excellency Governor General of the Bahamas, Sir Arthur Foulkes. We met at the Governor’s House, a beautiful Bahamian house built in 1801. The graceful columns and broad, circular drive recall the styles of parts of the world with which I am familiar — but the pink color, distinctive cross-laid cornerstones, and louvered wooden shutters are definitely Bahamian. The house offers an impressive welcome by uniformed naval officers of the Royal Bahamas Defense Force. What started as a casual welcome and courtesy visit soon became a spiritual lesson for me. The visit moved from being innocent to being insightful and intense. As I heard Sir Foulkes’ story and heard the response of the Bahamian Baptists, I knew I was in the presence of a great man and a national hero. I learned that Sir Foulkes was one of the “Eight.” He was one of the primary leaders that led the independence movement in the Bahamas taking on the established wealth and power of the time called the “Bay Street Gang.” A Baptist, Dr. Brown, was also one of the “Eight.” Sir Foulkes was a newspaper reporter who had the courage to challenge the financial and racial inequities of his day. He paid a dear price for his writings and convictions in loss of jobs, threats to his family, public shunning, and every other discriminatory horror you can name. As he shared his story the heartbeat of the room quickened. As the visit with the Baptists in the Bahamas continued I began to hear more and more of those stories. They brought back memories of similar stories I heard while in South Africa last October. The question that struck me is, how do people like Sir Foulkes, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others I could name in other areas of the world, provide the leadership they do? How do they speak with a confidence that speaks truth without having to compromise that truth by retaliating with violence or hatred?

There is always both calm and power in their quiet manner and presence. Sir Foulkes, as well as all the others,


reference faith as the center of all that they endured. Each leader speaks of God being their refuge. You find this often in scripture but I had never really thought through its meaning. The theme of God as refuge is in so many of our old hymns: “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” “O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.” There is a sense we all know what it means for God to be our refuge, our fortress, our shelter and shield, our hiding place. Our images of God are most often images of “person.” If God were a person what kind of person would God be? Would God be father, mother, sovereign, helper, or guide? But, the question also needs to be asked, if God were a place what kind of place would God be? God would be a safe place, a shelter that is strong, a restorative place. It is little wonder so many of us burn out as we do and live such spiritually exhausted, depleted lives. There is refuge we could take but we just keep running. Sometimes we run to the wrong kind of shelter, a shelter where the refuge is really a shallow entertaining of ourselves. We take refuge in manic, frantic work. We take refuge in fantasizing the world into what we hope it will be, creating an almost different world than the real one in which we live. That is not refuge. That is escape — and there is a

difference between the two. Escape isn’t solid. It doesn’t hold anything. It distracts from life. It doesn’t build one up. Escape is a form of absence. Refuge is room for presence.It requires stillness, quiet, calm, a healing place, a fortress. And that place is never out there. It happens here, within us. We breathe in the refuge of God. We open ourselves to a sheltering presence and it remains with us into whatever storm we have to go. I say it remains within us, but we must also see to it that

it remains among us. The church is a place of refuge. The church is a safe place for anyone to be exactly who they are, to say what they need to say, and find themselves accepted. When the church does this well, we have transformed communities and even parts of the world.

God is our refuge. God is a safe place, a welcoming, protecting, deeply strengthening refuge. Let us live in such a place and let such a place shape how we live toward others. “For God is our fortress and we shall not be shaken (Psalm 62:2).”

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