"In the shelter of each other, we will live, we will live (never walk alone)."
(Jars of Clay, "Shelter")
Today I've been playing over and over again the new album by Jars of Clay, entitled The Shelter. While it is all good, I always find myself back at this chorus from the title cut, a chorus that is both descriptive and normative, that expresses what is and what can be. We all want shelter. We all need shelter.
The Psalmist repeatedly recalls the refuge provided by God when he speaks of being in the shadow of his wings, picturing God as a nurturing, protective bird, providing shelter and protection under his wings, in His shadow. "How priceless is your unfailing love! Both high and low among men find refuge in the shadow of your wings," he says (Ps. 36:7), or he entreats God to "hide me in the shadow of your wings" (Ps. 17:8).
The word "shelter" even became descriptive of a certain brand of Christian ministry. For example, L'Abri Fellowship began in Switzerland in 1955 when Francis and Edith Schaeffer decided in faith to open their home to be a place where people could find answers to their questions about life and faith and for a practical demonstration of Christian care. It was called L'Abri, the French word for "shelter," because they sought to provide a shelter from the pressures of an increasingly secular culture, a quiet haven to explore what is true, good, and beautiful.
Some may remember Shelter Records, a now defunct record label started by Leon Russell and producer Denny Cordell in 1969, one of the fledgling artist-oriented labels that became more common with the ascent of the artist and demise of the label. I don't know the philosophy of the label, if it had one, but I suspect it was intended as an artist-friendly haven, a refuge of sorts (which brings to mind another now defunct label, Refuge Records). Indeed, if you google the word "shelter," a slew of ministries and organizations pop up. Homes for battered and abused women, animal rescue groups, child advocacy groups, and ministries to the homeless, just to name a few.
That the word describes many ministries (using the word loosely), both Christian and secular, is a testimony to the deep need and longing for shelter that each person has, and the problems that exist in society can be traced to the misplaced pursuit of that shelter --- for a place where there is protection, where there is unconditional love.
For Christians, God is the one who provides ultimate shelter, as all other dwellings --- family, friends, social networks (such as they are), and church will fail us. Our dependence on that ultimate shelter and the promise and hope of a secure dwelling in Heaven keeps us from attempting to meet all our need for shelter from any earthly medium. And yet these imperfect, temporal shelters are the mediators of God's permanent shelter, the face of His love, the shadow, however mottled, of his wings. As the song later says, "God has given us each other, and we will never walk alone." Community will never be enough, never satisfy. Only God can be our shelter.
But rather than focus on my need for shelter, the better questions are who I am called to provide shelter for and what that shelter looks like. I cannot shelter the world, of course, with all its shelter-needy people, so who has God called me to shelter? And how do I shelter them in a way that makes them not dependent on what I provide but points them back to the ultimate source of their shelter, not themselves (self-reliance), not even each other (their family or community, as important as that is), but to a Father who will supply what they need for eternity?
For example, my family provides for the education and support of four Ugandan young people between the ages of 16 and 20 and probably will for several years. (By American standards, the investment is small, so don't think too highly of us!) We are "sheltering" them, if you will, and yet there are many more like them that we don't know and even knowing could not afford to shelter. Why these young people? I always answer that they are the ones God put in my path. I don't know what else to say. I'm more concerned about the how of sheltering them --- is there a way to help them without creating an unhealthy dependence? will they be self-supporting once they complete their education? Caring for them in this way is the right thing to do, as it is part of loving them, but if it creates dependency, then we haven't loved them well.
To shelter someone is just another outworking of the command to love one another. In practice, you can't practically demonstrate love for everyone. Only God so loved the world, right? To love everyone is a platitude that may in practice look like loving no one. We have to bring it down to street level, from an aerial view to the human traffic in our face, asking Love who? and Love how? Love is particular.
If there is any peace
If there is any hope
We must all believe
Our lives are not alone
We don’t all belong
God has given us each other
And we will never walk alone
So who has God called you to shelter? And how will you do that?