In Psalm 121, the Psalmist uses the word keep (or keeper) six times in eight verses. Repetition is a writer's way of drawing attention to a certain theme, and this propensity, along with the parallelism of the psalms, heightens a conviction that something important is being communicated. And yet like all scripture, its spiritual truth must be mediated through the mundane and even tragic events of the world. It must be incarnated in life.
Yesterday's Wall Street Journal contained a more than two-page article on one such life experience. It took time to read, and I gave it the time, given its rarity. Seldom will you find such an extensive, in depth newspaper article, and yet the WSJ remains exceptional: a newspaper that can feature such longish articles and yet which still manages to make money. The story, that of Futoshi Toba, brought home to me like nothing I have seen or read has to date the soul-wrenching choices faced by many in the midst of the earthquake and tsunami that hit northern Japan. Toba was mayor of Rikuzentakata, a small town devastated by the worst natural disaster to strike Japan in decades. In Toba's case, he had to choose between meeting his obligations to protect his community --- to do his job --- and attempting to rescue his wife. His actions saved many who depended on him but cost him the life of the one who he loved most. He is plagued by doubt about that choice, the article trailing off with the pregnant question he asks aloud: "What kind of a human being am I?"
The article makes no mention of Toba's religious faith, though statistically speaking it is unlikely that he is a Christian. Yet, were he, what would it mean to say that God is his "keeper?" Of what would Toba have assurance if he prayed the word of the Psalmist, ""The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life?"
I might ask the same question about my mother who is, I am told, in the last stages of an illness, Parkinson's Disease, that will contribute to her death. Or the woman I learned about yesterday, Karen, who at 42 faces death from leukemia. What is certain is that God will neither keep my mother nor Karen nor Toba from death, that both those near to us in kinship and friendship and those far from us, as well as ourselves, will taste death. Some will suffer more than others, but all will see it. This truism, of course, was well known to the Psalmist. So how is it that God keeps our lives?
When the Psalmist says "I lift up my eyes to the hills," his evident focus is Zion, the hill of God, the Holy City. So something eternal and not temporal is in mind, something unseen and not seen. What he seems to be saying is that God will keep us spiritually --- by his power, by his presence, and by his provision. By reminding us that he is is the "one who made heaven and earth," he draws attention to this unique keeper, one who has the power to make universes and, thus, who certainly has the wherewithal to protect us. It's not that this power doesn't have practical, temporal resonance. It does. God provides food, water, shelter, Christian fellowship, and all manner of things to "keep" us, and yet he also allows hardship, holy silence, and suffering to "keep" us in ways that material comforts cannot. In fact, it's not too much to say that this Keeper will use everything at his disposal (and that is, literally, everything) to keep us. He never sleeps but always attends. His is a holy provocation in our sloth, a holy nurture in our need. It is one thing to be kept. It is another to be loved and kept. The kept can't always get what they want, whether it's a longer life, more food, or freedom from pain, but they will get exactly what they need.
I told my African "son," Joseph, an 18-year old Ugandan orphan, of my mother's plight, because I knew he would understand and appreciate it like one who is intimately familiar with the keeping of a God who allows even lifelong affliction. And he did. He said that " All I can say Dad is that God will stand and be by your side and I know he will welcome her soul. It is bad Dad and in my heart I can feel it!" He is telling me that God will keep her and keep me, and he should know. He has lost both his parents.
Say a prayer for Futoshi Toba, that God will be His Keeper. Lift Karen to the Keeper, that she will be kept from reflection on her infirmities and stayed on her Father in Heaven. Say a prayer too for my mother, that God will keep her eyes on the hills, the source of her help and hope. "For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for [them] an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. . . (2 Cor. 4:17), as they are lovingly cared for by a keeping God.