Emily C. Heath
"You are indeed my rock and my fortress." - Psalm 31
Across the street from my middle school was a fence that separated the world from what was then one of the United States Navy's boot camps. Every morning as we went in to class, we'd see new recruits running, shouting cadences, and getting hounded by their drill instructors.
On Fridays in particular the Navy made their presence known. As a new class of sailors graduated each Friday morning, volleys would ring out from some sort of large piece of artillery. And each week science class, or English, or math would stop momentarily as the guns went off.
This is what I imagined a fortress to be like. An enclosed base with armed guards and booming cannons. Which is why I was never all that sure what to make of that famous hymn with that line: "A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing." Aside from the fact that God has been known to interrupt my best laid plans with about the same frequency as the Navy interrupted my history teacher, I didn't see the resemblance.
In the last few years, though, I have found solace in that hymn. Our hymnals have often rightly been stripped of overtly militaristic language. We are no longer Christian soldiers marching as to war. But the hymn, and these words from Scripture, remind us that despite the fact we live in a messy world, despite the fact that God is calling us out of comfortable places, and despite the fact that we are armed with nothing more than God's love, there is indeed something solid there after all.
In fact, there needs to be. Because this whole Christian thing, if we take it seriously, isn't easy. It requires that we continually risk venturing from safety and into the unknown, all for the love of God. And if we can't point back to something solid and say "this is why," then we aren't going to make it very far.
In the end God is not an armed military base, eager to stay safe and make its strength known. But God doesn't have to be just a philosophical concept or an innocuous blob. Sometimes we need to know that God can be strong, and steady, and, as Tillich said, "the ground of our being." And sometimes we need to known that some things will never change.
O Mighty Fortress, when we are called into the hardest places of life, remind us that you are there with us. And when the world does its best to uproot us from your love, remind us that it is as real as rock, and just as strong. Amen.
Emily C. Heath is the pastor of West Dover Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in West Dover, Vermont. She also serves as the chaplain of a local fire department, and as a speaker and writer on Christian faith and social justice.