Vulnerability, Anxiety, and Trust

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A winter snow storm followed by very cold weather can make us especially aware of our vulnerability. We receive special news alerts about treacherous weather conditions and are warned to take related precautions. Our church participates in a Fairfax County hypothermia program that provides shelter for homeless people during cold winter nights. We had to take special precautions this week to accommodate those who gather at our church to go to other churches offering a warm place to stay.

I talked with the group of about twenty men and women gathered in our church dining area as I provided them with hot tea and coffee. I listened to their chatter about possible places to find work. One woman had found a temporary, part-time position at a local grocery store but it wasn’t nearly enough to pay the rent. Others talked about the discomfort of everyone sleeping together on the floor of a church basement. Another woman fretted about having been released from a detox facility in this nasty weather. She feared she would give in to her cravings for alcohol.

Of all living creatures, we humans are especially vulnerable. We don’t have thick fur or wool to protect us from the cold. We are helpless as babies and it takes us a long time to grow up and become mature enough to fend for ourselves. We depend on our parents to care for us during this extended period of time until we become adults. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it’s part of life, of who we are. It may even be a blessing.

Psalm 27 powerfully expresses our human sense of vulnerability, the anxiety this creates in us, and the related need to trust. We learn to trust significant others and, in the process, to trust ourselves. Ultimately, this is expressed as trust in the divine Other. The Psalm begins with a bold assertion of trust in God. “The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” But there’s a lot to make the Psalmist anxious—enemies, war, the day of trouble. In his anxiety he cries out to God, “Do not hide your face from me.”

Biblical scholar James Mays notes that need and trust are closely related in this Psalm, “Trust is active and real precisely when one is aware of one’s vulnerability, of one’s helplessness before the threats of life, ‘in the day of trouble,’ as the psalmist puts it. On the other hand, the voice of neediness speaking urgent pleas for help arises from trust, which transforms mere anxiety to prayer” (Psalms: Interpretation, 132).

Such a “day of trouble” can come in many forms. A spouse may unexpectedly announce that he or she is having an affair and wants a divorce. Job security has become a big worry for many in our down-sized economy. A routine medical test may reveal a life threatening illness. We may be struggling with intense grief following the death of a loved one. We’re all familiar with such vulnerabilities. They can leave us devastated, demoralized, angry, and alone. We’re all aware of our own mortality even though we have many ways to avoid dealing with this reality. Is it possible to turn such stuff into prayer?

A beautiful expression of turning our vulnerabilities into prayer is the song, I Owe the Lord a Morning Song, written by nineteenth-century, farmer-preacher Amos Herr. He wrote it one cold, blustery Sunday morning when the snowdrifts would not even permit him to ride to church on horseback. It’s said that he etched the lines on the frost on the windowpane as he looked out the kitchen window in his farmhouse. What I find especially meaningful is the sense of vulnerability the song conveys along with a heartfelt gratefulness for life and a trust in God:

I owe the Lord a morning song of gratitude and praise,
for the kind mercy his has shown in lengthening out my days.
He kept me safe another night; I see another day.
Now may his Spirit as the light, direct me in his way.
Keep me from danger and from sin, help me thy will to do.
so that my heart be pure within, and I thy goodness know.

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