A Methodist pastor named Harley Camden took an evening walk along the bank of the Occoquan River. The sun had set, but there was still enough light to illuminate the charcoal gray outcroppings of rock that rose up from the edge of the river. Harley knew that these Virginia rocks were old, formed about 300 million years ago.
Harley’s life was in chaos, and he needed to find stability. Putting his hands on a rock by the roadside, he began to make a connection with something much bigger than himself. Sitting down on the rock, he had the strange sensation that his center of gravity was moving down, down, down … deep into the stone beneath him.
What, he wondered, had this massive rock witnessed as it looked over the town of Occoquan? Native Americans and settlers, Revolutionary soldiers and Redcoats, slave-owners and abolitionists, blacks and whites, Jews and Christians and Muslims. The rocks had seen it all, standing silently above the fading light on the Occoquan River.
Pulling out his smartphone, Harley called up Psalm 71, “In you, O LORD, I take refuge … Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me” (vv. 1, 3). Harley read it, and then repeated it. Get outside your head, he thought to himself, let yourself rest in the Lord of the rock. This is what is real, he realized, a fortress that can stand strong against any assault. Lean on this, rely on this – the rock in which you can take refuge. “Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me,” Harley repeated to himself, over and over again.
Although Harley Camden is a fictional character in Windows of the Heavens: A Novel, his need for stability is something very real. The past few years have been chaotic for all of us, with the pandemic wreaking havoc on our schools, workplaces, churches and homes. Jobs have been lost, educations have been disrupted, and marriages have come apart.
Whenever we need to be delivered, rescued or saved, God is a rock and fortress. When the writer of Psalm 71 needs to be rescued “from the grasp of the unjust and cruel” (v. 4), God comes into his life as his hope and his trust. More than anything else, the writer needs God to be “a rock of refuge” (v. 3).
When life feels out of control, God is as solid as the 300-million-year-old rocks on the banks of the Occoquan River, unchanging in the face of upheaval in society and in individual lives. A popular praise song says that our God is an “Awesome God,” and that is certainly true. But the psalms make an even stronger case that our God is something more.
Even older than the rocks of Occoquan, God travels across time and space to enter our 21st-century lives and be a firm foundation for us. God is our rock and our fortress, our eternal and unbreakable hope. Like the mineral called garnet, there is no pressure that God cannot endure, no temperature that God cannot survive, and no depth that will separate God from us. “For you, O Lord, are my hope,” says the writer of Psalm 71, “my trust, O LORD, from my youth” (v. 5).
What is the story of this hard, red mineral called garnet? It has a history that might surprise you.
According to Yale Alumni Magazine, there’s a gray rock formation in the hills of northern Connecticut. Looking at it today, you would not know that it was once buried 100 miles below the Earth’s surface.
So, how did it get to here? About 400 million years ago, a piece of the seabed was pushed deep under the land that is now the North American continent. Way below the surface – where earthquakes originate and mountains are born – this particular rock was created as the Appalachian Mountains were forming. Slowly, over millions of years, it made its way back to the surface.
“It’s so unusual to have rocks that return from that depth,” says a grad student named Duncan Keller. “The vertical height that these rocks traveled was about 23 times the height from sea level to the top of Mount Everest.”
Keller and a geology professor discovered garnet in the Connecticut rock. This mineral can tell us the story of a rock because it preserves important information about depth and temperature. Garnets are “snapshots of what’s going on in the rock at every little interval of growth,” says Keller. They are “like tree rings.”
Garnet is old, deep, and able to handle extreme pressure. It can travel great distances, even through the crust of the earth. That’s why it describes our Garnet God.
“In you, O LORD, I take refuge,” says the writer of Psalm 71 (v. 1). The writer may have been ill, or getting old, or suffering from mistreatment from “unjust and cruel” people (v. 4). Whatever the circumstances, the speaker has a very personal relationship with God, addressing the LORD directly. “In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me,” says the writer; “incline your ear to me and save me” (v. 2).
The author of Psalm 71 is not afraid to ask for help. They know that they cannot overcome their troubles alone. They are painfully aware that their life depends on a Garnet-like God, just as all of our lives depend on the firm foundation of the solid rocks of the Earth beneath us.
The beginning of healing is to ask for help. That’s true whether we are facing relationship troubles, physical or mental illness, or an addiction of some kind. We cannot get better unless we ask for help, which the psalm-writer knows and expresses with the words, “deliver me and rescue me” (v. 2).
Of course, you are going to find real healing only if you seek help in the right place. Looking for health information on the internet is not going to be as helpful as a trip to the doctor, and a bartender is not going to offer the quality relationship guidance you’ll get from a trained counselor.
You need real wisdom, truth and righteousness. The kind that comes from a Garnet God.
The psalm-writer goes straight to the source, asking God to be “to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress” (v. 3). In the ancient world, taking refuge in God might have been connected to the practice of seeking asylum from persecutors in the temple. In the time of Jesus, we know that the “blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them” (Matthew 21:14). In any case, seeking safety and healing in God has been practiced for thousands of years.
Today, we can ask God to be “a rock of refuge” in our personal prayer time. Like Harley Camden on the rocks of Occoquan, we can pray over and over again, “Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me.” Take some time to rest, to read Scripture, and to pray. Make a connection with something much bigger than yourself. Get outside your head and let yourself rest in the Lord of the rock.
We can also seek God in the community of faith. It is no surprise that ancient people sought asylum in the temple, and that the blind and the lame sought healing from Jesus in the temple. The gathering places of God’s people have always been sources of healing in body, mind and spirit. We are created for community, and we tend to be stronger and healthier when we are in right relationship with one another.
At Saddleback Church in California, newcomers are quickly invited into small groups where friendships can grow as people focus on spiritual topics together. At the beginning of a sermon series on healing, pastor Rick Warren stressed the importance of each worshiper joining a small group tied to a spiritual growth campaign called “Life’s Healing Choices.” Said Warren, “God wired us in such a way that we only get well in community.”
He’s right. We only get well when we are in community with God and with each other. Both of those relationships can handle enormous pressure. Both can include outreach over long distances.
We can find signs of our Garnet God all around us, if we take the time to look. God is found not only in Jesus, but in the glory of the world around us. In Windows of the Heavens, pastor Harley Camden talks with a woman who has a tattoo of a Celtic cross on her shoulder – a cross with four arms connected by a circle.
“Take a look at your tattoo,” he says. “It has the cross of Christ, which tells us that Jesus died to free us from our sins. But it also has a circle, which represents the sun … the glory of God in creation.”
She has been deeply hurt, so she doesn’t like the idea that forgiveness is easily available. She says, “I don’t like Jesus letting sinners off the hook.”
“I understand,” Harley says. “Jesus should be honored for his many sacrifices, not just on the cross. The Bible tells us that Jesus came to serve others, and to help people with their struggles. This life of sacrifice is balanced by the glory of God that is found everywhere in the world: Sun, moon, air, water, earth.”
When life becomes chaotic, we can find stability in a Garnet God. “For you, O Lord, are my hope,” says the writer of Psalm 71. “Upon you I have leaned from my birth” (vv. 5-6). The one who created the heavens and the earth is the same one who desires to be a rock of refuge for us. This God is a help to us in private prayer, in the community of faith and in the glory of creation.
Whenever life stresses us, we can rest securely on the knowledge that God is our rock. God can handle any pressure and will travel any distance to help us.