OVBS Training Camp Theme Presentation
given Saturday, June 12, 2004
at St. Gregorios Malankara Orthodox Church, Oak Park
by Fr. John-Brian Paprock, priest - Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Mission, Madison
In name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Peace be with you.
Truly I am honored to address you today on this occasion and pray that the
Lord guide my words to the necessities of His servants here present.
The theme for this year’s Orthodox Vacation Bible School is from Psalm 46:1
"GOD IS OUR REFUGE AND STRENGTH "
Perhaps it is not ironic that this verse would be on the lips of the
protestant minister at the beginning and at the end of the national requiem
for President Ronald Reagan and was broadcast on live television last night.
This verse is indeed a comfort for many. Not just those in mourning, but
everyone, especially our young people, who live in an unsure world. Danger
and distress seem to be every crossroads, at every vestibule. A REFUGE
(according to Webster’s dictionary) is “shelter or protection from danger or
An Ethiopian priest asked me, a month or so ago, if I could help him with
curricula about modern issues that youth, particularly teens and young
adults, face in America. I came up with the five major issues that youth
face in America. Each of these is a presenting danger.
FIVE ISSUES YOUTH FACE IN AMERICA
1. Substance Abuse - tobacco, alcohol, drugs
2. Sex - pregnancy, sexual activity, AIDS
3. Suicide - depression, harming self
4. Gangs - criminal behavior, violence to others, bullies
5. Family problems - "generation gap" verbal abuse, domestic violence,
It is important to realize that young people who get in trouble often seek
refuge in the first four, because they do not believe that they have any
other safe place – no other safe people – to go to in difficult and
confusing times. The one source of safety, the family, may be a source of
great contention or confusion. Without other adults or mature older youth
to be trustworthy, loving, compassionate, kind and honorable - in other
words, to be “safe people” – youth lose moral stability and often make
endangering decisions. The church, its clergy, its teachers and its lay
ministers, must be “safe” and trustworthy when other places and other people
are not. It should always be a refuge and sanctuary to any that seek
shelter from the storms of family or society.
Perhaps the scriptures can give us insight so that we can assure our young
people (and each other) that “God is our refuge and our strength.”
Of the 15 times the Hebrew word that is translated “refuge” in used in the
Old Testament (Strong’s Concordance), two thirds are among the Psalms. It
(“Machseh”) is also used four times in Isaiah and once in Proverbs. The
word “refuge” is actually not used in the English translation of the New
Testament – so I could not find a direct and specific reference to “refuge”
in the New Testament in my concordances.
In the Psalm 46, God is called “our refuge” three times. In the first
verse, He is also “our strength” and “our immediate help in trouble.” This
idea is also collaborated by Isaiah in Chapter 4:5-6 (which Isaiah
reiterates in chapter 25:4).
In verses 7 and 11 of the Psalm, we are assured the “Lord of Hosts is with
us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
How many know what the name “Jacob” means? “Supplanter”
Jacob becomes Israel in Genesis 32:28, after Jacob works out the issues with
his brother Esau and with his father-in-law Laban and wrestles with God. In
fact Genesis 32:28 is the first mention of Israel.
How many know what “Israel” means? “Ruling with God”
So, according to the Psalmist, it is the God of Jacob, not the God of Israel
that is our refuge. It is the God that we know as we work through the issues
of our life before we wrestle with Him (Genesis 33:24-30) and then rule our
lives with Him. As it says, Genesis 33:30, “I have seen God face-to-face
and my life is preserved.” Perhaps, the Psalmist is alluding to this
transformation by saying “the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
In Psalm 62 (see also Psalm 71, 91, 94 and 104), verses 6-8, the reference
to “rock” as strength and refuge gives scriptural insight to another feature
of God as our refuge and strength, particularly verse 7:
“In God is my salvation and my glory: the rock of my strength and my refuge
is in God.”
In Psalm 94:22 “But the Lord is my defense and My God is the rock of my
Looking to the New Testament, there are only six references to “rock” –
petra - specifically.
The only two negative references come from Luke’s Gospel and the parable of
the Sower. The rock is inhospitable for growth (8:6) and our Lord, in the
explanation of the parable (8:13), uses that rock to symbolize faith without
roots. This is similar Isaiah 28, verse 15-17, but in Isaiah the “refuge of
lies” will be destroyed and the precious corner stone” will be a “sure
foundation.” In a like manner, Matthew Chapter 7, in the parable of the
foundations; verses 24-27: “… like a wise man which built his house upon a
rock…” (also used in Luke 6:48). In Matthew Chapter 16, Jesus renames
Simon – Peter – petra – verse 18: “…upon this rock I will build My church.”
The scripture seems to point to two different name changes, two
transformations, for greater security and salvation, when refuge will no
longer be among our needs. Also, the scripture is teaching us how we may
become “rock” for refuge – trustworthy and safe.
The only other “rock” (e.g. petra) in the Gospels is at the end of Matthew
and Mark where they both describe the sepulcher as hewn out of rock. Truly,
a refuge for the sacred body until the Resurrection! What other refuge
could the Body of Christ have until the resurrection no matter how
Time does not allow me to dwell on the instructions for refuge given in
Psalm 91. I will leave that to you. Other refuge references in psalms: 14:6
for the poor; 142:5 portion in the land of the living.
Proverbs 14:26: “In the fear (awe of His power) of the Lord is strong
confidence: and His children shall have a place of refuge.”
There is a story, based on an actual case (but I have lost the reference
long ago) about a park where the neighborhood children played with very old
play equipment. A philanthropist happened to be walking through the park
and saw the rusted and broken jungle gym and swing set, the empty sand box
that was more of a “mud box” and the breaking concrete and asphalt where
some children were throwing a ball at a basketball backboard without a hoop.
So, he asked the children what equipment they would want, “Name anything and
I will get it for you and have in installed in this park.” The excited
children gave them their list. They were very happy and told their parents.
Then the philanthropist held a neighborhood meeting and had the parents
raise their concerns for the safety of the equipment and he promised them
the safest equipment ever made, but asked for their help in installing the
equipment. The philanthropist was wise, he knew the parents would not trust
the equipment until they could see it for themselves.
So the day came and all the equipment arrived. The children gathered in awe
and anticipation. The parents and professionals began to put the equipment
together across the park where there was enough space. The children played
on the old equipment while the adults worked long and hard for the children.
It was dark when they finished.
The next morning, the parents awoke to the sound of children playing in the
park, but to their dismay, they were playing on the old equipment. The
parents asked if they had seen the new playground.
“Isn’t everything you wanted?”
“Yes, Mom” – “Yes Dad”
“We spent hours making this ready for you. Did you even try the new
“Yes, Mom” – “Yes Dad”
“Do you like it?”
“Yes, Mom” – “Yes Dad”
The parents would get the children to play on the new equipment for a short
time, but they would return to the old “stuff” soon after the parents would
Scratching their heads, they called the philanthropist who funded a study.
The pollsters asked every child about every piece of equipment. More than
90% liked the new equipment over the old “stuff.” The children even had
their favorites among the new equipment. However, the statistics were
clear - again over 90% indicated that they did not like the location. The
children could not articulate the reason that they did not like the
location. It wasn’t too sunny or too shady. It wasn’t too far to walk.
The pollsters gave up.
The philanthropist was going over the dismantling of the new equipment with
a contractor (no parents offered with the dismantling). They were looking
at a map of the park. The contractor said, “This will be easier that taking
our the old stuff – all the new stuff is so close to the road. The only
problem is going to be interrupting traffic for my truck to haul the stuff
The philanthropist changed his mind and asked if he could build a fence
between the new equipment and the busy road. When he did, the children gave
up the old equipment for the new stuff. Every child knew the busy road was
dangerous and, even if they could not articulate their concern, they
naturally spent their time inn the safe places of the park.
The fence, the boundary, created a refuge where the children could enjoy the
gifts of the philanthropist. And the other “stuff” was no longer necessary.
Children, yes even teens, need boundaries as well as hugs to know they are
safe. Then, everyone can enjoy the gifts of the great Benefactor of us all.
This has been a very short introduction. I know it leaves many questions
and only scratches the surface of our theme. I hope that I have given some
food and some insight. The American comedienne Lily Thomplin used to say
during her one-woman show in the early 1980s – “If I didn’t make you laugh,
I hope I left you more confused.” So do I, because I know that confusion
is the first step to knowledge. I pray that God has allowed me to give more
insight than confusion.
May our churches (and our classes) be refuges of loving attention to the
needs of those placed in our care. May God make our places strong and secure
refuges and may He make us trustworthy guardians. God IS our refuge and
strength, our immediate help in times of trouble. May He cover us with His
feathers, as a father eagle covers his children, and under His wings we
Now and forever. Amen.