One of my good friends has a life practice of reading and reflecting for a year on the Isaiah chapter that coincides with her age. I love that idea. Admittedly, I don’t really understand much of Isaiah–oh, there’s awesome parts like the burning coal passage in Isaiah 6 (though, can I just say, Ouch!), or Isaiah 40:31 about eagles and renewing our strength by waiting for God, or the Christ passages in chapter 42, or the calling of the teacher “to sustain the weary with a word” in Isaiah 50:4, or my all time favorite “Ho, everyone who thirsts come to the waters…” of Isaiah 55, or the call to ministry with the poor in Isaiah 58.
Okay. Isaiah is amazing. But I, either from a misperception of the rest of Isaiah (which God will remedy, I’m sure) or a real leading of the Spirit, I decided to meditate each year on the psalm according to my age.
Psalm 42. (And yes, there was a brief instant of, do I really want to put my age out there?)
I made the decision to do this before reading the psalm and was stunned by how perfectly it captured my experience of prayer this year. (A good sign that God pointed me to the psalm.)
As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God? When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me: for I had gone with the multitude, I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday. Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance. –Psalm 42:1-5 KJV
I’m using the King James version because the language forces me to stop and think through the text more deeply. It’s also beautiful to read aloud, something that can enliven scripture.
(Try it sometime, if you find scripture uninteresting. Speaking the Word aloud is akin to proclamation and we are promised that “God’s Word does not return void.” Oh, right, that’s another cool Isaiah passage, 55:11.)
Reading between the lines of some of my posts, you may have picked up on the tears, transitions, and general turmoil during these past months as I (and many others) deal with job-hunting and downsizing, alongside discerning some difficult ministry decisions and dissertation writing in a world where higher ed has become a huge question mark.
The line “My tears have been my meat” made me laugh and cry at the same time when I first read it because it captured my experience so completely. I felt God saying, See, I do listen.
As I continued to read, the old praise chorus played in my mind, “As the deer panteth for the water, so my so longeth after thee O God.” When I glibly sang it in my twenties, I didn’t understand. Longing for God seemed so romantic and epic, and fit my long-skirts, long-contemplative-walks all-for-God persona. I had zero compassion for the deer.
Reading it now, it hit me painfully: Panting is unpleasant. Thirsting, even in KJV language, is not epic, it’s uncomfortable.
I feel sorry for the deer. Imagine the last time you were parched on a hot day and knew water was not readily available.
I think of West Texas in the summer, where my parents live, with temperatures over 100 degrees and a horizontal hair-dryer wind. After a few moments of walking in that sun, this Seattleite wilts. Dusty mouth. Dry eyes. Weary limbs. My usual dislike of water transforms into desperate need.
At the beginning of this year, I begged for a sense of God’s presence. I remembered how it used to be years ago, as the psalmist does in verse 4, how prayer and worship was easier and more joyful back in the day (whenever that was). I wanted that again. Now.
God used this psalm to reveal that, first, I was thirsty, desperately so, and that all my tears and nostalgia prayers were an expression of that thirst.
And second, he revealed that I needed to stay thirsty for awhile. God was not going to take it away, at least not immediately, and then never completely, this side of heaven.
It is so easy to reach for distraction–media, internet, smartphone, facebook, work, relationships, even worship, when it’s focused more on the experience, not on God. We often expect all our interactions with God to be sweet and peaceful, and take away any discomfort. But the danger is that we stop looking to God as the Lord and Almighty Other with whom we are in relationship, but a good-feelings vending machine. We can forget that we are travelers and that this current experience of life cannot be completely satisfying.
Thirsting for God is only quenched by one thing–one Person–God himself, and everything else that offers to quench that thirst, as good as it may be, will only make the heart sick if it’s put in God’s place.
It’s like a dehydrated person drinking only salt water.
Staying with the thirst helps us discern what’s really going on. It reveals our coping mechanisms. It’s teaches patience and grace with our human relationships and circumstances. It helps us to not react unwisely in an effort to find relief. It inspires compassion for the thirstiness of those around us and around the globe.
But just as our bodies need water, so do our spirits.
Thirst invites us to follow our thirst back to God and allow God to quench our thirst.
The choices involved in my moving, taking on a new ministry responsibility and saying no to others, trusting God for job, living situation, and finances, and focusing on the writing, brought me to a place where I asked myself verse 3’s question, Where is your God? I realized I couldn’t do it on my own, that I needed–thirsted–for God to show up, any way He wanted. I wasn’t going to dictate how anymore, in nostalgia for the good ol’ days, that worship would be a great experience, that prayer would be renewing, that I’d enjoy writing.
Just show up, God. Please.
And oh my, He has!
The promise: God is the living water and all our thirsts will be quenched in him.
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters!” (Isaiah, of course, 55:1)
What are you thirsting for? Stay with it and look for God to show up.