Dryness and Darkness, Thirst and Desire: Why Lent MattersThe Bishop's Blog
A Sermon taken from Psalm 63, and preached in the Goodson Chapel of Duke University Divinity Schoolon March 6, 2013.
To thirst is to long for something that is essential. The psalmist knew about this longing. The 63rd Psalm is a psalm of David, the ascription tells us, when David was in the wilderness of Judah. In the lectionary we read the psalm during the season of Lent, our own wilderness.
Do we know what it is like to thirst for something essential in the wilderness? Many of us understand thirst. I once served a church whose choir included a very fine bass voice among the men, and each summer he would sing the National Anthem at the local minor league baseball game. It was always wonderful and many of us came along to enjoy the game and offer moral support. It usually happened to fall on what was known as Thirsty Thursday. If you use your imagination, you can figure out what Thirsty Thursday was all about. Lots of people, very thirsty people, sharing fellowship; at the same time, a baseball game happens to be going on.
Around that same time I opened the newspaper to read about a local woman’s mission to Bolivia. I have been there. She had been, more specifically, to Cochabamba. I’ve been there too. Bolivia is landlocked, there are no harbors, no beaches, and the water supplies are in a crisis. The people of Cochabamba were rioting because of lack of water. Very thirsty people.
It is not accidental that the scriptures speak of water in describing our human longings and desirings. My soul thirsts for you, for God, the psalmist writes, in the midst of the wilderness. Do we know what it means to thirst for God? To want God as much as a man or woman in the midst of the Judean wilderness wants something that is essential, a drink? To want God as much as those folks on Thirsty Thursday wanted the next drink?
To want God as much as the people of Cochabamba, who were rioting for water?
To thirst for God is to desire God, it is to know that God is essential. That is what it means to say, my soul thirsts for God. Sometimes we have to be in the wilderness before we even recognize our thirst, our desires. The Bible speaks of wilderness as a place of testing, trial, emptiness, absence. The rabbis called the wilderness “the school of the soul”. In the wilderness we discover what is essential.
If you have experienced a serious illness or medical uncertainty, you know about wilderness.
If you have experienced some form of prejudice, you know about wilderness.
If you have lived with depression, you know about wilderness.
If you have felt like you were in the wrong place, you know about wilderness.
If you have walked in the darkness of grief, you know about wilderness.
To be in the wilderness is like being in a dry and weary land where there is no water. In Lent, we see the geography of wilderness in our spiritual lives. In these forty days of wilderness, the temptations of Jesus are our own testings. Lent reminds us that life is difficult, and, further, the Christian life is difficult. There are mountaintops, but there are also valleys. There are rainbows, but there are also storms. There are sunrises, but there are also sunsets. There are Easter mornings, but there are also Good Fridays. There are beautiful spring days, but there is also the dead of winter. We’ve been there!
Lent shows us the terrain of a spiritual wilderness, a desert and a crown of thorns and enemies and Gethsemanes and Golgothas. It starts off bad and gets worse. Lent is the time for us to name all of this, and Psalm 63 is the text. It is good for us to read this Psalm. John Chrysostom, the early Church Father, insisted that “no day should pass without singing this Psalm”. In the history of spiritual practice it has been read in the morning and in the evening, and the text lends itself to both times of day.
We plan our lives, we make preparations, we try to control outcomes and events, but some day, some time, some where, when we least expect it, we will find ourselves in the wilderness.
It helps to know this. There is a false teaching about Christianity that denies this truth, saying that if we love God, if we follow Jesus, if we serve our neighbor, life will blossom in abundance and overflowing. And so two insights that we discover in this Psalm are helpful: spiritual dryness, and spiritual darkness.
One of the Screwtape Letters of C.S. Lewis is about spiritual dryness. Screwtape writes to Wormwood about the work of God that goes on in our lives:
“In his efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the valleys even more than on the peaks; some of his special favourites have gone through longer and deeper valleys than anyone else.”
And then a remarkable comment:
“The prayers offered in a state of dryness are those that please him most.”
Spiritual dryness. Thirsting for something, desiring something, maybe God. There is also spiritual darkness. The psalms refer repeatedly to this condition:
I meditate on you in the watches of the night…surely the darkness will cover me…my soul takes refuge in you, until the destroying storms pass by, even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…
Lent reminds us that wilderness is a part of the journey. There are times to bask in the sunshine, and times to hide in the shadows. This psalm is about the shadow times in life. I think many people turn to the Bible, and maybe even to the church, for safety, for security, for sanctuary. The psalmist writes, You have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy (63. 7).
What does it mean to be in the shadow of God’s wings? In the darkness, we cannot always see, and yet we trust. The night is dark, and we are far from home; we sense the dangers of life, and yet we trust.
In the Christian tradition this has been known as the “dark night of the soul”. In the dark night, there are no visible signs of God’s presence; it may be the experience of pruning in John 15; in the passion, it is the stripping down of Christ, the emptying, which we read about in Philippians 2; in the seasons of the year, it is the cold and snow of winter. It is a purging of all of our assumptions, a shedding of all of our support systems, a removal of all forms of light, and we are in the Tenebrae, the darkness.
And yet, paradoxically, there we find that we are in the shadow of God’s wings. There we sing, “Abide with me”. In the dark night of the soul, God is preparing us for the light.
We encounter times of spiritual dryness and spiritual darkness in the season of Lent. How do we live, how do we survive, how do we make our way through wilderness times? We are given the desire for something, a desire for something that will quench our thirst, a desire for something that will light our way.
And so we return to the question: what do we desire the most, what is most essential? Of course, our desires can get all out of focus. We can desire the wrong things: these become compulsions, addictions. Marketers can teach us to desire things that may or may not be helpful to us. Our desires can become distorted. It is difficult for me to return to Durham without thinking of Bullock’s barbecue. I can desire barbecue and banana pudding every day but that might not be the best thing for me!
Someone has noted two simple truths, for a Christian, about desires. First, God desires us. The One who created you, also loves you. Augustine said, in a prayer to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”. David Ford, a theologian at Cambridge has noted, “If we get the desire for God right, everything else follows”. We love, because God first loved us. We desire God, because God has first desired us. We yearn for God, and find it amazing that God has first yearned for us. Amazing.
We will need reminders of this truth, or it will get crowded out in all of the other messages. The hymns remind us: it is grace, amazing grace. The scriptures remind us: it is God’s gift, this life, the life to come, all a gift. The worship reminds us: baptism, a new identity; communion, a renewed promise to feed us and sustain us, like manna in the wilderness. The wisdom and love of friends remind us, in covenant groups and spiritual friendships, and wherever two or three are gathered in His name: we are the beloved children, and God desires us.
This truth leads to another. The abundant life consists of desiring what God desires.
How do we make our way through times of dryness and darkness? We continue to say the prayers, even when we don’t feel anything. We continue loving, even when we don’t feel worthy of love. We continue to worship, even when it does not please us to worship. We continue to study, even when we are not motivated to study.
We take one step at a time, even when we do not see very far into the future. We do the next thing, eat the next meal, remembering that the promise is for daily bread, and that God sustained the people with manna in the wilderness each day, enough for that day.
Our desires as Christians are always translated into small works, practices, gestures. And so we are led to the water, and we take a drink. We hide in the shadows of God’s presence, and watch for the morning.
The good news is that when we are ready for something that is essential, God provides. When I was a child, we learned to distinguish between what we wanted and what we needed. What we need is water, living water, like the woman, a Samaritan, who discovered Jesus at the well and said, give me this water so that I may never be thirsty.
So we come to worship in the middle of Lent, in the wilderness of our emptiness and our darkness.
Maybe you are in the wilderness of fatigue. Hear the good news:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he leads me beside still waters.
Or you might be in the wilderness of depression. Hear the good news:
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
Or you find yourself in the wilderness of being alone in your convictions. Hear the good news:
You will be like a tree planted by streams of living water.
Or perhaps you are in the wilderness of the deepest valley. Hear the good news:
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.
Or you are in the wilderness of grief. Hear the good news:
The lamb at the center of the Throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
If we are in the wilderness, God’s gift to us is the 63rd Psalm. It is a prayer offered in a state of dryness, in a moment of darkness. It is a prayer that pleases God, the God who enters into our wildernesses, the God who desires us, the God who seeks us and finds us,
When we hear ourselves speaking the word from the cross, “I thirst”, we are open to the good news:
Plenteous grace with thee is found,
Grace to pardon all my sin;
Let the healing streams abound,
Make and keep me pure within;
Grace to pardon all my sin;
Let the healing streams abound,
Make and keep me pure within;
Thou of life the Fountain art,
Freely let me take of thee,
Spring thou up within my heart,
Rise to all eternity.
Let us pray:
In times of spiritual dryness, may we find living water.
In times of spiritual darkness, may we watch for the light, in the shadow of your wings.
In the wilderness, may our desires please you,
and may they lead us to life.
Sources: C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters. David Ford, The Shape of Living. Charles Wesley, “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.”