160619 – As the Deer

Yr C ~ Pentecost 5 ~ Psalm 42

It’s quite undignified when you think about it. The comparison seems innocuous enough but if you stay with it it’s not all that flattering. As most of you know my family has a dog. Her name is Billie, and I’m very grateful that I get to bring her to church most days (although now that summer is here she won’t be around as much until fall). Billie loves to play. Her favourite toy is a triangular shaped soft toy that she tugs with and then we throw it down the hall and she races after it and brings it back and tugs again. And we do this again and again and again. By the end she’s looking at us with tail wagging, her eyes wide, her mouth open, and her tongue hanging out and she’s panting.as-the-deer

I’ve never seen a deer pant for water but I have seen a dog panting and I imagine it’s pretty much the same thing, and it’s not very dignified. As the deer pants for water, as my dog pants at playtime, so my soul longs after God’s Presence.
Is that what’s going through your mind as you park your car and make your way into church every Sunday?
I see lots of smiles and feel the positive spiritual energy but I confess I’ve never seen any of your tails wagging or your tongues hanging out as you come through those doors!

“Oh, well it’s obviously just a metaphor” you may say. “It’s not like we’re actually supposed to pant.”

Fair enough. But my fear is that in saying that we can just shrug our shoulders, say to ourselves “that’s a lovely image” and go on our merry way but not really own what it’s saying.

No, it probably wouldn’t do much good for us to physically stick out our tongues and pant for God – but let’s really get into what this metaphor is saying to us.

Panting is not just pondering, or contemplating, or bringing to mind.
Panting is not just praying, or singing, or participating.
It could be those things – if those things are being done with the same passion and ardour as panting implies.

Panting: as in you’re desperate for it – longing for it – needing it so badly that you can barely stand it – suffering every moment that it isn’t happening.

As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you, O God!

It’s not just a pleasant desire we’re talking about. This is about something heavier.

Verse 2 – My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?

My soul longs. My soul thirsts. It is hurting the psalmist to not feel the Presence of God.

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

Why the modifier? Why add the “living” God part?
Is there such a thing as a dead God?
Remember the context. The psalmist is writing in a land and time where the Jewish people were surrounded by all sorts of religious traditions that had numerous gods and were usually represented by idols. An idol is by definition not living. The psalmist is saying something really fundamentally important about how they understand God. Our God is a living God – not breathing like a human but alive in the sense of being Present, being available, being able to interact with and be in relationship with.

Jesus used a similar image in John 4:10. To the woman at the well he spoke of the difference between plain water and living water. Living water, like a living God, refreshes, renews, and revitalizes.
My soul thirsts for the living God – for the living water. The psalmist stands in need of renewal.

When shall I come and behold the face of God?

Well, you already know the answer to this question. Whenever you open your eyes. Whenever you notice.
But clearly the psalmist is not noticing at this point because the longing and thirsting is palpable. And then come the taunts.

My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’

Things are apparently not going well for our psalmist in this season of their life.
Tears for food day and night.
Not fun.
And people saying “Where is your God?” Can you hear the dialogue behind that?

“Oh look at you, the big spiritual person, Mr/Ms church-goer, always going on about God and Jesus and Spirit and yet things are not going well for you. Where’s your God now?”

There’s another layer here too. In the psalmist’s day if you were having a bad time it was thought it was because the gods were displeased with you. That is patently untrue, but that was the general perception.
Our psalmist is trying hard to not believe it. Verse 4:

These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.

Pretty standard strategy. When you’re feeling blue you think back to good times and try to pull yourself out of it. The psalmist thinks back to times when their heart sang in worship – to a time when they absolutely knew and felt the Presence of God, that God was with them, that they were not alone.

And then the fascinating inner dialogue. Verse 5:

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

At first glance you might read this as a despondent person giving up, and then there’s a glimmer of light and some wishful thinking. But for me, when I changed the tone of it the whole thing took on a different meaning. I don’t think the psalmist is despondent here. I think they’re looking in the mirror and saying,
“What are you, dumb? You know better. You know God’s Presence is always here. Why are you revelling in this downcast, ‘o woe is me’ stuff? HOPE IN GOD. You know you’ll be praising and singing and feeling loved and supported again. You know you’re God’s beloved. You know you’re not alone. Smarten up!”

The reason I think all that is twofold. One, I simply know that it’s true – God is always Present. Full stop. If I’m feeling down today, well, that’s today – or a few days, or maybe even a season, but it’s not forever because God IS right here and sooner or later I’ll be able to open my eyes and my heart and embrace it.

And the second reason I think this is an appropriate interpretation is because of the word hope. We actually use the word hope incorrectly most of the time. In our time the word has become a direct substitute for the word wish. You might hear someone say “I hope I win the lottery.” In biblical times that sentence would make no sense whatsoever. Ok, partially because they didn’t have lotteries, but mostly because hope doesn’t mean wish it means sure confidence and trust that something is going to be.

Hope is an expression of desire, but it’s desiring something that you fully expect to come to pass even if you can’t feel it or reach it now. Even if it feels unlikely based on your current dire circumstance you have hope, confidence, trust, that it WILL be better.

hope-road-sunThe psalmist says “Hope in God!” They’re reminding themselves of their own fundamental theology. God has promised God’s Presence. You don’t have to wish for it. It’s here. You just have to trust that you’ll be in a place where you can perceive it again.

Hope in God; for I SHALL again praise him, my help and my God.

There is no doubt. There is only trust and assurance. It’s gonna happen. That’s hope.

The thing is that hope never works fast enough to please us. How many times have you prayed “Lord, give me patience, and give it to me NOW!”
And when it feels like God is far away – “Where is now your God?” – even though God’s Presence is always right here – when it feels that way none of the usual stuff works.

You sing your favourite song – nothing.
You pray that prayer you always pray – nothing.
You come to church and try extra hard to do all the right things – nothing.
All the usual places you look for God seem to be empty. So what should we do?

Listen carefully to verses 7 and 8 – two of the most beautiful and poetic verses of scripture we have:

Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts (it means waterspouts); all your waves and your billows have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

Deep calls to deep.
It’s the same word that’s used in Genesis 1:2 when the Spirit of God hovered over the deeps. It’s meant to convey a depth beyond understanding, a deepness that defies rational explanation and can only be felt.
It is God’s depth, God’s deepness, God’s Presence.

Deep calls to deep.
That means the infinite depth of God is calling to the infinite depth of you.

Deep calls to deep.
God’s deepness calls to the deepest part of you and me.
It’s not audible, you can’t touch it or apprehend it with your senses or your intellect.

We claim that we are made in the image of God. That means at our deepest ‘self’ there is God-ness. God’s Spirit, God’s depth already resides in the depths of you, has from your first instant, will for all eternity.
When your usual stuff doesn’t work, when you’re at the end of your rope, when you’re panting and thirsting for God but God doesn’t seem to be there, remember this: Deep calls to deep. God’s depth is calling to yours – connecting and communing with you in ways you might not even be able to perceive, for now.

Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your gushing living water; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.

Like a warm summer wind that just delights and refreshes you, like the spray of water on a hot, sweltering day, God’s loving Presence comes like waves and washes over you.
Deep calls to deep.

By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

That’s hope.
God’s steadfast love by day, and God’s song singing within us by night, a prayer to the Presence of God in our lives.

But we’re not so easily convinced, are we? I mean, even though we know this stuff deep down inside of us we still have this constant inner struggle trying to truly grasp it and hold onto it. The psalmist captures our inner dialogue perfectly. After just reassuring themselves that God IS Present, that deep DOES call to deep we’re right back to the fear and the doubt.

Verses 9-10:

I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?’
As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’

Longing, panting, thirsting, desperate, frustrated.
And then the hope again. Verse 11:

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

Have you heard that line before? Why is the psalmist repeating themselves?
It’s because it’s a psalm. Psalms are meant to be sung. They’re worship songs. They’re hymns.
This is the refrain, the chorus, the thing that we need to keep repeating because it’s the point of the whole thing.

Panting? Hope in God.
Thirsting? Hope in God.
Longing? Hope in God.
Frustrated? Hope in God.
Lost? Hope in God.

For I shall again praise God:

You alone are my strength, my shield. To you alone may my spirit yield
You alone are my heart’s desire and I long to worship you.

Please notice something very important here.
God makes promises, but they aren’t promises that everything in your life is going to always be sunshine and unicorns. God’s promise is that God is always Present.

What’s the psalmist’s state of mind/soul at the beginning of the psalm? They feel far from God. Did the end bring resolution? Well, that’s hard to say. Yes and no. No, the psalmist probably didn’t receive a miraculous waving of a magic wand and poof their troubles were erased. But in the gut-wrenching honesty of pouring out their soul before God the psalmist was able to cling to something very, very real: hope.

It begins in longing for something and ends without delivering it, but the sense of hope is reaffirmed!

This is not how we like things, especially in today’s world. We like pretty little bows wrapped on all our problems with solutions delivered in the 22 minutes a sit-com episode takes.
Maybe that’s why this psalm is so beloved, why it touches us so deeply. It’s because life is not a sit-com.
This psalm tells it like it is.

We get to fight and wrestle with God – we get to question and wonder why it feels like God has abandoned us – we get to long and pant and thirst and shake our fists and not understand.

 

And God responds:

“Deep calls to deep. Hope in God; for you shall again feel my Presence and rejoice.
I am your help, and I am your God, the living God.
You are my beloved.
You are mine.
You are not alone.”

 

Amen.