A congregation of the United Church of Canada
[began with a body prayer of Psalm 63 in Kids’ Time]
You are my God (hands on heart)
I seek you (hand horizontal at forehead)
I need you (palms up)
Like water in a desert (acting parched)
You are the best thing ever (hands high, arch back)
My lips praise you (hands to mouth and then open forward)
I kneel before you (kneeling)
I lift my hands in praise (lifting)
You fill me up like Christmas dinner! (hands on belly!)
I dream about you (tilt head, hands as pillow)
I think about you (touch finger to temple)
I feel safe in you (self hug)
I cling to you (hands clenched under chin)
You hold me (hands cupped)
Those who try to hurt me (make fists)
Will fail (palms down, horizontal, outward in opposite directions)
And I will rejoice (hands waving)
Yr C ~ Lent 3 ~ Psalm 63
We’ve been looking at psalms as our text through this season of Lent, and I don’t know about you but I’m loving it! The thing I think I love best about psalms is how real they are. Two weeks ago we encountered a psalm that wrestled with our human desire to have immunity from all life’s ills if we have faith. The psalmist goes up and down, and all around, and finally lands in a place where they know that immunity just isn’t on the table. What God offers isn’t bubble wrap, but Presence! And that is everything.
Last week the psalmist was riding high on the top of the world fully immersed in God’s loving Presence when all of a sudden they look around and can’t sense God anymore, and they freak out! Again, how real is that! In the end that psalmist comes to the understanding that knowing and trusting that God IS Present, even when we might not be able to feel that at a given moment, is enough. So they commit to prayerfully waiting for God – which really means prayerfully waiting for themselves because God is already there. Remember, if God seems absent, but we know that God is ever-present, then the one absent from the equation is US – so the waiting is for us, ourselves, to turn back and open up again to sense and savour God’s Presence. Another hard, but beautiful dose of spiritual reality.
And this week we get a different kind of psalm again. There’s no big existential struggle in this one. There’s no plea for safety or protection. At the end there’s even a confident expression of overcoming one’s enemies, which serves to remind us that the psalm isn’t just abstract theology, but the victory in the end is by the psalmist’s doing, not God’s.
No, what we get in Psalm 63 is pure, heart-wrenching, soul-bursting, overwhelming yearning for God. It’s all about desire, and longing, and thirst. It’s quite passionate, and that’s what makes it really important for people like us to embrace this psalm and let it speak deeply to us.
What do I mean by “people like us”? I mean those who are at home in what is generally referred to as the mainline church. The mainline protestant church in North America includes us, the Anglicans or Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the United Methodists, the United Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, and others like that. The common things among us are that we are liturgically based (our worship looks more or less like what we do here), we use classic hymns (among others), and we are, generally speaking, on the “liberal” side of the theological spectrum.
Those who aren’t in the mainline are the Catholics and the Evangelicals and Pentecostals. Catholics are in their own kind of category, but Evangelicals and Pentecostals are generally known for being far more free in their worship forms, they use much more praise music, and are much more likely to be on the “conservative” side of the theological spectrum.
But perhaps the most distinctive difference is in what we do with our hands.
Charismatics wave them – Mainliners sit on them!
The mainline church has jokingly been called the “Frozen Chosen”. Where does that come from? It’s because, generally speaking, mainline churches are not known for being emotional, or demonstrative. We tend to prize dignity, order, and the intellect. It doesn’t mean we’re not passionate – it just means we tend not to outwardly show it. We keep our faith to ourselves. Whenever I say the word “evangelism” I can feel people squirm. That would mean I’d have to be public about my faith – I’d have to try to be persuasive – which means I’d have to say out loud why it’s important to me.
Now, Psalm 63 has absolutely nothing to do with evangelism – but it has everything to do with passion. Its themes are not our regular mainline themes. And that can make us uncomfortable. And if we embrace it, it just might serve to thaw some of the frozen chosen! Good!!!
Every syllable of this psalm is geared toward expressing the psalmist’s deepest desire – God. The yearning is palpable. Listen to the first verse, and hear how passionate the psalmist is about this:
Psalm 63:1 O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
O God – reverence – you are my God – intimacy – I seek you – desire – my soul thirsts for you – longing – my flesh faints for you – almost desperation – as in a dry and weary land where there is no water – absolute need, utter yearning.
Notice what the psalmist is comparing their need for God with – thirst. It’s far more than just desire. I desire lots of things – warmer weather, longer holidays, more hair, chocolate chip cookies – but water is different.
What happens if I don’t get what I desire? I’m sad.
What happens if I don’t get water? I die!
And so what is the psalmist saying about their need for God’s Presence?
Without God’s Presence, they’ll die!
God’s Presence is the difference between feeling dead and feeling alive.
“My God, I seek you, I thirst for you, I faint for you, I need you, I desire you, I long for you, I yearn for you, I’m desperate for you, I’ll die without you” – said no United Church person ever!
Even right now some of you are sitting there thinking, “Gee, something’s got into Larry today!”
You’re right! The more I’ve been working with this psalm over the last couple of weeks the more I can actually feel my frozen heart thawing!
Your steadfast love is better than life. My lips will praise you.
I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast. My mouth praises you with joyful lips.
I think of you on my bed. I meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
(“Quick, someone get him some water. I think he’s having a moment!”)
Yes, he is! Yes, I am!
Would it be so crazy if you were?
If considering the Presence of God doesn’t turn or knees to Jell-O and our hearts to fire then why have we invested all this time and energy into this whole religion thing? Fire insurance? No way! Not even close.
But to think that we in the mainline theological traditions have denied opening ourselves to this kind of whole-hearted, full-throated, passionate yearning for God just because it might make us look a little less composed, and erudite, and stoic is almost criminal.
Do you know how many times our hymn books use the words “yearning” or “longing”? About a dozen times. Over 900 hymns, with multiple verses each, and we manage fewer yearnings than a party pack of Timbits.
And do you know what it was that knocked the socks off of the psalmist here? It wasn’t a promise of protection, or an immunity card, or riches, or long life, or power over enemies – it was hesed.
God’s hesed is the thing that our psalmist – and we – ultimately thirst for.
Hesed is a gloriously complex and spiritually rich Hebrew word that gets translated with several different English words. The most prevalent ones are: loving-kindness, mercy, truth, steadfast love. Hesed is used to express how full and deep and holy God’s love is.
It’s kind of like the Greek word agape which is reserved for a special kind of holy love that’s different from romance or friendship or family.
Hesed, loving-kindness, God’s steadfast love – that’s the starting point, that’s the grounding point, that’s the foundation of everything. That’s the thing that’s better than life!
Psalm 63:3 Your steadfast love (your hesed) is better than life! My lips will praise you.
God’s love is better than life! Better. Than. Life!
Another way to say that is “Your loving-kindness is better than living.”
Or how about this, “Your steadfast, loving-kindness makes life worth living!”
The praise song we sang said “Better is one day in your courts than thousands elsewhere!”
In our New Testament, Acts 17:28 In you we live, and move, and have our being.
1 O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you.
3 Your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
4 I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
6 I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
7 for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
8 My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
Are you overwhelmed yet? Is your heart racing yet? Can you feel a little thaw happening?
This intense, overflowing yearning for God – a feeling and thirst that’s so strong that without God’s Presence you might die – this longing is the stuff that drives our desire for relationship with God.
If I could pray one thing for you to take away from this it’s that you might “Be Longing”!
What should I be about as a Christian person? Be Longing!
I will be so bold as to suggest that has not been our focus often enough!
In the past, church (both mainline and charismatic) has been accused of being too rigidly locked into a paradigm that expected people to first believe certain theological views, then behave according to the tenets and standards that the community of faith expected, and then one could authentically belong to that community. Honestly, I’m not sure that was ever expressly the case in any church I’ve been associated with, but that’s the accusation. Apparently, Christianity has for too long been about believing and behaving in order to achieve belonging.
Recently, a movement that turns that upside down has been gaining attention. The new idea is that churches would be wiser to focus first on belonging – on creating open and welcoming space that affirms the value and giftedness and sacredness of every person. Then, as a person is welcomed and belongs they absorb the values of the community and behave in kind – meaning they will strive to follow the “Way of Jesus” (not just a series of do’s and don’ts). Then, over time, a theological view deepens and matters of belief can be developed and better understood. In other words, this new paradigm is belonging, and behaving in order to achieve believing (and to be fair, the view of believing is a more generous and open-ended believing than the more dogmatic belief that seems to have previously been expected).
Clearly, this is much better, but alas I remain unconvinced. Or should I say, unmoved!
The suggestion is that it’s all supposed to start with a sense of belonging. A recent discussion thread on Facebook asked United Church ministers why they thought a community needed a church in it, and the vast majority of the responses were about building community, creating safe space in a mean world, and combating the prevalence of loneliness with things like inclusion, and multi-generational connection, and the like. In other words, belonging.
Please understand, I’m not saying belonging is in any way a bad thing. It’s essential.
But I do have this question.
Why? Why belong here?
Why seek belonging in a church?
What makes Christian community richer than so-called secular expressions of community?
I think the answer is hidden in our churches but because we’re so steeped in mainline stuffiness we’re loathe to actually say it, and really let ourselves feel it.
Our belonging is special because it’s rooted in being “longing”!
Be Longing! Be Yearning! Be desiring!
So instead of belonging, behaving, and believing I’d like to propose another paradigm. How about this:
Be-longing, be-loving, becoming.
Be longing. Start with your heart. Start with yearning for God’s hesed – after all, it’s better than life!
Let your longing lead you to be loving! Love God, love people, love one another. Love, love, love. Be loving, as you are beloved!
And together that should lead us into becoming
– becoming the people God created us to be
– becoming better and better versions of ourselves
– becoming the hands and heart of Jesus in our here and now
– becoming a reflection of God’s hesed that fills our souls with love and Spirit.
Our becoming is through our beloving, is through our belonging – our be-longing.