I thirst

Send our roots rain: Praying the Psalms

  • Psalm 63:1-8

Psalms from the Desert for Thirsty People

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. Psalm 63:1

Thirst is a visceral human instinct. Thirst is a fundamental biblical metaphor. We hear the Psalmist cry for out in thirst in this sixty-third Psalm. I thirst!

The Book of Psalms is the prayer book for Jews and Christians. The Psalms have been sung and prayed by God’s people across the ages. We thirst! And the Psalms help us name our thirst rightly (Psalm 63:1; 42:2; 143:6).

In every monastery for 16 centuries, Psalms are prayed from three to seven times each day. Praying the Psalms several times daily is for me one of the greatest gifts of being in the monastery. I thirst.

We have testimony from more than monks about the central place and enduring value of the Psalms. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to whom we shall return on February 5th, prayed the Psalms and made them central in the life of his underground seminary in World War II Germany. Sweden’s Dag Hammarskjold, one of the early Secretary General’s of the United Nations, carried the Book of Psalms with him wherever he went along with a New Testament and a copy of the UN Charter. All three were found in his briefcase recovered from the plane crash that took his life in September 1961.

In his commentary on The Book of Psalms, Old Testament professor, J. Clinton McCann, Jr., introduces the Psalms by saying that,
The Book of Psalms presents God’s claim upon the whole world and articulates God’s will for justice, righteousness, and peace among all peoples and nations….The Psalms anticipate Jesus’ bold presentation of God’s claim upon the whole world (“the [reign] of God has come near”) and that Jesus embodied the psalter’s articulation of God’s will for justice, righteousness, and peace among all people’s and nations” (IDB, Vol. IV, 641-42).

For all their centrality and majesty as the book of prayer for God’s people, the Psalms can also be troubling, even shocking in the words it helps us speak to God or hear from God. The Psalms embody every human experience and emotion.

One person confessed have real trouble with the Psalms, complaining that “They are so
whiney” (English priest to Ellen Davis). The Psalms were not written by proper folk but by Israelites who knew how to speak bluntly to God.

There is much more we could say to introduce this majestic book. Over these seven Sundays we will be hearing specific Psalms as well as hearing more about the Psalms.

Thirst in the desert of life

Today we hear the Psalmist crying out in thirst.

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you…. Psalm 63:1a

Thirst is a stark reality in the Biblical story. Much of the year in the biblical land of Israel it is so hot and dry. Anyone who has walked these biblical lands knows that by the time you really feel thirsty you have been without water too long. You can get in trouble over thirst fairly quickly. Intense thirst crying from the lips of the Psalmist speaks of danger and death for lack of water.

One of my Cincinnati Jewish friends and journalists in Cincinnati, Ben Kauffman, told me that water not oil is the key resource in the Middle East. We will hear more and more about rights to water in the future in Israel and Palestine.

My flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land,
where there is no water. Psalm 63:1b

Thirst is a fitting metaphor for our craving for God. Thirst awakens a powerful instinct for life within us, a craving for water to quench our thirst and keep us alive. Water is the source of life, it is essential for life.

You can go without food for some time and live. But you cannot live without water very long. Without food, hunger pangs gradually subside. Not so with thirst which does not diminish with deprivation; it deepens and drives one desperately in search of water.

For ten days I have been on a partial fast. I am fasting in prayerful solidarity with others from Christian Peacemaker Teams for the missing CPTers, Jim Loney, Norman Kember, Harmeet Sooden, and Tom Fox as well as for others abducted by “our side” of the war..

Yes, thirst is one of the body’s deepest desires and drives. The Psalmist knows that all our desires, at their deepest place, are desires for God. It can be said that all addictions are rooted in our deep desire for God. The addictions that do us in are those that are turned toward thirsts other than God.

Last Sunday afternoon, Bob Ekblad, founder of Tierra Nueva (which means New Earth from the Book of Revelation), did a book reading at Elliot bay Book Company. Bob read from his new book, Reading the Bible With the Damned. Bob teaches the Bible to guys in prison and migrant workers and anyone else who wants to learn about God. Bob insists that the most spiritual people he knows are addicts because they know they are thirsty and follow their thirst. Of course it often gets turned toward other things that become god. But then how many of us turn our thirsts toward other gods rather than to the One True God without recognizing it?

The Psalmist knows the difference between other gods and God and gives us language to pray and live the difference.
— The Psalmist knows this thirst for the Source of Life with her whole being.
— The Psalmist knows the bounty and beauty of God as the bedrock of life.
— The Psalmist knows that only God can quench our insatiable thirst.
— The Psalmist knows that God is the Living Water of Life.

I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. Ps. 63:2-3
I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

We cannot worship this Sunday without at least mentioning Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday is today. King knew the voice of the Psalmist and lived a deep thirst for the Living Waters of the Source of Life. King showed all of us that it is possible to receive the Living Water as the only Source of Life even at the cost of one’s life.

King was one of the most quotable and confronting voices of the past century. I am afraid that making a holiday in King’s honor dishonors him by domesticating how he lived and what he said. Hear this short quote from King:
“The saving of our world from pending doom will come not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a non-conformist minority”
-“Strength to Love.” 1963

Or to paraphrase another even shorter quote from King:
— If a [you haven’t] discovered something that [you] will die for,
[you aren’t] fit to live.”
-Speech, Detroit, 1963

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you…. Psalm 63:1a

**Sermon inspired by Ellen Davis, “I Thirst,” In Trust, Autumn 2005, 14-15