May 26, 2019

“The Desert Blues” 

Psalm 63


Psalm 63 is entitled “a psalm of David.” When was this psalm written, in the timeline of David’s life if indeed it comes from David? We know there are people who seek the psalmist’s life, as it says in verse 9. Many theologians, myself included place this psalm at the time in David’s life after having killed Goliath, and after leading Saul’s army into victory. He had to flee for his life from King Saul. (1 Sam 23:14) Saul was jealous of David, had tried to kill David due to his popularity among the people, and so he ran into the wilderness. In this midst of having to flee, at the beginning of the psalm, David experienced the absence of God as the thirst and hunger of the soul.


He was out in the Judean Wilderness, translated as “desert” in Hebrew. What was that like? It was hot and dry with little to no shade in most areas. (10:00- show images). I haven’t spent much time out in the desert. Other than driving to and from the Grand Canyon in Arizona a couple of times for vacation, my only extended time out in the desert was on a summer mission trip with a group from Concord 1st Presbyterian Church in 1987. Both Paula and I went to a place called “Indian Wells”, AZ, to have a vacation Bible school for the tiny church among the Navajo. When we finally arrived at the location of the church, there was a small sanctuary and fellowship hall all by itself out in the middle of a high desert, with plateaus off in the distance. No other buildings of any kind were visible for miles. I would say both Paula and I felt like we were out in the middle of nowhere. It was hot and dry during the day and would cool off somewhat at night, but not enough to get comfortable.


David was out in that similar kind of desert in Judea, hiding from King Saul, trying to keep alive. It was for him both a literal and spiritual desert experience. God had been with him throughout his life- had helped him slay a giant, helped him be victorious in battle, had helped him gain popularity among the people of God. Where was God now in the midst of the desert? 


There have been a number of times when I did not feel God close to me, and I had desert experiences of faith. When our first child was born in 1990  as we moved into seminary housing, waiting to bring her home from Oakland Children’s hospital- that was the beginning of a nearly 4-year long desert experience. When we got her home, our daughter Sarah suffered seizures and struggled with other issues. It is so difficult to see your child suffer and feel helpless. All of this happened while we were at seminary, a place where you might think you would feel God closely. I often felt the absence of God while struggling through Hebrew classes, and History of Theology classes, in the midst of trying to work with round the clock nursing staff and care for our child. It was often a desert-like experience for me while there and I confess I don’t enjoy visiting there very much when I drop by the campus of SFTS. There have been many such desert experiences for my faith in my life. At times when both parents were suffering toward the end of their lives, for my Dad in 2013 and mother just this past year, it was rough. In 2014, when my congregation at the time in Fort Bragg split apart over the issue of same sex marriage, I felt abandoned by God for a time and abandoned by people I was close to especially when they started to leave the church because of my stance in favor of same-sex marriage. Those are but a few of the wilderness/desert experiences I have had in my life.


Yet I know I’m not alone in such struggles in life. All of us go through such difficult stretches in life, and it can be tricky to navigate through such times. Even one of the most well-known saints in the Catholic church, a woman who dedicated her life to working with the poorest of the poor, Mother Teresa went through at least one prolonged desert experience, where she felt God was distant for years. In writing to Rev. Michael Van Der Peet in 1979, she says, “Jesus has a very special love for you. [But] as for me--The silence and the emptiness is so great--that I look and do not see,--Listen and do not hear.” In more than 40 communications to friends, she bemoaned the "dryness," "darkness," "loneliness" and "torture" she was undergoing as she experienced distance between herself and God. She had a thirst in her soul for the holy but was not able to quench it.


Theologian James Mays says this psalm “…speaks of the thirst of the soul of David, the quenching that thirst through the presence of God in the sanctuary, and the response of praise as the expression of life itself.” David had a physical and a spiritual thirst for God, was struggling through a literal and physical desert experience, got through that crisis and lived to tell about it. This psalm can be a bit of a road map for us when we too find ourselves in desert-like experiences in life-God seemingly distant and surrounded by wilderness. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at this psalm.


David begins, “Oh God, you are my God. I seek you. My soul thirsts for You and my flesh faints for you.”. David feels the distance between himself and God and is emotionally overcome. Our need for communion with God is compared here with our absolute need for life-sustaining water. Our bodies are 60 percent water and so our chances of survival without it diminishes significantly after three days. This prayer notes that our spiritual survival will not be long without being fed by our relationship with God. God’s presence is as life-sustaining as water and food.


Regarding water and the body’s need to quench thirst, again on that mission trip to Indian Wells, Paula and I drove in the first real vehicle we bought as a couple, a 1987 Toyota truck, which had no air conditioning. We drove that truck all the way down through Southern California, across the tip of Nevada into AZ, during the summer without air conditioning. I remember having a picture of the truck, with ALL of the 30+ Gatorade and water bottles we consumed on top of the cab on the way to the mission spot. During that drive, we had a thirst the whole time that was hard to quench.


The soul has a thirst as well, that can be hard to quench, which is what David was experiencing.  Many people may not understand the thirst of the soul for God that disturbs and drives their living, but it is there because God created the human soul to correspond TO God. When that correspondence is weakened, disturbed, or interrupted, the soul is off balance, and will at times seek other things to fill that void between it and its maker. The psalmist knows what is missing. The dissatisfaction of life is the thirst of the soul for God.


His first way of getting through this desert experience is to remember. He remembers God’s presence while worshiping back in Jerusalem. He writes, “I have looked at you in the sanctuary, beholding your glory and power.”  Now there was no permanent temple at the time, but there was a place of worship in Jerusalem, called the tabernacle. It was there that David felt God’s presence. So the sense here is that David felt God’s presence and power and glory in worship. In fact, the tabernacle, which was a tent supported by an acacia wood frame was also called “the dwelling place of God.”  Verse 2 is one of remembrance of God. Longing activates those memories and this psalm draws us to remember God’s power/strength/might and God’s honor, or in the Hebrew God’s “heaviness.” We are invited to imagine the greatness of God and the weightiness of God’s purposes.


I can remember when we first did the prayer stations on the first Sunday in Lent back in March. I went back in after the 10 a.m. service, and all I can tell you is, I felt the very presence of God. There was a heaviness of weight in the air, a sense of the holy. I remember stopping in my tracks in the aisle of the sanctuary and saying out loud, “Oh wow. You are still HERE, aren’t You?” That sense of God’s presence is what David recalled in the psalm.


In verse 3 we read that David’s lips will praise God. Why? Because God’s steadfast love is better than life itself. Again, in the midst of the desert, David remembers those times in his life when God was steadfast, present when David clearly felt God’s love for him. So, because of that memory of the blessings of God, David will bless God as long as he lives. Even in fear for his life, out in the middle of nowhere, David will bless God. After reflecting upon God’s faithfulness, David lifts his hands up and calls upon God’s name.


Verse 5 is a further remembering of God’s faithfulness in the past, a time when his soul was full and happy.  I like the Prime Rib bit from Peterson on this verse better then marrow and fat. Yet we had a good conversation during our Senior Older Adult Program(SOAP) lunch this past Friday about marrow. I can remember my mother, who grew up in the depression, often going after lamb and other bones long after any meat was left, sucking the marrow out. When there was any source of protein on your plate during those difficult economic times, you got whatever you could! One of the folks at the lunch talked about getting the marrow from the bone and spreading it on toast. So, whether it be marrow or an end cut of yummy prime rib, the point is that David could remember when his soul was full and blessed. Based upon verse 6, this psalm may’ve been written while David lay upon his bed in his tent, meditating upon God’s past faithfulness, surrounded by loyal soldiers during their watches at night.


In verse 7, David continues his remembrance of God’s faithfulness. God has been David’s help in the past, and he needs it now. In the midst of his struggle in the desert, David‘s soul clings to God. The word translated as “clings” in Hebrew actually means-“to drawback, to impinge, cling or adhere. Impinge means “to collide with, to push against.” What comes to mind for me is when my dog comes running to me to say hello when I get home and he crashes into me. David’s soul crashes into God in the midst of his longing for help.


With confidence in God’s past help, David now writes that his enemies will be taken care of. And even King Saul, who seeks to kill David will rejoice in God and return to the ways of God. And finally, those who spread gossip about David in the King’s court to enrage Saul, they too will be taken care of.


After reflecting upon this psalm, theologian Paul O Myhre writes, “The difficult things in life are hard to endure. They can press on the chest like an asthma attack and you can’t find space to breathe. In the midst of them, it can feel like you are running through a rain-soaked field of corn where each step gathers more mud on your legs. You stop in the middle from exhaustion and are not sure about the decision to cross the field after so much rain.” This psalm and others like it can help us during those difficult stretches in life. They can remind us that people of faith who are highlighted in scripture struggled, suffered and cried out for help to God, who at times felt distant even to them. They can point us to a way out, by remembering ties of faithfulness in our lives in the past, which can then rekindle hope, a stubborn hope that reminds us “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”(John 1:5) Alleluia. Amen.

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