Scripture: Psalm 42
When I was a junior in high school, I took an American history course with E. Leslie Byrnes, an eccentric teacher with an idiosyncratic style. One day, we were to have a fairly major test on some era of our history—I’ve totally forgotten which period of that history—and after we had gotten settled, we readied ourselves for the distribution of the test. Instead, what Mr. Byrnes did was hand out a test book and simply write one word on the board: “Water.” I don’t recall him saying anything about it. He just sat down and left us to figure it out.
As best I can recall it, he wanted us to use our imaginations and to take stock of the role water had played in that chapter of our history. We were probably to write about the Panama Canal and steam engines and the growth of coastal cities and the Dust Bowl’s dearth of water and the Great Lakes. Of all my school exams, it’s the only one I remember.
Water, of course, is key to everything. We’re aware of it on so many fronts. I just saw that this has been the fourth rainiest spring in Northeast Ohio in the last 120 years—almost every day bringing a new torrent of rain. State government is working on ways to limit invasive species and algal blooms in Lake Erie. Yesterday, of course, was the fiftieth anniversary of the infamous fire on the Cuyahoga River, with its clean-up letting us now exult in its revival. This summer Federated is inviting you to take a small bottle and to collect water from wherever you travel. And earlier in today’s worship, we celebrated baptism, with both local water and water from the Jordan River. Water, water, everywhere!
And for us as people, we are utterly dependent on it. Our brains and hearts are 73% water, our lungs 83% water, and our entire bodies are up to 60% water. If we don’t drink water, we won’t live long. Our bodies know enough to thirst when we don’t have enough of it. We crave it if we’re dehydrated—we have to drink. When I was a young man living in Boston, I once went out on a long run on a hot day. I decided to weigh myself before and after, and I lost ten pounds on that run. When I got home, I was incredibly parched, and I drank a whole gallon of water.
When we’re thirsty, we don’t just desire water, we need it. It’s not a luxury; it’s a necessity: we have to have it. And strikingly, maybe surprisingly, whether we know it or not, we have that same need for God. “As a deer longs for flowing streams,” wrote the psalmist, “so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42:1). In his translation called The Message, Eugene Peterson puts it this way: “A white-tailed deer drinks from the creek; I want to drink God, deep draughts of God. I’m thirsty for God-alive.”
“I want to drink God, deep draughts of God. I’m thirsty for God-alive.” It’s a captivating image. It calls us to attention. And, at the same time, I can’t help but wonder how many of us really feel that way, how many of us have such a craving to connect with God. Most of the time, we just go about our business, don’t we. We fill the car with gas, pick up groceries, cook dinner, wash the dishes. We dive into our work and stay up late to plan the next day’s tasks. We buy a birthday card, take a nap, check in with our children or our parents and tell them about the plumbing that needs fixing and how Jessica broke her nose. We sit down with a good book, watch Jeopardy, knit, or play a softball game.
And maybe days or weeks or even years go by, and we have never once thirsted for God, we have never once felt ourselves yearning to drink deeply of God. We go through the daily motions. And we may well be relatively happy. And God may seem a million miles away.
Until—maybe someone we adore dies, and there are things we wish we had said and the hole in our lives is gargantuan and we can’t really imagine how we’re going to go on. Or maybe a child is sick or has developed an eating disorder and we feel suffocated and petrified. Or maybe we have failed dramatically at work, in such a way that we will never again have the respect or position we once had.
Or maybe it’s something less dramatic but equally engulfing. The columnist David Brooks knows that life can drive us to thirst for God. He writes about the “two mountains” the people he admires often climb. When they were young, they climbed the first mountain. “They got out of school, began their career, started a family and identified the mountain they thought they were meant to climb—I’m going to be an entrepreneur, a doctor, a cop. They did the things society encourages us to do, like make a mark, become successful, buy a home, raise a family, pursue happiness. People on the first mountain spend a lot of time on reputation management. They ask: What do people think of me? Where do I rank? They’re trying to win the victories the ego enjoys.” They’re convinced they’ll be happy if they just attain excellence or achieve the necessary benchmarks or pass all the tests.
In the lives Brooks admires, though, something happens that upsets that whole way of thinking and being. “Some of them achieved success and found it unsatisfying. They figured there must be more to life, some higher purpose. Others failed. They lost their job or endured some scandal. Suddenly they were falling, not climbing, and their whole identity was in peril. Yet another group of people got hit sideways by something that wasn’t part of the original plan. They had a cancer scare or suffered the loss of a child. These tragedies made the first-mountain victories seem, well, not so important.”
“Some people,” says Brooks, “are broken by this kind of pain and grief. They seem to get smaller and more afraid, and never recover. . . . But other people are broken open. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that suffering upends the normal patterns of life and reminds you that you are not who you thought you were. The basement of your soul is much deeper than you knew. Some people look into the hidden depths of themselves and they realize that success won’t fill those spaces. Only a spiritual life and unconditional love from family and friends will do” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/06/opinion/sunday/moral-revolution-david-brooks.html).
The chasms we fall into are agony when they happen. And those very chasms become the opportunity to do what we may have neglected to do all along—to thirst for God, to find again our roots, to bathe again, or for the first time, in the waters of life that buoy us and lift us into a new hopefulness. For Brooks, this is climbing the second mountain, the one that lets us find our true bearings, the one that reveals a deeper truth, the one that elevates us into the joy and grace and hope that are there for us no matter what the particular circumstances of our earthly lives are.
It is precisely at the points where we bend and break that God is there to hold us and reassure us and give us peace. It is precisely at the points where life falls apart that we can be put back together by One who is greater than ourselves. It’s when we stop being able to prove ourselves that we are proved. It’s when we cease being able to earn our worth that our true worth really shines. It’s only when we find ourselves unable to achieve what we think we want that we can be graced with what we really want. Thirst—thirst and long for God.
This reminder of where our true worth is, of where our true roots lie, is worth hearing on a day when we will meet to talk as a church about how to proceed into an unknown future. Like many churches, we are in a position of having to discern a future that is different from the one we might have envisioned a decade or two ago. The spiritual landscape has changed. The way many people practice, or don’t practice, faith has changed.
So we are confronted with the need to discern how best to utilize the abundant resources we have been given. We have two major facilities which have been gifted to us by previous generations, this building and our Family Life Center in Bainbridge. Both of them are huge blessings. The way we are utilizing them at the moment, though, is pinching us financially in a noticeable way. Just this winter and spring, a task force, and then our Church Council itself, came to the conclusion that, as we presently utilize them, our two facilities are cramping our mission.
So we are in the painful position of realizing that we can’t keep doing things as we have been doing them. Something has to change if we’re to continue thriving as a church. The Council has recommended looking at options for our facilities, and, following extensive listening sessions with the congregation, the Council has responded carefully to the thoughts and feelings expressed, and expanded the options being considered, while also honoring the deep connections numerous Federated families have to the FLC’s Memorial Gardens.
What we may all sometimes forget, in the emotion of the moment, is that, painful as this chapter may indeed seem, we are, at the very same time, filled with graces. We are on the cusp of a promising new chapter. We are in the enviable position of having two remarkable facilities which, in some yet unknown way, will unlock new potential for ministry. If we sell part or all of the Family Life Center, we will have new financial resources to build and sustain ministries that make a difference. And if there is an as yet unknown way to repurpose the FLC that is vibrant and sustainable, then that would be its own enormous blessing.
At our center, though, the greatest of all blessings is that, no matter what happens, we are rooted in the One who is “all in all” (I Corinthians 15:28), we are held by the One who will never let us go, we are led by the One who makes all things new. It may sound odd to say, but what’s asked of us is that we get out of the way and yield. Our first mountain may not have given us what we had hoped in the way we had hoped. But there is a second mountain yet to climb, a mountain that has God as its peak, a mountain that has gifts yet to be revealed, a mountain whose mysteries will bless us and the world in new and vivid ways. Our thirst is quenched not by our ideas and accomplishments, but by the God who fills us and leads us in ways we can’t ever fully imagine, and who holds us close even when nothing goes the way we had thought or hoped it would. Our thirst is quenched by the God of endless grace.
We sing today words that call us back to the center: “Lord I come, I confess, bowing here I find my rest. And without you I fall apart, you’re the one that guides my heart. Lord, I need you, oh, I need you. Every hour I need you. My one defense, my righteousness, O God, how I need you.” Or, in The Message version of that marvelous psalm: “A white-tailed deer drinks from the creek; I want to drink God. . . . Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul? Why are you crying the blues? Fix my eyes on God—soon I’ll be praising again. [God] puts a smile on my face. [That’s] my God” (42:1,5,11). And let the people say “Amen.”