“O God, you are my God; earnestly 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.
2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
3 Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
4 So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands.
5 My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, 6 when I remember you upon 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 will sing for joy.
8 My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me. Psalm 63: 1-8
I read in the New York Times this week that some corporations are starting to hire “spirituality resource persons” as part of their employee wellness programs. I’m not applying for such work. I enjoy being pastor among you. Besides, the “spirituality resource persons” they are more likely to hire are psychics, mediums, gurus and practitioners of ancient Eastern arts of healing and meditation. Ministers of the Gospel need not apply. But if they were hiring ministers of the Gospel, I wouldn’t apply, because everyone knows that these “spirituality resource persons” are supposed to improve worker productivity and the corporate bottom line. As important as productivity and profitability are, it’s hard to see how Jesus died on a cross for them.
Still, that’s an improvement over what we often heard in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Then, people would often tell me, “Oh, don’t give me any of your spacey ‘woo-woo’ talk about God and spirituality. Get with the modern world, you medieval troglodyte! If something can’t be broken down into its chemical or its subatomic components in a test tube, if it can’t be repeated in laboratory experiments, documented and peer-reviewed by Ph.D-level scientists and academics, according to the most rigorous scientific method, then it just doesn’t exist. Any so-called ‘spiritual’ experience is just auto-suggestion or group hysteria. And we should have the modern, scientific, biochemical, neurological explanation for such experiences any day now, by means of the scientific method.”
That hyper-modern materialistic approach obviously did not satisfy the deepest hungers of people’s hearts, because now, in the post-modern age, spirituality is again big stuff. Increasingly, people cannot deny their hunger for and their experiences of one-ness, wonder, awakening, revelation or inspiration, of longing and yet belonging, perhaps in nature, or in some Twelve Step recovery group, in therapy, or by going on a tour of Buddhist or Hindu shrines in Asia, or Mayan temples in Mexico.
But they may have not experienced any of this in any setting of organized religion, like a church, a synagogue, or a mosque. Or they don’t see how anyone might ever experience such oneness and wonder in “organized religion.” At worst, they may have experienced the opposite: abuse, oppression, rejection, hypocrisy, corruption and cover-ups. But before anyone hangs all the faults and failures of organized religion around my neck, go look at my office, especially at my desk.
But there are some key differences between what corporations and many of my “spiritual but not religious” friends and family mean by “spirituality,” and the spirituality of Psalm 63. Just working through the verses, we start with: “O God, you are my God; earnestly 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.”
In Psalm 63 spirituality, you seek God, in order to get God. That’s the only promise that Psalm 63 makes. We love God and long for God for God’s sake. God is the “Blessed hunger” and God is “the Holy Feast,” our Lenten series. Everything else in life, like power, productivity and profitability, plays second fiddle to the human hunger and thirst for God. Because God’s “lovingkindness is better than life.”
In AA meetings the story is often told of one drunk asking another drunk, “Have you found God in any of those bottles yet?”
“No,” the other alcoholic says. “But not for lack of trying.”
The God who made us put his thumbprint into our hearts, and so left a space that he alone can fill, however much we try to fill that space with other things. That’s the best reason to fast during the Lenten season: so that our body’s hunger gives us a vivid picture of our spirit’s deepest hunger. Yet, however much we might hunger and long for God, God hungers and longs for us infinitely more.
Psalm 63 goes on to list some of the ways we feed our hunger for God. One way is through worship and adoration. In verses 3 and 4, we read, “…my lips will praise you.4 So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands.” Psalm 63’s kind of spirituality is for the honor and exaltation of God, rather than for the exaltation and empowerment of the self, or of our groups or corporations.
We worship and adore God simply because God is worthy. We also do so because praise and adoration are a form of union and communion with whatever or whoever we praise and adore. Think about when you have marveled at some aspect of creation, like a sunrise, or the birth of a baby. It’s wonderful enough just to observe and admire. But did not your appreciation and experience of that marvel increase by sharing your delight and praise of it with others? By saying, “Did you see that?” and “Isn’t that awesome?” did it not seem and feel more awesome than when you kept it to yourself? Our experience of something grows in intensity when we share it and express it with others. The praise and worship of God, when sincere, are a means of union and communion with God. Key, then, to the spirituality of Psalm 63 is the worship and adoration of God.
Sometimes the Psalmist worshiped God alone, in solitude. In verses 5 and 6, we hear these words of individual devotion: “my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, 6 when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night…” That’s why we encourage daily personal devotional reading and prayer.
But the psalmist also worships in community with others. In verse 2 we hear, “So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.” This Psalm is ascribed to King David. The sanctuary in which he saw, or experienced, God’s power and glory would have been Israel’s portable tabernacle; the temple had not yet been built. Did he experience something of God’s glory and power, in a worship service? Was it in the fiery glow of the divine presence that hovered over the mercy seat inside the Holy of Holies? Whatever the case, it would have been in the presence of other people, in some sort of worship gathering, with others, that he tasted and saw that the Lord is good.
Contrast that with the most prominent commercial image of spirituality and wellness today, that of a single, solitary person sitting, meditating, in a lotus position with his thumb and finger touching. It’s hard to see where community and accountability fit into to that postmodern vision of spirituality, in which, for some, spiritual transformation, enlightenment and awakening are do-it-yourself self-improvement, or self-empowerment projects.
Biblical spirituality does not separate individual spiritual life from the spiritual life of the congregation and the community. That’s why Jesus put the two commandments, to love God and to love our neighbor, together, in one single, seamless fabric of spirituality and morality. So, the Mennonite Disaster Service trailer that we are commissioning today, and the Senior Center in Bolivia that we will support next week, are very spiritual things.
Another way we feed our blessed hunger for God in Psalm 63 is in trusting and depending upon God. We read in verses 7 and 8: “for you have been my help…my soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” That “faith,” or trust or dependence upon God is different from forms of spirituality that focus mostly on the self, on drawing out the potential of the self, or developing the self.
Now, we are marvelous creations of God, “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as another Psalm says. But we are not God. Those passing moments of wonder, oneness and awakening, that poignant sense of longing and yet belonging, the flashes of insight that defy being put into words that we call “spiritual experiences,” that all sorts of people have had, are glimpses of the territory ahead, but not the journey itself. While the spiritual territory ahead is beautiful and inspiring, David also describes it as “a dry and weary land where there is no water.” To stay on the spiritual journey, and stay alive on it, I, at least, need a community with me. I also need a guide and protector. I need to know who he is, and what this guide and protector is like, what promises he has made, what purposes he has, what he has done before and what he intends to do in the future.
The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, about whom I read and hear in the Bible, sounds and look like a very good guide, defender and companion for the journey through the beautiful but dry and dangerous land that we a call “spirituality.” My experience bears that out. In fact, the Gospel tells me that, in the person of Jesus Christ, this God has shared and experienced our hungers and thirsts, and has met and overcome the dangers, distractions and the devils we find there, like he did when fasting in the desert.
I said it a moment ago and I’ll say it again in closing: However much we might hunger, thirst and long for this God, the God of Psalm 63 hungers, thirsts and longs for us infinitely more.