צ מ א ה נ פ ש י ל א ל ה י ם

Read the complete text of Ellen Davis's sermon. 

The new addition to Duke Divinity School includes an entrance graced by glass panels that illustrate Psalms 42 and 43. This original art was created by Diane Palley, a New Mexico-based artist who creates papercuts with Jewish and scriptural themes. Palley's papercuts were then transferred to the glass through a process of silkscreening and sandblasting.

"My נ פ ש , throat, my soul, my whole being thirsts for God." Thirst is one of the elemental metaphors of the Bible, and for good reason. For large stretches of the year in most places, the land of Israel is hot and dry. Anyone who has walked through that land knows that by the time you feel thirst, you have already been too long without water. In that semi-arid landscape, thirst is a sign of trouble. Extreme thirst such as our psalmist feels is a harbinger of death. Paradoxically, that is why thirst is such a fitting metaphor for the craving for God — because deep thirst may be the common experience that awakens most powerfully our instinct for life. If you don't eat, you may after a few days become lethargic and even lose interest in food. Not so with thirst. Thirst does not subside with deprivation; it intensifies. It concentrates our energies on satisfaction. It drives, propels us toward the source of life.

So the central image in Diane Palley's panel is the deer craving water: head thrust forward, scenting out with a sure instinct the river on which life depends. "For with you [God] is the source of life, מ ק ן ר ח י י ם , the fountain of life" (Psalm 36:9), says another psalmist. Here in the panel, the river is visibly the source of all life and blessing. In its flow are 18 beautiful fish, representing the 18 benedictions that form the core of the Jewish liturgy: 18 beautiful prayers praising the generosity, the beneficence of God as the One who gives knowledge, forgives sin, hears prayer, heals the sick, redeems Israel.

The beneficence of God is the bedrock reality of life, and our psalmist does not doubt it for a moment. Yet everything the psalmist is experiencing right now seems to testify against that reality. The enemy is asking for evidence: "Just where is your God?" And right now, all our psalmist is feeling is loss, absence — and terrible, insatiable thirst. No wonder the psalmist is thirsty. "My tears have been food for me day and night." If you are swallowing salty tears, then you are getting thirsty. And the psalmist knows that only one thing, only One is going to satisfy that thirst. This, then, is a psalm about letting your tears lead you to the fountain, the source of all life.

A good friend of mine, an English priest, says he has trouble with the psalms, even though he prays them daily. "They are so whiny." What can I say? The psalms were written not by Englishmen, but by Israelites. Muted public affect is not a cultural value for them. Our psalmist is holding onto God with tears.

"My tears have been food, ל ח ם , bread for me" — tears as sustenance. As I have dwelt on Diane Palley's design, now over some months, it is her interpretation of that metaphor that has most captured my imagination and changed my thinking. See, she has depicted those tears as raindrops falling from the clouds into the fertile soil and bringing forth growth. In a schematic yet accurate picture of the fruitfulness of the land of Israel, she has filled the terraced slopes with crops, the seven fruits native to that land: wheat, barley, figs, grapes, dates, olives, and pomegranates. "The seven fruits of the land of Israel" is a traditional theme for Jewish art, but what is freshly revealing is the way Diane Palley has developed the psalmist's insight that tears are a necessary part of fruitfulness. To be more specific, tears are necessary to bring forth the full fruit of faith.

If in this place tears are not just tolerated but required of us from time to time, it is because the thirst for God that brought each of us to this place has at the same time drawn us into the very center of a sustained conflict. Simply stated, we have been drawn into conflict with everything that is opposed to God — including everything (and it is much) in ourselves that is opposed to God and God's way with our lives. Theological education is in no small part a matter of becoming sensitized to all the ways our world and our own inclinations, our habits of mind and heart, are set in opposition to God. That increased sensitivity is painful, even if it is what makes it possible for us to participate in Christ's ministry of reconciling the world to God (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). It may be unlikely that Christ's work of reconciliation will be completed in our time here (though I'd like to be wrong about that). More likely, even the internal aspect of the conflict will not be fully resolved for any of us, no matter how extended our stay here may be. No, if we are faithful to our baptismal covenant — and Augustine read this psalm as the charter for the baptized life — then for the rest of our lives in this world we will be engaged in a struggle with all the forces and influences and powers that are inimical to God. That is wearying, often discouraging and worse. So a great part of our obligation to our sisters and brothers in faith is to sustain one another when the conflict becomes especially acute, in our individual lives and in the common life — when we are assaulted with despair, the enemy of the God of hope; when we are facing off against death, the last enemy of the Living God for whom our psalmist, and Jesus on the cross, thirst.

Thirst for God draws us into conflict. And of course, the conflict gets more intense, the closer we approach to God. When you think about it, this makes perfect sense — although it is still hard to accept. For does not Scripture over and over represent the place closest to God — be it Sinai, Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee, the foot of the cross — as the epicenter of a storm? The psalmist says, "Your waves and your billows overwhelm me" — and Diane Palley shows us the waters of God, at the same time tumultuous and life-giving. If you drink from that stream, you will get buffeted; you can nearly drown. This is surely the hardest experience of the life of faith, and there is much evidence for it in the experience of faithful Jews and Christians over centuries and millennia. You know it is thirst for God that has brought you to this place of intense conflict, this place where the buffeting itself seems to come from God. "Your waves and your billows overwhelm me." Nearly drowning in the torrent that flows from God — can we say that this is what Jesus experienced (and surely for Christians, Jesus is the definitive pray-er of this psalm) — isn't that the experience of Jesus, when he shed tears in Gethsemane, when he thirsted on Calvary? I am buffeted, overwhelmed; I am brought very low — and still, "I thirst for you" (cf. Psalm 63:2), for the living God.

Thirst not yet satisfied, tears not yet dried — those are realities of the life of faith. But the bedrock reality is the beneficence, the incredible generosity of God. Our altar table stands at the center of our chapel — it should be at the center of our lives — as testimony to both sides of our lived reality. We are drawn to it by our thirst; week after week we are drawn back to it. We come, trusting that in this place we are slowly being healed of our own opposition to God. We come, praying to be strengthened to endure the opposition we will surely encounter, year in and year out, in God's service. We come, seeking the humility to recognize when we ourselves are opposing those who would serve God. Often we come with a thirst we are too ignorant to name, dimly perceiving that the undercurrent of all our healthful longing is, astonishingly, God's longing for us. Dare we imagine it: the God who is all-glorious, the source of life and blessings without number, reaching out toward us, even now, and saying, "I thirst"?

Ellen Davis is professor of Bible and practical theology at the Duke University Divinity School. This is taken from a sermon delivered in the school's new Goodson Chapel on September 14, 2005.
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