Scripture reading for today:
If you grew up in pretty much any part of the church in the 1980s or after, you probably have memories of the almost-acceptably-cheesy praise song “As The Deer” which is based on one of our readings for today – Psalm 42.
If that is the case, and you have some baggage around that version (or even if you love it) – I’d like to ask you to reconsider this Psalm as a deeply resonant, powerful statement of trust in God, call to rest – and (even!) to rage against oppression.
I’ve been an activist, involved in radical faith-based non-violence civil disobedience movements for about 25 years now. At first glance – and especially if we have the 80s song running in the background as our soundtrack, it’s probably all too easy for us protestor-types to feel that a Psalm like Psalm 42 is little more than a distraction to movements for change.
But way back in the 4th century, the North African Bishop, St. Augustine noted that, for him, Psalm 42 summarized all the longings of the Church. Of course, we often read it more individually (as in the praise song!) – and that’s okay, too.
There’s something deeply compelling about the idea that our “souls longing after you” is not just about Jesus being “the apple of my eye” (yes, the 80s song included that in one verse – though it isn’t from the actual Psalm).
Perhaps Augustine’s take that this Psalm isn’t just about the individual – about me-and-God, or me-and-Jesus – but it also about the Church – or even the whole Creation longing – perhaps that helps with this.
“Longings,” Augustine said. Advent is, for us Jesus-followers, a season of longing. Longing for peace. Longing for wholeness. Longing for the coming of the Prince of Peace. Longing for the whole New Creation to take root. Longing for a world where we are blessed with the very presence of the living God.
O come, Emmanuel. We long for you.
We long for the world to be made right. Come. Be with us.
And I think that the activist in me might also dismiss this Psalm if I hadn’t burnt out 2 or 3 times now on the protest and truth-speaking side of my Christian life. For the longing is so deep – and we are in need of God-with-us to root us in something bigger.
Years ago I came across a quote from the Trappist Monk Thomas Merton – which spoke deeply into my own activist life and the cycle of work and burnout that it was inadvertently fostering:
Merton said this: “There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
Place that Merton quote beside Psalm 42, which, undoubtedly, he would have known well – since he would have chanted all 150 Psalms each week.
What a gift then, is Advent. To slow down and seek after the Living God as an out-of-breath deer seeks water. And what a gift is a Psalm like Psalm 42 which roots our call to protest and truth-telling in the trust of the living God. What a gift that we are part of a grand scheme where in the mystery even “deep calls to deep.”
Which is good. But we still might wonder – with all this pastoral imagery about deer and water-brooks, thirsting for God, and longing – sure, it touches on our need, but does it do much more to rage against the death machine?
Well, if you read on in the Psalm – there is a fair bit of truth-telling, too – though those lines don’t make it into our praise songs so much.
Toward the end of the Psalm, we learn that the need for being like a deer seeking water is because of oppression:
“Why do I go so heavily while the enemy oppresses me?
While my bones are being broken my enemies mock me to my face”
How do we rage against such violence and oppression? We do so by seeking to be like a deer longing for a stream as a metaphor for our whole beings longing for God. We do so by rooting ourselves in the living God – and not getting wound up into the violence of our own activity-ism.
And so this Advent we seek to fill our longings in this God for whom we wait – who will set all things right.
And so we cry – O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
And, Lord, until you do come, sustain us in our prayer and protest – for you alone are our strength and shield.
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