Saturday, January 11, 2014

Psalm 42: A drowning deer

"As the deer pants for the water,
So my soul longs after you
You alone are my heart's desire
And I long to worship you."

These are the first four line of a hymn that I used to sing when I was in children's choir. I hated singing this song. It sounded so sappy. I envisioned a deer coming up on a stream, passing through a dense forest and I wondered how in the world this image could have any bearing on worship. It just sounded so hokey. And it still does, if you just look at those lyrics. I mean, I'm now cringing at the way that I'm sure the parishioners loved hearing their little ones sing about their all-encompassing devotion to God through the words of this song. It must have been cutesy in a very pious sort of way.

It was not until a couple weeks ago that I found out the first two lines of that song were taken from the forty second psalm:
"As the deer longs for the water-brooks,
     so longs my soul for you, O God.
My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God;
     when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?"

Naturally, as I heard these opening lines, I groaned as I was whisked back to my 11-year-old choir-boy self. Keep in mind that I was listening to the psalms, streaming an online file so that I cold have them read to me as I was working out at the YMCA. And one of the things I had found myself doing was letting my mind wander if I couldn't connect with the content of a particular psalm. And this was definitely one that I didn't want to connect with.

But the forty second psalm didn't let me pass it by. It grabbed me and made me pay attention.

See, what I expected was more of the drivel that I had been used to from the other songs in children's choir. I thought that this psalm would be filled with that kind of joyful expression:
O God, my God! 
Let me extoll the good things you have bestowed on me! 
Thank you for your favor! 
I am unworthy (but really, you owe it to me because I regularly make one of the largest annual pledges at my church)!
O God! You are a wonderful God of mine!
Or maybe the psalm would be one of those weird ones that says 'I am like a joyful stag, see how I worship you in my powerful leaping!' Anyway, like I said, I had a contempt of this psalm before it started and I thought I would just gloss over it. I probably already got all the value out of it that I cold, right?


The central image of this psalm is not the deer, but the water-brook. And it's not one of joyful worship but of tortured doubt and desperate cries to God. This psalm is like being drowned at the bottom of a river, or dying of thirst in a stand of trees. There is a sense of separation from God in this psalm, even while the singer knows that God is present. It's like the psalmist is crying out to just-out-of-reach God and trying to implore a way to close that gap.

"I pour out my soul when I think on these things;
     how I went with the multitude  and led them into the house of God,
With the voice of praise and thanksgiving..."
I have made so many petitions on the part of so many people; I have praised you but all I have been doing is emptying myself on behalf of others.
"Why are you so full of heaviness, my soul?" There is such rejoicing for God all around me.
"My tears have been my food day and night..."

"One deep calls to another in the noise of your cataracts;
     all your rapids and floods have gone over me..."
So why should I feel lost and forgotten when the entire world you have created tells how great you are and praises you?
If I trust in God, then there will be strength within me again. God will not, cannot forget me.
God is the living water when I am in a dry place and have nothing to drink.

There is so much discomfort in this psalm. It's like the singer knows the wonders of God, but also feels like there is abandonment by God. Later, in verses 12 and 13, the singer describes having a heaviness of soul like how it feels when enemies are breaking bones and persecuting the faithful one.

This is a fundamental human thing, isn't it? I have felt this, when I know that I should be rejoicing but I feel like I'm looking at the world through a wall of water. Everything sounds far away and I can't connect with anyone or anything. I feel like everything said to me is barbarous and I can't find relief anywhere.

And the especially barbarous part is that I know relief is somewhere. Just not with me.

So maybe I'm the deer, dying of thirst, looking through the trees for a brook that I know is just behind the next tree, but never is. But I can hear it all the while. And I just cannot figure out why it should elude me so completely.

I can believe that, if these images and emotions are accurate the to psalm, that the children's choirmaster who I sang for would want to protect me from them. Who wouldn't want to dilute this so that children feel comfort and warmth? But on the other hand, I now value this psalm. All the psalms, in fact. I find them very earthy and I find them filled with passion. They remind me of how I am like Adam; made of dust by the love of God.