Athirst my soul for you

Today’s song from Sing Praise is a cantor-and-chorus type, called “Athirst, my soul, for you, the God who is my life” (that’s the first line of the first chant). The chorus starts “As the deer longs for running streams”, but there are many hymns with that or similar titles, because Psalm 42/43 on which it’s based is very popular as a basis for sung versions.

Painting "Deer drinking" by Winslow Homer
“Deer drinking” by Winslow Homer

The appeal of this psalm is in the opening lines, with the attractive image of the hunted deer finding a refreshing stream in a hidden dip in the hills, out of sight of its hunters, where it can drink and rest awhile.  The simile is that God will likewise offer us rest and refreshment in prayer and meditation when we are stressed or frightened.  That’s true, but not easy to achieve: I find that the greater the pressures of life, the harder it is to find time for prayer and the longer it takes to relax into it. 

That’s why I try to find opportunities offered for quiet time away from the usual routines of life – a ‘quiet day’, teaching weekend or short retreat offered by one of the many Christian communities, abbeys or retreat centres.  In the present pandemic, I have one booked at the end of next week on Zoom, and that will mean sessions on the screen in my usual study, and finding a quiet space in the house for the personal meditation times in between, where I won’t get distracted.  I am looking forward to it, but the experience will be different.

Back to the song, and the verses remind us why we get so stressed and in need of God’s protection and refreshing. Surprisingly, “All your mighty waters sweeping over me” suggests that the feeling of being overwhelmed might actually be the result of God’s intention, but it’s an accurate rendition of Ps.42:7.  Perhaps it means the sense of being burdened by the requirements of God’s law and commandments or the guilt of not keeping them, which as we saw the other day has been relieved by Jesus taking us back to the law’s true intentions.   

“The foe delights in taunting me”, on the other hand, puts the blame for my troubles firmly on other people. The taunt given as an example is “where is your God”, a phrase that is still used by those who don’t understand the nature of religious faith – “what sort of God is it who allows this to happen?” (whatever “this” is).  The antidote to this is to turn back to God and affirming that we do trust in him, whatever is happening around us.

One verse in the psalm (42:4) is not referred to in the song but is very relevant at this time of church closures – in the Prayer Book psalter used at many an Evensong, “Now when I think thereupon, I pour out my heart by myself : for I went with the multitude, and brought them forth into the house of God; In the voice of praise and thanksgiving : among such as keep holy-day.”  As much as anything, it is the music and ceremonial of church services that I miss – we can keep in touch by phone call or maybe even Zoom meetings, but it’s not possible with those to chant a psalm or sing a hymn together, or physically to process into or around the church building as we might do on special occasions.

The last verse, though, does look forward to a time when all the sadness and frustration will be put behind us. “Then shall I go unto the altar of my God, praising you, O my joy and gladness, I shall praise your name”.  Let’s keep that in mind throughout the lockdown.

A Lenten retreat

Text of a sermon preached at St Margaret’s church, Bramley, Leeds

Sunday 23 February 2020 (last before Lent)

Bible text: Exodus 24:12-18

Moses was exhausted.  At his wits’ end. Stressed out. Dare I say, knackered?  Let’s just recall what he had achieved in the last year or so, bearing in mind what psychologists tell us are some of the main causes of stress.

First of all, this elderly man had faced up to a near eastern despot; bringing plagues on the country by God’s power using nothing more than a miraculous staff (and constant prayer).  Facing up to bullies causes stress – check!

Then, at the Exodus, he led at least a million refugees out of the country by night, through the sea and into the desert, again with nothing more than the miraculous staff and prayer.  The responsibilities of leadership cause stress – check!

Once safely out of Egypt their problems hadn’t stopped. Surprise, surprise, there  not enough food and water for a million people in the desert. Moses had to face up to a rebellion against his leadership as a result.  Being unable to access life’s basic needs causes stress – check! But once again the miraculous staff – and constant prayer – had come in handy.

If that wasn’t enough, he had directed a battle against a hostile tribe, again using that trusty old staff and constant prayer, though this time he was so weak his assistants had to hold his arms up. Warfare causes long term stress – check!

He had already been up the mountain in Sinai once, to receive the Ten Commandments and lots of other regulations, amounting to four pages of closely printed text in our Bibles.  But it seems he had to memorise them all at first, because only now is he summoned up the mountain a second time to fetch the written tablets of the Law.  While physical and mental exercise are recommended for older people, that was going too far!  Over-exertion causes stress – check!

If all that wasn’t enough, somewhere along the way we are told he had separated from his wife, and a while later his father-in-law comes along to have a word in his ear about it.  Relationship breakdown causes stress – check!

Finally, until recently he had been acting as judge for the whole people of Israel.  Fortunately he had been persuaded by his father-in-law to delegate most of that workload to other people (see, even in-laws can be worth listening to at times!) But that had taken its toll.  Sorting out disputes causes stress – check!  How many stress factors is that so far?  I make it at least seven.  It was most definitely time for a break.

So, God calls Moses up the mountain a second time.  On this occasion Joshua, who would eventually take over from Moses, comes with him.  The instruction from God is clear: “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there”.  I emphasise that word “wait”.  We are told that the glory of the Lord settled on the mountain: the word is the same that John uses when he writes that the Word of God “came and dwelt among us” in Jesus.  But this was only base camp: the two of them spent seven days there, not yet going into the full presence of God, but waiting.  I believe this was Moses’s retreat, and God wanted him to de-stress before calling him to the next phase of his ministry.

This is a good time to think about retreats, as many people do make a retreat in Lent.  They are not necessarily about abstinence or physical discomfort, although  Moses presumably fasted through this time and slept out in the open.  Most retreat centres these days offer good food and a comfortable bed, and there’s nothing wrong with that – it may be just what you need.  Ideally, though, the retreat is about renewing your relationship with God, so that you can re-enter the world and its problems with renewed energy, understanding and vision. So what might Moses have got out of his seven-day retreat at Mount Sinai Base Camp?

Firstly, he had time to think.  Retreats are not holidays.  They are not about pleasure seeking. They may well be about relaxing, and certainly having time and space away from distractions to think clearly.  We are told that Moses was a very humble man, and reluctant to speak (which is why Aaron had to go with him to meet Pharaoh). He had spent a long time in the desert alone as a shepherd.  In the language of today, he was probably an introvert, someone who finds their strength in solitude. More than most people he needed to get far from the madding crowd.  After all the stresses of leading Israel out of Egypt he needed time alone with God -and with himself.

Next, he had the opportunity to let go.  Retreats are not about “getting things done”, or even “sorting out problems”.  Rather, a retreat should be about leaving the cares of the world behind, to de-stress by handing over all your problems to God.  When Linda and I were on the Scargill community, many guests who came to us from busy lives would say they ‘left their cares at the cattle grid’, starting to relax as they came up the drive and into the calmness of our community.

Then, he had time for more reflective prayer.   All the praying he had done these last months was intercessory – for his people’s freedom, for their physical needs to be met, for victory in battle, for justice in the courtroom.  Now he desperately needed the other sort of prayer – meditation, contemplation, enjoying God’s presence.  A balanced prayer life includes both – meditation to take us out of the world and into God, and intercession to face outward to the world and bring its needs to God.  But on retreat, the emphasis is on the first.

‘Letting go’ is also about letting others take the strain.  “Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them”.  No-one is indispensable. Retreats can be about taking time out of daily life, handing over responsibility, letting other people answer the phone and look after the children while you are away – “me time” as well as “God time”.

Once someone on retreat has let go of their cares, relaxed and started to focus on God, then comes the opportunity to hear God’s word.  For Moses of course, that was quite literal – at the end of the seven day retreat began another, longer, tougher one – forty days on the mountain top alone with God, but the first week of retreat was essential so that he could be ready to hear God speak.

For most of us that will be through worship, the Bible, other reading, or perhaps pastoral conversations with a retreat leader or chaplain. But always be open to hearing God speak in a more audible way, or by dreams or visions. It does happen.

The retreat is also a place of discernment. At the end of a retreat, ideally there should be a call – a renewed sense of vocation, of having a place in God’s kingdom.  Moses went back down the mountain with the tablets of the law, and also with detailed instructions about the building of the tabernacle, the place of worship.  In his forty day solo retreat he had come to understand more deeply the nature of God and the way that he should be worshipped, and had that message to pass on to others.

So as we approach Lent, starting this Wednesday, here are some questions to ponder.

  • Can I make time for a retreat during Lent? Not necessarily a full week in a recognised retreat centre, but perhaps a quiet day away by myself to spend in relaxation and prayer?   Or even just a good long walk, if the weather lets up?
  • What are the things that are causing me stress at present? Can I manage to lay them aside for a while?  Is there someone I could talk to about them who could help me de-stress? Maybe a family member, as with Moses and his father-in-law, or a friend such as Joshua, or a health professional?
  • What are the things that distract me from prayer? Certain people, places, foods, devices?  Can I lay them aside for a while – give them up for Lent?
  • Does my prayer life need a better balance? More intercession, more Bible reading, or more meditation? What would help with that?

Whatever your answers to these questions – and we are all different – be assured that if you turn aside to look for God, you will find him.  Few of us will have as stressful a life as Moses – or Jesus – but just as they found God in the solitude, so can we.

The Bible in a Year – 25 January

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

25 January. Exodus chapters 22-24

Parts of the Torah becomes very detailed, and some of its laws seem obvious and still good sense while others seem obscure to us in a different culture, but all are derived from the principles of the Ten Commandments. I will highlight just one, Chapter 22 verse 21 which is so important that it is repeated at 23:9: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” At the present time following the election of Donald Trump in the USA, and the many controversial right-wing policies he is starting to implement (not least strict immigration rules and a strengthened border with Mexico) it would be good for the American people to remember this verse, for all they (even “native” Americans if you go back far enough) were immigrants once.  Britain is the same – we all trace our ancestries to one or more waves of incomers, be they economic migrants, refugees or invading armies. There is no such thing as a “pure race,” and no such thing as one tribe that owns the land while others have no rights in it. As it says in Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it”.


In chapter 24 we see Moses and the seventy elders going up the mountain where they actually see God.  That is something exceptional in the Bible, for while God often speaks or sends angels (messengers), few people are allowed to see him in visible form directly. But it is important that they see that Moses is receiving the commandments from God and not just making them up.  After that, Moses spends 40 days on the mountain to receive the detailed laws that followed. The 40 is of course symbolic of “a long time”, like Jesus’ 40 days of temptation or Paul’s 40-day retreat in the desert after his conversion.   A long retreat (time alone with God) is still prescribed for those about to be ordained or at a point of crisis in their lives, so that they can be without all distractions to receive spiritual guidance for the task in hand.