Sacred Thirst: Meeting God in the Desert of Our LongingsSacred Thirst: Meeting God in the Desert of Our Longings
M. Craig Barnes
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Does the Christian life leave you less than satisfied? Do you find yourself wanting more? Dr. Barnes takes you to the woman at the well, who found exactly what you're looking for---the "living water" of Jesus. Learn to receive this gracious gift that Christ offers freely and you'll never thirst for something "more" again! 208 pages, hardcover from Zondervan.

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Chapter 1 - Our Parched Souls

The church was packed for Linda’s funeral. On the front pew sat her parents, husband, and two children. I sat in the minister’s bench directly in front of them and gazed into their faces as the Twenty-third Psalm was read.

This family was lost in heartbreaking grief. They were wondering the same thing everyone in grief wonders: How can the world go on so easily, as though nothing has happened? Linda was once a vibrant, loving, young mother, but now breast cancer had taken her away from us.

I tried to concentrate on the psalm, but a relentless sorrow kept piercing through. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want… Except for Linda. I wanted Linda back.

When it came time for the eulogies, two of Linda’s friends spoke first. They wept a bit as they described how much they loved Linda and how desperately they already missed her. The congregation and I expected these words and held up pretty well as we heard them. But the third eulogy was given by Linda’s nine-year-old son. We weren’t ready for what he had to say. It wouldn’t have mattered if we had been. There was no defense against this moment.

I can still see him standing behind the podium, stretching up toward the microphone. Like a brave little soldier, he read dutifully from the paper in his hands: “Thank you for being here today to say good-bye to my mother, who has gone to heaven. I want you to know a couple of the things that my sister and I will miss about Mommy. We’ll miss the way she always greeted us when we got home from school. She would be in the kitchen and we would run into her arms, and it felt good to be home. I’m going to miss that. At nighttime, when we had to go to bed, she would race us to our beds, then we’d jump in them and have tickling contests. And she would read us a story. I’m going to miss that too.” Then he folded up his piece of paper, stuffed it into his pocket, and sat down.

As if that weren’t enough to completely undo us, the tenor soloist began to sing softly, Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly. The music gently found its way into the protected corners of every heart there. How could some tenderness wage war on all our defenses and illusions of immorality? By the time the song was done, we had surrendered to the sorrow.

Now it was my turn to speak.

But I couldn’t. So I sat there in the silence, dabbing my eyes. Eventually, of course, I had to say something. I’m the pastor; it’s my job to speak into the silence.

Sacred Silence

I’ve seen this silence before. It’s created not only by little boys with broken hearts but also by lab reports announcing the presence of cancer, bosses trying to explain a downsizing, and notes on a dresser that say “I’m leaving.” The silence is produced by gravestones, nursing homes late at night, children with dangerously high fevers, and coming across the Christmas stocking of a spouse who recently died. It can even be found on the heels of successes and achievements that are never quite what we thought they would be, leaving us empty and disappointed.

We hate this silence. It isn’t the type that comes as a welcome relief from our chaotic lives. It’s the silence that rips away the words we grope for in trying to explain life and to find hope.

Most of the time we’re able to cover this silence with our cherished distractions. But occasionally something breaks through and hushes us with ultimate, difficult questions. These are the questions that push us to stare at the limits of our existence and ask, “Why are we here? What is really important? Is there anything to which we can cling in life?” In these quiet moments there’s no escaping these questions. They stare us straight in the eye, daring us to say something – to say anything – that isn’t foolish.

One day, a colleague at work tells you that his teenage son has just committed suicide. Stunned, you pause for a moment and finally stutter out, “I – I don’t know what to say.” Exactly. You’ve learned by now not to point out that he has two other wonderful children or that you’re sure his son is in a much happier place or that your neighbor’s kid committed suicide a while back. It would all sound completely asinine. Yet I am certain there are no human words that are any better.

Still, we cannot leave it at this, because our souls long to find some way of making sense of life. I sometimes think humanity’s most heroic trait is that we refuse to let silence have the last word. We know that if nothing can be said, then our worst fears are true and there is no point or hope to life.

Even though we might not have intended to, we have now embarked on a great journey in search of a word that can fill the silence and make sense of life again. Some of us bring the search to church, wondering if maybe God has such a word.

Whenever I stand behind the pulpit to say, “Hear the word of the Lord,” I can never say more than God says at this place on the journey. Many in the congregation hope that God’s word will quickly get them out of this hard place where the silence is deafening. But when we are on a journey through a hard place with God, there are no shortcuts.

Silence is never more than an invitation to discover the limitation of all human words, even all religious words. It is not an answer or an explanation, it is not even a theology, but a person we are searching for. A sacred person. God himself, whom the Bible reveals as one God in three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

All the words God spoke in the Old and New Testaments had as their purpose to draw us back to our true home in the midst of a triune fellowship into which we are adopted. This is the true “Holy Family” that comforts little boys who mourn their dead mothers and provides hope for cynical adults who long ago lost their way in the silence. Like a stream flowing through the desert, so does the Holy Spirit flow from the Father and the Son into our lives, carrying us, sometimes gently, sometimes in a torrent, but always home to God.

We can find this sacred river. But not unless we enter the silence of the desert.

The Invitation To The Desert

The desert is one of the fundamental motifs used in both the Old and New Testaments to describe this difficult, speechless pilgrimage toward God. All of the patriarchs, Moses and the Hebrew people, Elijah, David, John the Baptist, Paul, and even Jesus had to go to the desert to find God.

No one in ancient society wanted to go to the desert. It was a parched, desolate place where people were convinced they would die. If they had to pass through a desert, they did it as quickly as possible, because it wouldn’t be long before they would run out of resources. But the worst part of the desert was always the deafening silence. Human words don’t last long out there, and divine words are as hard to find as a drop of water in the endless expanse of heat and sand.

When God finally did speak, his words appeared as a stream of water to a people whose souls had become as parched and silent as the dried-up desert in which they lived. When they attended to God’s words and stayed by the stream in the desert, like deer who long for flowing streams, they found refreshment for their souls. But if they allowed fear or grief to drown out God’s words, they could turn back only to the silence of the parched desert.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the desert is that God never wants anyone to stay there. There is no easy way out, but one of the worst mistakes we can make is to get used to living in the dry places. The only point of going through the desert is to get to the Promised Land, where we are at home with God. And the only way to enter the land is to realize that the thirst we feel is actually a longing for the sacred.

Along the way in the desert, we may do a lot of things that lead us away from God and from the future he has prepared for us. Anything we do to turn away from God is what the Bible calls sin. Moreover, learning to turn in the right direction when we are tempted is one of our purposes for being in the desert in the first place. We sin by turning to other gods, by doubting the faithfulness of the true God, and by constantly complaining about how much we hate life in the desert. Still, our greatest sin is when we give up hope and stop looking for the stream along the way.

As the New Testament story goes, eventually we all became so lost in our desert of addictive despair that God had to do more than speak words to lead us through it. He had to become the Word. So on a silent, holy night the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth. The Word’s name was Jesus, the lover of our souls, the giver of living water. Nothing can separate us from his love – neither our grief nor our sin, not even our despair.

Excerpted From:
Sacred Thirst
By: M. Craig Barnes
Zondervan Publishing House, 2001.