As a Deer Pants for Water

On a recent hike into a nearby wilderness area, I discovered that one of the springs I often visit had dried up. It is easy to picture the wildlife that had been coming there for a needed drink suddenly finding themselves “panting for streams of water” (Psalm 42 (41):1. The extreme heat and drought in Colorado are having an impact.

A few miles away, there is another spring that is still flowing. It was a joy to visit this one and find that the many of the wildlife were enjoying this wonderful oasis. The photo speaks volumes as this little fawn frolics in the water of this spring as its thirst has been quenched.

All of us have experienced (or may be experiencing right now) a spiritual drought. Have you gone through those times when your prayers don’t seem to even reach the ceiling? Sometimes, my prayers feel like they leave my lips and fall to the floor. And are there times when you read a passage from the Bible and get zero from it? I sometimes run onto that in my daily readings and feel so very thirsty. Yes, I can identify with that mother and baby deer before they found that living spring.

Have I been longing for the Living Water (Christ) or simply going through the motions of prayer and Scripture reading? We can pray words and read words without our hearts and minds abiding in Christ. It is Christ, the Living Water, that will quench our thirst. We need to keep focused on Him as we pray. The same is true as we read the Holy Scriptures. “Oh Lord, illumine my heart and my mind as only You can do.”  We know the importance of “being present” in our interactions with other people and it holds so very true in our interactions with the Lord. Our minds so easily wander! The Lord is present when we pray and read His Word. We need to “abide” in that presence and commune with Him, our source of Living Water. “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me” (John 15:4).

The author of Psalm 42(41) certainly understood this principle and we have his guidance to follow:

“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.”

In addition to “being present” with the Lord in our personal prayers and Scripture reading, we need to be present with Him in Church. Stay focused on Christ in the prayers and worship of our services. It is a battle! Our wandering thoughts so easily lead us away. We Orthodox Christians have the icon of Christ in our churches to help us keep focused on Him. He, and He alone, will quench our thirst. As we do this, the Psalm continues:

“By day the Lord directs his love, at night His song is with me— a prayer to the God of my life.”

Like that precious fawn frolicking in the water, so our souls will once again “frolic” in the spiritual refreshment that God alone can bring. When you find yourself in a spiritual drought, it might be a good start to speak to your soul as the psalmist suggests and then drink from that spring of Living Water to quench your thirst:

“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God.”

Where is Your Focus in the Storm?

Whenever I read the story of Jesus walking on the water in Matthew 14:22-33, I am reminded of my adventures crewing on a 41-foot ketch sailboat in the Pacific Ocean. The Gospel story takes place during the 4th watch of the night which is from 3:00-6:00 a.m. This was my night watch on the sailboat.

We had gotten on the edge of a very violent storm as I relieved the owner at 3:00 a.m. His instructions were pretty simple: Keep steering into the waves and keep a lookout for the lights of large cargo ships as we were in a shipping lane. The waves were so very huge as they crashed over the bow of our sailboat and the wind was so strong that we were keeled over more than I had ever experienced.

Halfway through my watch, with my whole focus on the wind and the waves, I woke up the owner saying I felt we were about to roll. He came on deck and focused only on our sail. As far as I could tell, he didn’t pay any attention to the wind or the waves. He simply said: “We’re fine; we are not going to roll.” With that he disappeared below deck to go back to sleep.

I learned something that night about where I put my focus. Like Peter in the Gospel story, I often have my focus on the “storm” rather than on what really matters. In the storms of life that come our way, it can be easy to be asking God “WHY is this happening to me?” and to shake an “angry fist” at God because our focus is on the storm. Here is a most important truth that should be taken to heart:

“If one goes sailing in the ocean, storms will come your way. And if one is alive on planet earth, the storms of life will come your way.”

Some folks have gone through such horrible storms that make no sense:  the death of a young child, a terminal disease that comes to a family member, a loved one in jail, someone close that commits suicide, an ugly divorce, losing your job or career, an accident that leaves your life forever changed… and certainly the list of these ugly storms goes on and on.

There are also smaller storms that catch us unawares: a trusted friend who stabs you in the back to move up the ladder of success, lies about you that can’t be challenged, broken relationships that make absolutely no sense to you, a serious injury that comes from out of the blue, being punished unjustly or unfairly (this is one we can hold on to from way back in our childhood)…and this list also goes on and on.

If you find yourself in a super-storm or even in a smaller storm, you will get a ton of advice from every direction.  Good meaning folks may offer you all kinds of advice: “Suck it up…be tough!” (If I could have sucked it up I certainly would have long before this advice came my way!)  “Don’t take life so seriously!” (Seriously, this pain is destroying my life!)  “You need to repent of sin in your life!” (Do you really think I haven’t gone over every sin I have ever committed and cried out to God for forgiveness?) Generally speaking, these wonderful words of advice only make the one offering that advice feel better. 

It’s important to keep in mind that these folks do mean well, but it isn’t their storm…it’s your storm.  They aren’t there at 3:00 a.m. when tears are rolling onto your pillow, and your prayers don’t even seem to reach the ceiling, and your heart feels like it is about to burst.  But God is!  No, He probably won’t answer the question “WHY?” no matter how many times you ask him or in what tone of voice you ask Him.  But He will be with you…He may be carrying you when you don’t even know it.  You may be angry with Him and shake your fist at Him…you may even say some unkind words to Him.  But He still loves you and is there for you. He will give you just what you need to make it through the storm.  Will the pain or hurt be instantly gone?  Probably not…but one day when you are able to look back, you will see that He was there and that His love and care carried you through it. The only advice that makes any sense is to focus on the Lord and grab hold of the His hand, asking Him to bring you through it.  At that 3:00 a.m. wake-up call, perhaps all you can say is “Lord, please help me!” You have said enough.  That was all Peter said to Jesus.

May the Lord be your comfort, your peace, your strength … may He be your everything through whatever storm comes your way.  God bless you… and if possible, may all your storms be the kind that you can sleep through because your focus is on the only One that truly matters: the Lord.

There’s That Tongue Again

This morning’s reading from our devotional By Way of the Desert had a wonderful story of some people visiting a desert hermit. There were some young men shepherding sheep near his hermitage that were constantly using foul language. They asked the man of God why he didn’t tell them to stop. He replied:

“If I can’t endure something small like this language, how will I resist a serious temptation if God permits one to come to me? Therefore, I remain silent. I am trying to learn how to bear whatever comes my way.”

This brought to mind my own experience. In my many years of being a prison chaplain, I was surrounded by people using foul language. I had no thought process like that man of God just mentioned, but I simply never mentioned it to any of them. I never thought of myself as enduring anything, I simply ignored it. Even when someone’s frustrations turned on me and they began cussing me out, God gave me the grace to respond with a “soft answer” that always seemed to “turn away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1).

Over the years, some of those men would ask me how they could quit cussing. This happened many times and I always gave them the same advice:

“When you are getting ready to interact with people that you know will bring about cuss words, such as going to recreation, make the sign of the Cross over your mouth and ask Jesus to be the Lord of your mouth. Ask Him to guard every word that comes out of your mouth.”

Without exception, the next time I saw that man while making rounds, he would say something along the lines of:

“How does that work? I did what you said and I didn’t say one cuss word!”

I would respond to him: “The Lord did exactly what you asked of Him. But it likely isn’t a forever fix. You will need to repeat that often to gain victory over what comes out of your mouth.”

James 3 has a lot to say about the “tongue” and he tells us that “no man can tame the tongue” (James 3:8). But the Lord can and He will, if we ask.

Honoring the Virgin Mary?

The Holy Scriptures tell us that every generation will call Mary “Blessed” (Luke 1:46-55).  In fact, she is without doubt the most blessed woman to ever live. Considering all of the great women there have been throughout history, that is no small statement to make. Yet, out of all the women who have lived in this world, it was Mary that was chosen by God for the Incarnation of our Lord.

The early Christians thought so highly of Mary that they actually referred to her as the “Second Eve”. Where Eve was disobedient and brought death into the world, Mary was obedient and through her obedience the Lord Jesus Christ became man for our salvation, trampling down death by death. “Not my will but Your will be done” are words that should be on all of our lips.

So it is that the Orthodox Church sets aside the first two weeks of August each year to remember the life and the dormition of Mary. We do it with a fast that is meant to draw us closer to her Son and to honor her. Indeed, we do call her “Blessed”.

For those who may be struggling with any kind of honor being paid to the Virgin Mary let me offer this simple thought. Consider the first words spoken by the Holy Archangel Gabriel when he visited Mary:

“Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” (Luke 1:28)

These words were spoken by an Archangel of God who dwells in the presence of God Almighty. Take a moment and let that sink in for a bit. If the Holy Archangel Gabriel can venerate the Virgin Mary, what is so wrong with us honoring her. Absolutely nothing! We are not worshiping her, but we are indeed venerating her.

Every generation will call her “Blessed” and nothing has changed for our generation. An excellent podcast which has this truth and much more can be found at:

https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/walkinganancientpath/reconsidering_the_virgin_mary_part_1