Worship, by its best definition, never stops. It is bigger than Sunday services or private devotional time, drawing those things up into a larger whole. By worship, we orient our entire life around what we love—an act of affection we pursue even if it takes a lifetime. But worship is also completely practical; we orient our life around what we believe will sustain us.
Here, the desert can paint a vivid picture for us. Is anything more precious in that setting than water? Its entire ecosystem, an intricate diversity of plants and creatures, organizes itself around the thirst and wait for water to be given. Desert foxes sleep through the dehydrating heat of the day and live nocturnally. Certain cacti spread their roots wide, like an inverted umbrella under the soil, ready to catch as much water as possible should it rain. What are these peculiar habits but echoes of true worship, of our own lives oriented around the giver of living water?
I believe that we Christians can well understand ourselves as something of a desert people, but to do that, we have to confront a bit of a dilemma. An image of lush forest refreshed by cool rains and clear streams may haunt us like a memory we want to come true, but this is not our present world. Though we have been spiritually resurrected (Rom. 6:4), though we are presently alive and bound for a kingdom beyond death, we still go on in this world bound to death and toil, and will do so for some time. So goes our puzzling Christian life. We have tasted living water, but sorrow and loss still stalk our landscape, ready to set heavily into place and remind us that we have not completely left the desert. Not yet.
So goes our puzzling Christian life. We have tasted living water, but sorrow and loss still stalk our landscape, ready to set heavily into place and remind us that we have not completely left the desert. Not yet.
I have a dark turn of mind, I guess. I am wont to ache with the “not yet” of the Christian life whereas others of you may be more attuned to the “already.” I’d say we need each other. Your witness to the present pleasures of the kingdom can raise my spirits. I’ll offer my more somber meditations as, I hope, an encouragement when you come up longing. And we’ll all keep waiting for that final rain that turns the whole world into lush paradise again.
My ache for the kingdom comes to me like a thirst. It hit me a while back when I felt the bite of transitioning from work I found promising and meaningful to a mere bill-paying job. I feel it at every funeral and every visit to a sick bed. Still, the thirst visits me most often when I go to bed and my nocturnal specter rises like a bleached skeleton from the sand and asks, “Is this it?” This question comes to me at the end of frustrating days, but it has come to me even at the end of good days, much to my embarrassment. Feeling parched reminds me that, much like the desert, I am both alive and waiting to come to life.
The thirst visits me most often when I go to bed and my nocturnal specter rises like a bleached skeleton from the sand and asks, “Is this it?”
While waiting, I’m tempted to stray after any mirage, any promised “good life” I may come across. And in a world trying desperately, for a fee, to be the eternal garden of my dreams, mirages are plenty, though death and dead ends each. If I could only be admired by the people I admire, if I could only achieve something great, then I might never thirst again. I must be reminded that I have the life, character, and relationships God has given me—I’m to be thankful for each of these gifts, stewarding them faithfully whether it makes a name for me or not. Fidelity to what is given because we love the giver: this is the mysterious practice of Christian worship, a patient bond that sustains even when we feel anything but worshipful. When we feel dry, we must remember: Our true thirst is the thirst that Jesus called blessed in His famous sermon. This thirst does not belie worship but aims it.
For our peculiar habit of Christian worship to endure in desert times, it must have one essential component. Not comfort and not happiness, though such little showers do come and go. For us, for now, worship must have faith. The desert wildflower shedding her seeds into sun-scorched soil acts in faith, trusting that rain will be provided, though the wait may be a generation or more. She doesn’t make a calendar and count down the days until the rain should come, but rather, she makes the best seeds she can and sets them to patience until the rains do come. She is content to wait, for the rain has never failed, though it may tarry.
Lord, please don’t tarry long.
Illustration by Jeff Gregory