The Psalms have always been a refuge for me. From the time I was able to read, I stole away to my room for solace from the bustle of the household. There in the quiet, I flipped open my Bible, and the pages often opened up toward the middle, to a psalm.
“As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul thirsts for you.” Psalm 42
“O God, you are my God, and I long for you.” Psalm 63
“My heart cries out and my flesh faints for the courts of the Lord.” Psalm 84
As a child, being at the heart of the family felt like both a blessing and a curse – I loved them dearly, but my emotions and thoughts also became mixed up in the midst of the relationships, the happenings, the conflicts, the conversations going on around me. I needed to find my center, my refuge, and I found it in God.
So, I escaped frequently to the quiet of my room, crawling under my covers and breaking open the psalms. These ageless words entered into me – the prayers of ancient people reverberating in my heart, becoming my own. As the deer longs to drink from streams of water, my soul is thirsty for you. O God, you are my God, and I long for you. My heart cries out to be in your presence now.
Meditating on these words, praying these prayers, I slowly found myself once again in the calming presence of God. I knew, somehow, in the depths of my being, that God had heard me, that God cared for me, and that God had met me there. I sat in that blissful place for a few moments, until I heard someone calling me to set the table, or to join the family for a movie, or to get on with whatever I was up to that day. Though it was always hard to leave that serenity, I carried a piece of it with me as I left my room and returned to the rest of my life.
The psalms have been my refuge, and they have been for countless others around the world for thousands of years. It is incredible to me to think of the universality of this longing to be in God’s presence. For millennia, in a myriad of cultures and time periods, people have longed to find solace in God. They have longed to lay their burdens and concerns into God’s arms so that they might rest fully in their Creator. We all long for things to be made right in this world, long to be our best selves, long to find our center, long to be at peace within ourselves, with others, and with God. No matter what separates us from each other, we share this deep inner longing to find refuge in God.
Though my longing was met momentarily during those moments of solace, it would always return. Again and again, that longing would return, and I would be called back to that same spot to seek God’s presence once more. As I got older, got married, became a minister, became a mother, it never failed to come back. That longing within me indicated that something was off kilter – that my emotions were overwhelming me, that my thoughts were careening in an unhelpful direction, that events in the world around me were whirling and swirling in a way that left me feeling turbulent inside. But as soon as I noticed that desire to return to God’s presence, and stole away to my quiet place once more, the storm within me began to die down. That longing was a signal for me to seek God again.
We might think of longing as something we want to get rid of – something to be satisfied, quenched, vanquished, gone forever. But I know that my longing has been a gift to me. Every time that longing rises within me and I pay attention to it, I find myself drawn closer to the heart of God. Without that signal, I’m not sure I would have chosen to return so frequently over the years, or found so many quiet moments of much-needed serenity in the midst of the activity of life.
Advent is a time of longing. Longing and waiting for the culmination of the season on Christmas day, when the celebration begins. But the longing we have now, leading up to that climax, can teach us something as well. Our longing beckons us to return to our place of refuge, again and again, amid the whirl and swirl of this busy time of year. In that place of refuge, those ancient words resound in us still: As the deer longs for streams of water, so our souls thirst for you. O God, you are our God, and we long for you. Our hearts cry out to be in your presence now.
This Advent, may each of us find peace, solace, and serenity in the heart of the God who came to be our Emmanuel – God with us as our refuge in the midst of the chaos of this world.
The image is called “Stream in the Forest” and was painted by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877).