Every year four seminary classmates—my best friends in ministry—and I gather for a two-day retreat. During the day we study scripture and theology, and we share case studies in ministry as we help one another become better priests. And the second afternoon we always take a break to do something fun.
Last summer we stayed at a ranch on the edge of the Hill Country, and on Wednesday afternoon we decided to escape the heat by floating on inner tubes down a stretch of the Guadalupe River. We donned our swim suits and loaded up the Rev. Daryl Hay’s minivan. We arrived at the roadside canoe rental stand, paid five dollars apiece for our inner tubes, and then ran like children down the path to the put-in point. As I ran, I imagined floating in deep water in which my feet could dangle. I virtually felt the cool, clear water, and it reminded me I was alive, opened my eyes, and quickened my soul.
Then, with a splash, we hit the water. Immediately, my anticipation was snuffed. The water was low, very low. Its volume was not enough to provide much current, and the river was a tepid, squalid mess. A thick gray film covered the surface, and as we inched down river, it accumulated on the front edge of the inner tubes in gross fashion. On that day, the river didn’t move, and it didn’t give life. It was a dead and draining pool. The water felt like quicksand to my soul, and I couldn’t wait to get out.
This is the story of water in Texas, from the Hill Country west. Since the drought of 2011, which saw the hottest and driest summer in recorded history, there has been no substantial recovery. Reservoirs, aquifers, rivers, and lakes are drying up. And with them, so are the people. Even as new oil and gas plays draw people to parts of West Texas, other areas are depopulating at an alarming rate. Because no matter our sophisticated and advanced we are as a people, no matter how ingenious, we cannot thrive or, indeed, survive, without life-giving, flowing water.
Of course, not all water is visible. There are areas of the world parched more desperately and for far longer than Texas, places in which sand dunes as high as small mountains stretch for seemingly endless miles in all directions. These are the lifeless places, in which even camels drop from lack of sustenance. Except that, occasionally one finds in the midst of all that sand a lagoon, a shimmering lake fed from deep underground by a secretly flowing stream. Such oases are otherworldly. One dune rolls after another, creating a bleak and unbroken landscape. And then, out of nowhere, one sees lush greenery and palms. An oasis is a defiant and glorious expression of abundance in the midst of a dead desert, made possible by the flowing water that teems beneath the surface, bubbling up through the sand and giving life.
This month we’ve begun our Every Member Canvass stewardship campaign to fund our mission and ministry in 2015, and as our theme the Stewardship Council chose Psalm 46, which we read this morning.
The psalm begins on a harrowing note. It suggests that the earth will shudder and shake under our feet, that our expectations will topple, that deserts will encroach upon our lives. It reminds us that, on the surface, things can be a mess. Our relationships, our finances, our health, can rock us until we fear losing our balance.
Psalm 46 is the quintessential example of why the psalms are so enduring. We get it. Its message resonates. We know what it feels like, personally, for the mountains to shake, for the earth to shift just as we think we’ve gained our footing. We know what it feels like for doubt to overtake belief, for anxiety to trump courage, for injury to preempt good health. And we know what it is for our spirits to be parched, for our reservoirs to become stagnant and brackish, or perhaps to dry up completely, like a West Texas river.
The spiritual desert can occur anywhere, anytime, but it may be most prevalent in the city. The heat, the humidity, the concrete, the traffic, the rush and crush of life in the urban center can lend themselves to the encroaching wasteland of the soul. We see it all the time, all around us, in expressions of exasperation, anger, violence, apathy, and disregard. We experience it personally, both directed at us, and, when we are unguarded, sometimes directed from us.
But Psalm 46 doesn’t end where it begins. Indeed, it remains in the earthquake, the desert, the tumult for only a split second. In its second stanza, the psalm says this: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.”
The “city of God” is Jerusalem, and the reference to a river is at first puzzling, because no river runs through Jerusalem. The meaning—both poetic and literal—becomes clearer only when we dive underground. Scholars believe the psalm may refer to an underground stream that runs deep beneath Jerusalem from the Gihon spring to the Pool of Siloam, one of the healing pools where, in the Gospels, Jesus meets those who are deeply hurting. In the reign of King Hezekiah, that stream was further supported by an aqueduct, to ensure that the city had a reliable water source even during times of siege.
The Psalmist’s implication is clear: No matter what the surface may bring, no matter what insults and injuries we may suffer or inflict, beneath the turmoil, deeper in us than belief and doubt, or anxiety, or fear, or injury–even in the middle of the spiritual desert–God flows like life-giving water.
That’s why we’re here, because we know this to be true. That’s why we come back to this place, in good and holy times and when we’re struggling through a spiritual desert, because we know that God flows beneath us and through us and that at the most unexpected times and places God’s life-giving water will bubble up to the surface, providing an oasis, slaking our parched souls. We gather here for worship, for formation, for fellowship like those who gathered at the Pool of Siloam, to receive the peace and healing that comes through communion with God.
And it is then that the Psalmist adds, “God is in the midst of the city.” That’s what we’re called to proclaim. In this city, our unique role as the Cathedral church downtown is to remind Houston that God is here, that—like the bayous—God’s sacred presence flows through this community into the driest places, where healing streams are needed most.
There is no other church quite like Christ Church Cathedral. There is no other church so positioned in the very heart of Houston, whose potential influence can ride the current of God throughout this city as a beacon of this truth. It is an awesome and sacred responsibility. And it requires the participation and support of each and every one of us.
As we enter into our Every Member Canvass, I am privileged to share with you that every member of both your Vestry and Stewardship Council has committed to increase his or her pledge over last year, in order fully to fund a ministry budget that proclaims God’s presence in the midst of the city. I also share with you that I, your Dean, will tithe this year, giving ten percent of my income back to the instruments of the Church, as my commitment to the work of the Gospel.
As we each prayerfully consider what our part in God’s ministry will be and what our pledge to the Cathedral will be for 2015, I pray you pause and feel, deeper than the rush of life in this city, the current of God that runs underneath it all; recall the times and ways in which God’s life-giving water has bubbled up and restored your parched soul; and join your voice with the Psalmist’s, saying, “There is, indeed, a river who streams make glad the city of God; God is in the midst of the city, a present help in time of trouble, our refuge and our strength.”