Thirsty

 

“I am thirsty,” Jesus said from the cross.

It was plea. His insides burned, and he craved even just a drop to ease it.

It was a declaration. Jesus stood with us in our humanity, beginning to end. He felt, all the way down, what we feel: I am thirsty. He knew the wanting in us that is never fully quenched, never quite satisfied.

My dad was thirsty.

For many years, from his late teens to his early 30s, he had a bottomless capacity for scotch whisky and, when that wasn’t on hand, rye whisky. I don’t know the difference between the two, but he did. Put 2 or 3 drinks in him, he was funny, charming, witty. Put another 2 or 3 in him, he was sour, mean, belligerent. And he never stuck with just 2 or 3. It gradually took over his whole life. He squandered all the money. He couldn’t hold a job. He couldn’t keep friends. He was about to lose his marriage.

And then one day, a miracle: he stopped.

My dad was home sleeping off a bender. My mom was often home, too, but she’d slipped out while he slept and took the bus downtown to meet with a divorce lawyer. But she got turned around – she never had a good sense of direction – and went to the wrong lawyer, who listened to her anyhow and who, without charging her a dime, told her go back home and tell my dad that either he stopped drinking or she would leave. While she was gone, a Fuller-Brush man (ask your grandfather) happened by the house and found my dad in his drunken stupor. The Fuller-Brush man had recently sobered up through the help of AA, and he forced his way into the house, against my father’s loud and foul protests, and read my dad the riot act.

When my mom got home, she said, “Bruce, I have something I need to tell you.”

And he said, “Joyce, I have something I need to tell you.”

“Okay,” she said. “You go first.”

“I quit drinking,” he said.

He told her what happened, and then said, “What did you need to tell me?”

She said, “That I love you.”

 

That was all in the early part of the 1960s. My dad never touched liquor again. Not once. He could serve it to others – he kept a well-stocked liquor supply in his home office, and routinely poured and mixed for others. He just never indulged.

But he was always thirsty. Always trying to fill some dry empty place in himself, slake some wild dark craving. I am so thankful for that Fuller-Brush man, who himself slipped back into active drinking 6 months after he met my dad, and died from liver failure 2 years later. But for many years I was also bewildered by my dad: if he wasn’t a drunk anymore, why could he be sometimes so funny, charming, witty and then, with no warning, sour, mean, belligerent?

It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I started to figure that out: he was still thirsty, always thirsty. And he kept reaching for something, almost anything, to fill it.

In my early years, I judged him for that.

In my later years, I got it.

I’m thirsty, too.

It’s actually how God made us.

Jesus doesn’t judge our thirst. He gave it to us. He experiences it with us. Goodness, Jesus wouldn’t know what to do with us if we ever lost our thirst. Our thirst is how he’ calls us to himself: “Is anyone thirsty?” he says. “Come. Come to me. And I will give you real drink.”

No, Jesus loves the thirsty, and he honors our thirst.

It’s just that many things we turn to, often over and over, don’t satisfy it. Some things we turn to even destroy us, though usually at first they show us a fine good time. The well we keep going at first thrills us, then poison us. Retired seminary professor James Nelson in his book Thirst, about his own struggle with alcoholism, puts it this way: “the more I drank, the thirstier I became.”

When Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4), the topic of his thirst, and then hers, thirst drives the encounter. “Can you give me something to drink,’ is how Jesus starts. I am thirsty. But very quickly, he turns to her thirst: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Give me this water!” she says. She loses all politeness. All decorum. All dignity. Thirsty people tend to do that.

One of the things that older Christians – such as Augustine, Ignatius, Chesterton, Lewis – understood but more recent Christians often forgot (though thankfully are starting to remember) is that our hunger and our thirst – our desires – are not all carnal. Indeed, at root they’re all spiritual. One writer calls our desires, even our worst and darkest ones, “the ruins of our search for lost transcendence.” They’re hieroglyphs of our deepest longings.

C.S. Lewis writes:

 

The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.”

 

Jesus doesn’t intend to take away our thirst. He just wants to give us a drink. When he goes to the the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem (John 7) – a carousing week-long whoop up of eating and drinking like none other – and does this:

 

On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”

 

And then John, helpfully, adds this “By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.”

I am thirsty. You are thirsty. It’s okay: it’s how we’re made. But sometimes we go to wells, over and over, that don’t satisfy. But if you knew the gift of God, and who it is who meets you at your well, you would ask him and he would give you living water.

The Father’s Love

This past summer, rummaging through a table of used books, I found Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man. It’s her 2002 biography of Eustace Conway, a modern-day Daniel Boone who lives on a thousand acres of pristine land in the hillbilly country of the Appalachian Mountains. He has made himself an expert at everything he puts his hands to, which is mostly recovering ancient ways of farming and building and cooking and concocting remedies from tree bark and forest plants. I had not, until reading the book, heard of Eustace Conway, though he’s something of a legend, nor had I read anything by Elizabeth Gilbert, though she’s a well-known writer.

But I was captivated from her first sentence: “By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree.”

Thus begins a tumbling, wheeling, radiant portrait of a troubled and prodigiously gifted man, equal parts tyrant, visionary, romantic, adventurer, entrepreneur and utopian dreamer. He can drive a real estate deal with snaky cunning and hard-fisted resolve, then write sheer mush to yet another idealized woman for whom he’s fallen hard, then lose himself in some grand ambition to make or remake history. He wants to save America from itself – its flabbiness, laziness, ineptitude, wastefulness, consumption – and teach everyone to live free and wild. But his own compulsiveness keeps him in a perpetual state of disappointment and frustration.

Eustace is a complicated man. Many influences shape him, and much about him remains a mystery. But one theme that Gilbert returns to over and over is his relationship with his father, Eustace, Sr.. Eustace has never lived up to his father’s impossible, inscrutable expectations. Repeatedly, through childhood on, he’s tried in every way to make his father proud, and in every way has failed. When Eustace, Jr. was still at home, Eustace, Sr. had three modes of parenting him – scowling silence, withering mockery, and pummeling lectures. A typical tirade: “You are stupid. I have never met a child more dimwitted. I don’t know how I could have sired so idiotic a son.”

Never has the man reversed his verdict.

Eustace has been in every inch formed by this. He’s spent his entire life trying both to escape his father and to win him. As Eustace’s fame and influence and skill has grown, as he’s been sought and admired by more and more people, he’s remained the boy desperate for his father’s approval, crushed by his father’s contempt. In many ways, he’s accomplished so much because he’s been damaged so deeply. His success – his perfectionism, really – has been a massive gesture of compensation, a thing he’s used to try to fill a void that has no bottom. It’s been his lifelong and mounting effort to hear just one thing: You are my son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.

Three things emerged for me reading all this. One is a deep thankfulness for my own father, now gone 20 years. Though my relationship with him was strained at times, he was a kind and good man, with a generous heart, and I never doubted his love for me. After his death, I found among his treasures all the tacky or homey little gifts I ever gave him – a metal key chain with his initials crookedly stamped into it, a wooden letter opener made from black oak and ash, and somesuch. I held them and wept.

The second thing is a fresh resolve to be a good father to my three children. To speak words to them that are kind, and true, and hopeful. To call them to be their best selves, but never impose on them my own version of that. To tell them often that I love them. That I am proud of them.

The third thing that emerged is renewed wonder at God’s love. My favorite memory of my own father was a Saturday in June 1976. I had just turned 16. We rose early and drove through the Fraser Valley, outside Vancouver, looking for a U-Pick blueberry farm. We never found one. But the whole day we talked, and laughed, and sang. We had lunch together in a 50’s style diner. We arrived home late afternoon, empty-handed but full-hearted. When I think of God’s fatherhood, I always think of that day: the gift of his sheer presence. He gives many good gifts, but always, with all of them, he gives himself.

Perhaps had Eustace Conway known a father like that, he wouldn’t have had the drive to succeed. Or maybe he would have, but with it also the capacity to enjoy his success, and yet not to define himself by it.

I want to succeed. I want my children to succeed. I just hope that what gets any of us there is not someone’s impossible, inscrutable demands, but this alone: the father’s love.