Psalm 139 is one of my favourite pieces of scripture. I love the way it describes the intimate nature of our relationship with God. As a teenager, having grown up in the church, I remember that moment in my life when having learned a lot about God, Jesus and the Bible in Sunday school, I longed for something more. My yearning wasn’t just to know about God but to know and be known by God, someone, anyone, let alone by sacred presence. My adolescent self certainly did not feel very known or understood by my parents. As a parent of a teen and pre-teen right now, I am watching that same dynamic unfold with my own children. They do not feel known or understood by me.
So this piece of poetry, this holy scripture, that speaks of God as one who has known us from the very beginning, was at that time in my life when I was a teenager and still today, so appealing to me.
On the Channel Islands in the U.K. there is a cemetery where the unknown dead of WWII are buried. The bodies beneath the soil are unnamed but inscribed on each gravestone are the words “known by God.” How beautiful.
This is not the God we so often associate with our Hebrew Scriptures, a God who is far away, somewhat unfeeling and often vengeful, this God cares and you and cares about me. In fact the pronouns “you” and “me” are used more than 30 times in the entirety of this psalm.
The teenaged years, of course, are not just the years we go looking for intimacy with God, they are the years we go looking for intimacy in general. Sometimes, as the song says we go “looking for love in all the wrong places.” But sometimes in those adolescent or young adult years, we do find love with another human being. And if and when that happens we often discover that intimacy in our relationships is not always what it is cracked up to be. Sometimes, we find out that we don’t actually want to be known quite so thoroughly. There is nothing like the intimacy of our personal relationships to expose us and our vulnerabilities.
We want to be known but we often only want so much of our selves to me known. Some of us are so good about keeping parts of ourselves hidden from others that there can be entire aspects of our being that we don’t even know ourselves.
This is what I think the psalmist might be trying to get at when he says you have searched me and known me, I am fearfully made. Few of us are travelling through airports or crossing borders these days but we can probably remember what it feels like to be searched. There’s nothing like stripping down to your socks with your pants making their way down to your ankles due to the fact that your belt is no longer holding them up, the contents of your purse or briefcase strewn across several bins, to make you feel exposed. Heaven forbid they go through the trunk of your car with a flashlight at the border. I don’t know about you, but these kinds of searches make me want to yell out “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do it!” even when I have done absolutely nothing wrong and there really isn’t anything to hide. And when someone starts searching through your life with a fine tooth comb, you know they’re going to find something you don’t want them to find.
And so the psalmist asks “where can I go from your Spirit?” And I’ve never been convinced that question is meant to be a comforting one, as in “thank God you are always there with me, I am never alone, where would I ever want to go without you?” Isn’t it possible the psalmist is asking “where can I go from your Spirit?” so he can buy a first class ticket to get there as in “when are you going to leave me alone?”
Some of you know that years ago I completed a 40 day retreat in which we prayed through the life of Jesus. At the end of the retreat when we were debriefing the experience, one woman talked about how when we prayed the part of the story where Jesus ascends into heaven, after he’d been crucified and risen and visited with the disciples and given them their mission, she was so glad to see him go, because he had been hounding her for so long about her life and her ministry, she was worn down by the experience.
And it’s this wearing down by our relationship with God that actually is being expressed in the psalm when it says “you hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.”
I have always thought this hemming in was a protective embrace. It’s always been for me a very comforting image of God. But I learned something about the word “hemmed” this week that has challenging my thinking. Apparently, the Hebrew word “hem” that is used here is the same word that is used to describe a city under siege. Instead of God surrounding us with a protective and cozy garment, this is the psalmist saying to God “you besiege me. You entrap and beleaguer me. You will not let me go.”
We happen to have fresh in our memories this week, images of a building, people and an institution under siege. They are not pretty images. Talk about being hemmed in. Did you hear about Nancy Pelosi’s staff who hid under a table for two hours while the insurrectionists tried to get into their office. Being under siege is a scary thing. It seems the psalmist knows this feeling of being scared of the closeness of God pounding on the door of our hearts and lives and saying let me in. The psalmist seems to know what it is to want to hide under the table hoping that the locked door of his heart and life will hold against the strength of the presence of love that just wants in.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. You got me!
When you are under siege there is only one of two ways out. You either push back, you fight, or you surrender, you give into it.
We long to be seen and understood, to be known, but we are so good at putting up protective barriers to make sure it doesn’t happen. I wonder, what barriers you have put up, to keep Love’s deep penetration into your life at bay? What things about yourself do you keep hidden because you think are not worthy of God’s or anyone else’s love? Are there fears you have about what God might do with you and your life if you were to let go and let God in? What comes to mind when you think of surrendering yourself to God, to Love?
I wonder, if we allow ourselves to be fully known by God, if we do give up and give in, it we will discover how fearfully and wonderfully made we truly are.
When we think about the teenagers and young adults in our lives who we know are searching for intimacy, longing to be known, to find acceptance and love, isn’t that what we hope for each one of them? that they will discover their own belovedness, that they will know in their lives in whatever way it comes to them, the unboundaried and unconditional love of God. Isn’t it what we hope for all our teenaged selves? May it be so.