September 8, 2013

Psalm 139

“We Remember that God is With Us”

At Women’s Camp this weekend, the theme was “Ministries of Presence.” Emily Carr, who serves as the Ecumenical Chaplain at the University of Saskatchewan, led the program along with her mother-in-law Moira Brownlee who serves in a ministry to ex-convicts in Calgary. Both women shared stories about their experience in ministry when they were called upon to be present with others – not necessarily to DO something particular, to solve a problem, to say just the right thing, or to convince someone to change their life around and turn to Jesus. Instead, they identified some of the many times when they have been called upon simply to be present with someone who was in crisis or trouble, and somehow, through their just being there, God was working through them.

The stories that Emily and Moira shared on Friday evening at camp reminded me of some of my own experiences. Emily talked about the awkwardness of being with someone in a nursing home or a hospital room when there isn’t anything more to be said, when there isn’t anything more to be done… when all the minister, or the chaplain, or the good friend or family member can do is to be present. And I’ve been there for lots of those times too… sitting at the beside holding someone’s hand… standing in the room with a family waiting for their loved one to take his final breath… hovering in the hospital hallway, just waiting to see what will happen, or how I can be useful without getting in the way.

We probably don’t talk about ministries of presence as much as we should. We think about ministry as teaching, preaching, praying, and programming. We think of ministry as something that we get trained for and then as something that we DO. Even after a number of years of ministry experience, sometimes I still feel kind of awkward and uncomfortable when I’m just called to be there, to be WITH someone in the midst of their struggle.

Standing in the hospital room, I watch for an opportunity to do something – to say a prayer, to read a bible passage, to give a hug or say something encouraging. And those things are good too… but the main thing, I must remember, is just being there. When an appropriate time does come for a prayer, it’s not always easy to know what to say. Very often, I find myself beginning by praying something like this: “O God, we remember that you are with us.” And then I pause so that I can actually remember it… so that those I’m with can remember it too. In the midst of sorrow, confusion, fear, or longing… when God’s presence may not seem very obvious at all, we pray, “O God, we remember that you are with us.”

Sometimes I also turn to Psalm 139 to remember God’s presence because the witness of the Psalmist is so clear. He proclaims that God is not only present like a hovering Spirit, but God knows us completely – our thoughts, our feelings, our fears, and our hopes. God knows us better than we know ourselves, and God is present.

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.”

I have a little bible that I carry around with me in my purse, but if I didn’t, I think Psalm 139 is one of the ones I would want to write out on a card so that I could have it on hand whenever it might be needed. Because Psalm 139 doesn’t just say that God is everywhere, so God must be here too. But it says that God searches me out. God is so intent on being a continuing presence in my life that even if I’m not paying attention and noticing God, even if I’m deliberately avoiding or ignoring God, even if I can’t (in the midst of whatever’s going on in my life) believe in God’s power or love, it’s not down to me; because God is searching me out, and God finds me wherever I have wandered.

There’s a part in the middle of the psalm in which the psalmist almost sounds like he’s being hounded by God. God just won’t leave him alone! “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” One commentator says that the psalmist sounds almost claustrophobic. God surrounds him. God won’t leave him alone.

And God is the only one who knows him completely. God is the only one who knows any of us completely. Maybe your best friend knows you pretty well. Maybe your spouse knows you better than anyone else. And one or two of those important people in your life might be able to be there for you when you are struggling. But the psalmist makes it clear that God knows us more intimately than anyone else; God knows us more fully even than we know ourselves. “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely… such knowledge is too wonderful for me.”

It’s a major thing to let someone else know us completely because there’s a lot of vulnerability that comes with allowing someone to see not only our public persona – our good qualities and talents and accomplishments. It takes a high level of trust to show ourselves to another person, including all our failures and fears, without worrying that they will insult us, or reject us, or stop loving us.

Anyone who has been deeply hurt or betrayed by someone you trusted understands the risk that we take in opening ourselves up to love and to be loved. And anyone who has experienced the faithful, unconditional love of another person knows that it is worth the risk. But whether we’ve been loved, or we’ve been hurt, or most likely a little of each, Psalm 139 tells us that God is present, and God is searching us out, and God (who knows us completely and loves us just the way we are) would like to be a part of our lives every day. On the joyful and happy days, on the regular everyday days, and on the horrible, crisis, despairing, and crying days too.

But this is not only a psalm of comfort and consolation for the difficult days when we are feeling abandoned by human beings or betrayed by the circumstances of life. This is a psalm of discipleship – a psalm for followers of Jesus who want to grow more and more in his image. It fits beautifully with our other lectionary reading this morning from Jeremiah because God is not a passive observer of our lives, but is actively involved in making and shaping us.

From the prophet Jeremiah, we have the image of God as a potter – an artist forming and shaping a beautiful vessel. Of course, in Jeremiah’s metaphor, the pot has become deformed; God’s people have turned from God’s good ways and done evil; Like a clay pot on the potter’s wheel, they have been ruined. But just like with clay, God has the possibility of reshaping and reforming them. We can be like soft clay in the potter’s hand, allowing our lives to be shaped and perfected by God’s guidance and love.

The Psalmist remembers that it was God who formed his life in the first place. God made him individually in his mother’s womb, and God created humanity in the beginning as well. The psalm emphasizes that God created us, that God shaped us and formed us, that God not only knows us but takes responsibility for who we are. Likewise, God shapes both our beginnings and also our endings, as well as every day in between.

Although we can’t deny that God gave us the gift of life, and we can’t get away from God’s presence, we do still have a decision to make. Like disciples that choose whether to drop their nets and follow Jesus, we can choose whether we want to enter into the discipleship life with God. We can choose whether we want to acknowledge God’s presence and whether we want to let God keep working on us like a potter shaping a finer and finer vessel.

Maybe today is a good day for us to invite God to be a part of our lives in that way once again or for the first time. Maybe today is a good day for us to take some time to remember that God is with us, to give thanks that God made us, to acknowledge that God knows us completely and loves us still.

And perhaps today is a good day to let God continue the process of molding and shaping our lives. That is what the psalmist did… at the end of the psalm (which we didn’t quite get to this morning because it’s not in the lectionary. The psalmist ends with two verses that are a prayer: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

I invite you to take out the red psalm books again, and to turn with me to Psalm 139, to the final two verses. Let’s read those verses together as a prayer to God for today. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Amen.