When my daughter Meredith was around 4 years old, we traveled together down to Florida to participate in my cousin’s wedding. It was in December, so, as it happened, Meredith had to miss the visit from Santa Claus to her nursery school. We flew first to Greensboro, NC, where my parents were living, and they took us to a nearby mall that afternoon, to see if we could find one of Santa’s “team” there. Sure enough, “Santa” was on his Santa throne, and as it was the middle of a weekday afternoon, Meredith was able to go right up to the old elf. “Well, hello there,” said Santa. “What’s your name?” Meredith smiled conspiratorially. “Oh, you know.” She had heard the songs and the stories. Santa knows every child, whether they’ve been naughty or nice and all that. So, of course, Santa knew her name. “You know,” she said with great assurance. The man laughed, and said, “Sure I do, but why don’t you just remind me?” “You know,” Meredith said again, not giving in. The poor man looked up at me, and I just smiled and shrugged.
I think we moved on from the name to the wish list without a major scene occurring, but we do give Santa divine qualities, don’t we? He knows us each by name, whether we’ve been naughty or nice. Sounds like what a lot of people think God is like.
“O God, you have searched me and known me,” the psalmist writes. “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. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.”
He goes on to say, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made…” As Walter Brueggemann says, this was not intended as a biology lesson, but rather as a powerful image and hymn of wonder and praise that the very fabric of our being is enmeshed with that of very Being itself. We are not mass-produced, but custom-made, as another commentator put it. (James Limburg, cited by Kate Huey in Weekly Seeds, 1/15/12)
Of course, such intimacy may not seem like good news to everyone. As one writer put it, there may be the fear that “the God who invades our deepest privacy may also intimidate and tyrannize us…the God who knows when I sit and when I rise up may not be for everyone a welcomed guest.” (Texts for Preaching, Year B, p. 108) There may be secrets that we do not want God to know, that we may barely even acknowledge to ourselves. Our deepest privacy may have been invaded and abused before. We may not even trust God to know us faithfully.
I occasionally indulge in watching the TV program “What Not to Wear,” and over and over I am struck by how many women either hide behind too large or too dull clothing because they fear being judged, (probably because they have been judged), or they wear outrageous clothing as a diversion from their true selves, which feel too vulnerable to be displayed. I happened to catch the program this week, and this beautiful young girl who wore dull, ripped and stained clothes said she was afraid of wearing clothes that would call attention to herself and thus open her up for judgment.
“O God, you have searched me and known me,” the psalmist says. Even the psalmist seems uncomfortable with that intimacy. “Where can I go from your spirit? [he asks] 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.”
Still, there is no hint of judgment here in this psalm. As Bruce Epperly writes, “God doesn’t use divine knowledge to punish us.” (Process and Faith website, 1/15/12) Here is an intimacy that is utterly loving, even as we are known fully. “Now I know only in part,” Paul writes in the great ode to Love in 1 Corinthians 13, “then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
We do not even know ourselves fully. “Who am I?” the Lutheran pastor and writer Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from a Nazi prison, shortly before his execution. We may put on certain manners or attitudes from which others may think they know us, but that is not always who we really are.
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warder
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equally, smilingly, proudly,
Like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were
compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!”
“I am Thine.”
“How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! I try to count them–they are more than the sand; I come to the end–I am still with you.” From before our birth–in our mother’s wombs, as the psalmist says–to our very end—and beyond, “I am still with you.” That list of Santa’s–you know, where he keeps track of who’s naughty and who’s nice–sounds an awful lot like what some people call “The Book of Life.” Our “permanent record,” if you will, that St. Peter supposedly looks us up in at the pearly gates, is a way of talking about God’s intimate knowledge of us. BUT, rather than comparing lengths of “naughty” and “nice” columns, and sending us to the appropriate heaven or hell, here the psalmist confesses that even though he has tried to escape God, when he “comes to the end,” he is still with God. The definition of heaven is “where God is.” And conversely, the definition of hell is “apart from God.” The psalmist says there’s no such place.
The story is told in Hasidic circles of a young rabbi named Zusya who was discouraged about his weakness and failures. He goes to an older rabbi and tells him his woes, and the older man says, “When you get to heaven, God is not going to say to you, ‘Why weren’t you Moses?’. No, God will say, ‘Why weren’t you Zusya?’ So why don’t you stop trying to be Moses and start being the Zusya God created you to be?”
The same might be said to us. “When you get to heaven, God is not going to say to you, ‘Why weren’t you Jesus?’ but rather, ‘Why weren’t you Daryl? Or Al? Or Jane? Or George?” So why don’t you stop trying to be Jesus and start being the (your name here) God created you to be?”
Believe it or not, that’s what all those lists out there in Webster Hall under the title, “Parts of the Body” were intended to get you to think about. What would it take to be the Nora or Norm or Barbara or Bruce God intended you to be? What does God know about you that you may suspect is true, or you know is true, or someone else may have noticed about you and told you about, that you might embody or act out in the context of this church family? I say, “in the context of this church family” and not “this church,” because it may not necessarily be part of the “organization” (such as it is) of this church or something you do inside the walls of this church. It may be something you do in your home–“At this time in my life, I am the parent that my child needs to have around”–OR “at this time in my life, I am the child my parent needs to have around.” OR It might be, “I can be the Light and Love at my place of work.” OR “I get a lot of satisfaction creating beautiful, clean, safe, creative places in which to worship or be, so I’m called this year to keep an eye on our church building or maybe I’m called to create beautiful altar or chancel arrangements for worship” OR “I’ve spent enough time by myself, worrying about myself and feeling lousy about myself. Maybe what I need to do is get out of myself and do something for someone else. Maybe I’ll volunteer at the Free Clinic or the Kitchen Cupboard. Maybe I’ll sign up to make or help with Sunday Supper one night a month.”…The possibilities, clearly, are endless. But try this out–a wise man has written, “to know a calling is from God, there are qualities it needs to manifest–such as beauty, persistence, calmness, and clarity” (J. Brent Bill, in Sacred Compass, cited in Congregational Resource Guide, week of Jan. 9, 2012)
You might even do what makes you feel comfortable in your own skin.
“Search me, O God, and know my heart,” the psalmist says finally, “and lead me in the way everlasting.” “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God. How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them–they are more than the sand; I come to the end–I am still with you.” The God of the stars and galaxies, of black holes and nebulae is also the God of mitochondria and electrons, of quarks and chromosomes. And yet, and yet, wonder of wonders! This same God knows us and loves us, even needs us to be who we were created to be. Amazing! Awesome! Amen!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark