Friday, 15 January 2016

Fearfully and wonderfully

Sometimes the same words just keep cropping up, and each time they reappear they arrest me more suddenly in my tracks. Just recently it's been the words of Psalm 139, which starts "O Lord, you have searched me and known me". A friend and charismatic member of our community lost her battle with cancer just before Christmas. A group of us met together the night before the funeral and were asked to bring prayers, readings or thoughts to share, and I read this psalm which had also come to my mind a few months earlier when we had been praying for our friend as she went through treatment.

The very next day I heard the psalm again, at the funeral service - which was a powerful and deeply moving celebration of our friend's life and faith, as well as a heartfelt expression of loss.

And then yesterday a Facebook friend posted a beautiful and powerful Vimeo reading of sections of the psalm by adults and children with disabilities. You'll have to click on the link below to see it.

I am fearfully and wonderfully made

The exquisite poetry of this psalm really gets to the essence of what I believe and care about, and my passion for equality. It allows for my doubts and questions, for my weaknesses and confusions. While it doesn't answer my unanswerable questions about tragedy and on-going suffering, it does allow me to ask them within a safe place. I visualise this as the enormous cupped hands of God - the "everlasting arms". And there are other metaphors in the biblical scriptures, such as the place beneath the wings of a mother hen.

The great thing about hearing these words read at a funeral, and by people with disabilities, is that they describe all of us, at all stages of life. It is not our business to categorise people as more or less wonderful depending on their status, wealth, sexuality, ability, race, religion. We are all fearfully and wonderfully made, intimately understood and deeply valuable. It is upsetting that church institutions so often fail to take this on board.

Here are my two wonderfully-made children. They amaze me every day with what they can do, the things they grasp and the pleasure they bring to those around them.

I've reproduced the psalm in full below, including a section towards the end which is far less palatable to our culture - about killing enemies and hating people. Readings of this psalm in church often stop before this section, or skip it and move on to the nice couple of verses at the end. And yet, it is also part of the human condition to wish harm on those that harm us, to dwell on our resentments. This is especially true when we are under threat or are facing emotional, dangerous and difficult times. The writer of this psalm was honest in a way that we are often not honest - it is easy for us to think that this sort of sentiment is the preserve of militant islamists or small-minded racists.

The words of this psalm describe the details of our lives, every cell of our body, every day that we live, every word that we say (kind or vindictive) as being important and known. It's a wake-up for anyone who thinks he, or his club, has a monopoly on truth. It is challenging to anyone who is complacent about her faults. It is a boost to anyone who thinks he is insignificant and unimportant. It is reassuring to anyone who is suffering.

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 if 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.

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 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.
If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,"
even the darkness is not dark to you,
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

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.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.

My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
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.

O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me - 
those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.
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.