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15 January 2015

Longing to Be Known (Second Sunday after Epiphany)

Psalm 139

One of my psychotherapy colleagues shared the story of a woman who’d gone to several medical doctors because she was having trouble breathing. Since a medical cause couldn't be found, she found herself in the therapist's office. As they spoke, the colleague noticed the camp numbers tattooed on the patient’s forearm. The woman coughed a great deal while telling her story.

“When did you start having trouble breathing?” the therapist asked. “When my friend died two years ago,” the survivor admitted. “When she was alive,” the patient said, “we could talk about anything. Although she had not been in the camps, she understood. She truly knew me, and it was so good to have her around." She began crying as she continued, "But now there is no one to tell. And I can't sleep. The nightmares haunt me. I can’t sleep alone in the house. I know that if I want to live, I have to find another friend.”

The story illustrates how  important it is to have someone who will hear our story, how much we long to be known. The psalm assigned for next Sunday, Psalm 139, speaks to this universal human need, our longing to be known.

1 O Lord, you examine me and know.  2 You know when I sit down and when I get up; even from far away you understand my motives. 3 You carefully observe me when I travel or when I lie down to rest; you are aware of everything I do. 4 Certainly my tongue does not frame a word without you, O Lord, being thoroughly aware of it. 5 You squeeze me in from behind and in front; you place your hand on me. 6 Your knowledge is beyond my comprehension; it is so far beyond me, I am unable to fathom it. 

7 Where can I go to escape your spirit? Where can I flee to escape your presence? 8 If I were to ascend to heaven, you would be there. If I were to sprawl out in Sheol, there you would be. 9 If I were to fly away on the wings of the dawn, and settle down on the other side of the sea, 10 even there your hand would guide me, your right hand would grab hold of me. 11 If I were to say, “Certainly the darkness will cover me, and the light will turn to night all around me,” 12 even the darkness is not too dark for you to see, and the night is as bright as day; darkness and light are the same to you. 

13 Certainly you made my mind and heart; you wove me together in my mother's womb. 14 I will give you thanks because your deeds are awesome and amazing. You knew me thoroughly; 15 my bones were not hidden from you, when I was made in secret and sewed together in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes saw me when I was inside the womb. All the days ordained for me were recorded in your scroll before one of them came into existence. 17 How difficult it is for me to fathom your thoughts about me, O God! How vast is their sum total! 18 If I tried to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. Even if I finished counting them, I would still have to contend with you.

19 If only you would kill the wicked, O God! Get away from me, you violent men! 20 They rebel against you and act deceitfully; your enemies lie. 21 O Lord, do I not hate those who hate you, and despise those who oppose you? 22 I absolutely hate them, they have become my enemies!

23 Examine me, and probe my thoughts! Test me, and know my concerns! 24 See if there is any idolatrous tendency in me, and lead me in the reliable ancient path!

Seven times the Hebrew root ידע (to know) occurs in our psalm (V. 1, 2, 4, 6, 14, and twice in 23). Yada' is a rich word in biblical Hebrew, covering a whole range of meanings - from simple recognition to intimate sexual relationship. In Genesis 4, we read that Adam "knew (yada') his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain". Some form of this word occurs sixty times in the Psalter, emphasizing that to know and to be known is a critical element of a meaningful relationship.

In his "Tales of the Hasidim", Martin Buber, Jewish philosopher, offered these words concerning the relationship between God and humankind:

Where I wander - You!
Where I ponder - You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
When I am gladdened - You!
When I am saddened - You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
Sky is You, Earth is You!
You above! You below!
In every trend, at every end,
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!

The five stanzas of the psalm trace the story of intimacy between the writer and God:

Stanza 1. VV. 1-6:
Wonder and Marvel. "You are aware of everything I do."
Stanza 2. VV. 7-12:
Bewilderment and Fear. "Where can I go to escape your spirit?"
Stanza 3. VV. 13-18:
Surprise and Amazement. "You wove me together in my mother's womb."
Stanza 4. VV. 19-22:
Fury and Rage. "If only you would kill the wicked."
Stanza 5. VV. 23-24:
Happiness and Contentment. "Examine and probe my thoughts. Test me and know my concerns."

Our lectionary often edits the psalms with a heavy hand, and thus only assigns VV 1-6 and 13-18 to this Sunday, completely cutting stanza 4, but also 2. But such editing (to protect us from seeing our whole human nature?) is misguided and silly, especially when it comes to knowing and longing to be known. Certainly the writer of our psalm seems to find it liberating that God knows all that he feels, including his fear of being crowded, and his rage toward those who mock him and his God.

As scary as the process is, we all have this yearning for connection, this desire to be known in full. To have our shame and rage, fear and disgust, even hate, known and still be embraced, this is the yearning that drives us to the One who knows the hearts and minds of all humankind. Our longing to be truly known, warts and all, drives us to the One who knows us in full, and still extends a gracious embrace.

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