A sermon preached on August 11, 2013 at Presbyterian Church of Western Springs, IL
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. 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 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. 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.
As you know, I was gone for three weeks, and during that time I was in Montreat, North Carolina staffing youth conferences for senior high youth. Each summer there are six weeks of youth conferences total, and each week there are between five hundred and one thousand senior high teenagers there to deepen their faith and build relationships. This year’s theme was Here and Be Heard, and while we didn’t explicitly use this psalm, the message of it was woven throughout the conference, as is often the case in youth ministry.
I remember memorizing Psalm 139 during a small group at Montreat when I was a youth. Small groups meet twice daily during the conference, and are comprised of about 30 youth from all different churches. I remember finding great comfort in the reality that God knew all about me, because as the preacher’s kid, I was intentionally very private with others in my daily life.
At the time my small group memorized this psalm, I was a junior in high school, and my mom’s cancer status had changed to Stage IV, but none of my friends in my home church knew that yet. It was healing to be in a place with one thousand other teenagers where I could be fully known by God, yet anonymous enough to wrestle with faith and doubt in a safe, Spirit-filled smaller group of 30 strangers who quickly became confidants and friends.
One of the primary reasons I have returned as an adult for a decade’s worth of summers to staff youth conferences is because of the significant impact the conference had on me as a youth. I know first-hand the positive power that type of community can have during such vulnerable and formative years. I know the hope that comes from meeting friends from different states who are always there via modern technology, and refreshingly aren’t the same friends in the cafeteria, youth group, or swim team every day. I know the power of a community reminding me that I am loved unconditionally by God and encouraging accountability with others amid our imperfections. I know what a gift it is as a teenager to be taught that intimately known by my Creator, yet remain anonymous enough to wrestle and breathe and attempt to figure out faith at my own pace. I know what a gift that sacred space can be for young people, and it’s a gift I’m grateful to have and am glad to share it.
During my time there this summer, I heard young people tell stories of survival and courage from bullying to losing a parent. I heard from young women who are recovering from abuse, and young men who are nervous about leaving for college because of how their dad speaks to their mom. I heard young women who feel they can’t make less than and A or be bigger than a size 4, and heard young men who believe if they could just make the team, then their parents would finally be proud.
I heard where they see God and where they see brokenness. I heard them question if God really loves them even when they don’t always love themselves or don’t always do the right thing. I heard where they find hope and how their home churches have nurtured and nourished them.
For many of us staffing the conference, our hearts broke hearing the stories of reality and pain–not because we are that naïve– but because we don’t want teens to experience those realities. Our hearts broke because we can’t always protect young people from the world’s imperfections.
And on a daily basis we were overwhelmed to hear where young people find strength and hope and joy in the midst of personal crisis. Ultimately, what we heard over and over again is that those young people wanted to feel comfortable enough in their own skin to allow others to fully know them. They believe they are fearfully and wonderfully made, yet they aren’t quite sure that’s enough to face the world in an authentic way. They greatly appreciate knowing God loves them intimately, yet still need to remain a bit anonymous until they feel more confident amid the storms and adventures of life.
And these fearfully and wonderfully made young people look to us as adults to encourage them on their quest for identity and authenticity. And, through hearing their stories and attempting to answer their questions, I was reminded that if we’re honest, what they are searching for is what all of us are searching for- identity, purpose, and to be simultaneously fully known and fully loved; to have the knowledge and feeling of God knowing when we sit down and when we rise up, yet the freedom to remain a bit anonymous in the world until our confidence catches up with our faith.
In one of my conversations this summer, a young woman said Psalm 139 scares her sometimes. When I inquired as to why, she said, “Because sometimes the thought of being fully known is terrifying. If my parents knew everything I said or everything I did, there’s no way they could forgive me. And if my friends knew everything, I don’t think they’d stand by me.”
As I listened to her honesty, I thought, again, that we as adults are also in that boat. What that young woman articulated is the same thing I’ve heard said in premarital counseling sessions with adults. The desire to be fully and intimately known on that kind of level with another person takes great courage and is a beautiful risk, yet can be both terrifying and powerful at the same time.
As she and I continued our conversation, I reminded her that God can and does always love us and always forgive us. And I said that while I don’t know her parents, I know that many parents love fiercely enough that even when they are angry with us, it’s generally out of deep love and wanting the absolute best for us. I reminded her of the words in our Brief Statement of Faith which we had used in worship the night before: “Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child. Like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home. God is faithful still.”
The beauty of Psalm 139 for all of us at any age and stage in life is that not only does God know us better than we know ourselves, but God loves us perfectly despite our imperfections. This psalm reminds us that whether we’re in in the height of Heaven or in the pit of Sheol, there is nowhere we can escape God’s Spirit. God is already present in the most painful and most beautiful days of our lives. God is already there when we are annoyed with ourselves, and God is already there when we fear allowing others to fully know us. No matter where we go, or even where we attempt to hide, God is already there.
The God who intentionally formed and knows each of us continues to speak the message of fearfully and wonderfully made louder than the imperfections of our world and status quo of our society. And, as often as we remind young people of this through Psalm 139, I think it bears saying to adults as well. For with God, the building materials of creation and recreation are always boundless love and unconditional grace. And, friends of all ages, we are fearfully, wonderfully, and beautifully created on purpose for a purpose out of both boundless love and unconditional grace. And thanks be to God for that. Amen.