In the Lectionary

Sunday, September 5, 2010: Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

For those people who have no inclination to know God or learn about God, the interest of others in learning about God may seem strange. For those of us who want to know God, the yearning seems inevitable, like a default setting that we were born with. Twenty centuries ago, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai reminded his students that they were not to take pride in their knowledge of Torah. Knowing God was what we were created for, he told them. It is woven into who we are.

John Calvin grounded our need to know God in our createdness: "What is the chief end of human life?" he asked, and answered, "To know God by whom we were created." This yearning is not the same as our need to "know" other human beings. We may spend an afternoon catching up with friends on Facebook, but this desire to know God compels us in a way that makes even the most articulate of us stammer to explain it. It can be more than a little embarrassing. There are certain skills and expertise we need to make a living, but this is something else. This enjoyment is more desperate. If we pause to contemplate this odd need, this unbidden longing, the whole experience may feel more than a little eerie.

Even more eerie, however, is the 139th Psalm's dizzying accounting of God's knowing us. Just when we might imagine we were responsible for a holy quest for God, we discover ourselves searched for—and found! Being found reverses the terms and the risk of our investigation. "O Lord, you have searched me and known me," reads a standard translation, but searched has a remoteness and detachment foreign to the psalmist's breathtaking poetry. There is much to be said for the Jewish Publication Society's translation of "You have examined me and know me." To be examined conjures up the anxious experience of an annual checkup. The experience is physical. We stand naked and vulnerable or we clutch the flimsy illusion of a paper gown. The clothes that cover us are hung up; the scars that the world has carved into us are now visible, as well as the tattoo from a night's overindulgence, the sags and the pitiful wornness of skin.