The Knower and the Learners

Lord, you have * searched me out

O Lord, * you have known me.

You know my sitting down and my * rising up;

you discern my thoughts * from afar.

You trace my journeys and my * resting-places

and are acquainted with * all my ways

Indeed, there is not a word * on my lips,

but you, O Lord, know it * altogether.

You press upon me behind * and before

and lay your * hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonder- * ful for me;

it is so high that I cannot at- * tain to it.

For you yourself created my * inmost parts;

you knit me together in my * mother’s womb.

I will thank you because I am mar- * velously made;

your works are wonderful, and I * know it well.

My body was not hid- * den from you,

while I was being made in secret

and woven in the depths * of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb;

all of them were written * in your book;

my days were fashioned before they * came to be.

How deep I find your * thoughts, O God!

how great is the * sum of them!

If I were to count them, they would be more in number * than the sand;

to count them all, my life span would need to * be like yours.

Lord, you have * searched me out

O Lord, * you have known me.

~Psalm 139:1-6; 13-18 (1)

You know how we all remember where we were when big things happened? For those of us of a certain age, these might be things like, the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, or the release of Nelson Mandela from jail in 1990. Certainly, national and international tragedies, like the events of 9-11 or the death of Princess Diana. I may be odd in this respect, but there are a few parts of the bible for which I know exactly where I was when I first read them, or heard them, or when their meaning finally sunk in. I know I first heard the Beatitudes—“Blessed are the poor in sprit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…”—in a classroom at Saint James Elementary School in Ventnor, NJ. I was in the fourth grade. I was in my living room in Binghamton when I first read one of the worst stories in the bible, the story of Jephthah’s daughter. It was 1995, and I was discovering the treasures of biblical stories about women—and the horrors.

I first read this psalm when I was in grad school in Boston. The class was an introduction to spirituality, and Psalm 139 was our introduction to the class.

I sat in that classroom on Hammond Street and had a visceral reaction to what I was reading and hearing. The psalm overwhelmed me. It brought me to tears. The language pierced me—the vision the words cast of a loving knower, one who knew me as intimately—more intimately—than a mother knows a child in her womb. I grew up in a loving family. I also grew up an adoptee. I was in my late twenties, and a mother myself, and the psalm spoke to the adopted child in me and opened up a whole new understanding of the love of God for us… and not just for us. For me.

A wise man once said, “the notion that God is absent is the fundamental illusion of the human condition.” (2) Psalm 139 challenges that notion with a completely different vision: God knows us. God loves us. God pursues us. And wherever we are, God is there—even, the places we least expect God to be.

Of course, even if we believe God is always present, still, we forget, like someone searching for his phone while talking on it.

Why do we forget? In his commentary on the psalms, John Calvin writes that the psalmist is forcing himself to confront the reality that God sees everything he does. Maybe we forget because that idea is not necessarily a comforting one. I am flashing back to all the times I’ve lost my temper, as a mother of young children, as a person behind the wheel, as a pastor. That God was right there watching the whole time makes me want to hide, just a little. (On the instinct to run, see verses 12-17, the part lectionary skips over.)

But maybe that’s not really why we forget. Maybe we forget because we are citizens of the 21st century, with a worldview that encourages us to focus on what we can see with our own eyes, what we can touch with our own fingers, what we can hear with our own ears. Remembering that God is with us requires us to sharpen our senses, “tune our hearts,” as a favorite hymn puts it, so that we can both remember and recognize it.

We can’t see God—not yet, anyway—but we can see the things God has created—including ourselves, we who, the psalm reminds us, are so marvelously made.

We can’t touch God, but we can touch God’s creation—we can feel the soft petals of a flower or the rough bark of a tree or the smooth coat of a beloved pet. We can hold the people love in our arms. We can shake hands or clap shoulders and share the peace with God’s people, all of us made in the image and likeness of God.

We can’t hear the voice of God if we keep expecting it to sound like Morgan Freeman or Charlton Heston, but, if we take the time, we can hear the voice of God in prayer, in meditation, in scripture. We can hear the voice of God when we are guided by a strong intuition; we can hear it in the wise counsel of a friend or mentor.

We can learn to see, touch, and hear God. But we have to be willing to tune our hearts. Then we will be like the Jewish philosopher, who wrote:

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! (3)

That poem is found in a chapter called “True Wisdom.”

We have this persistent idea that God is absent, but that is an illusion. Here is the true wisdom we need: God knows us. God loves us. God pursues us. And, wherever we are, God is there—even, the places we least expect God to be. Our days are written down, inscribed in God’s book by a loving hand. God’s relationship with us begins when God creates us, and doesn’t end, even after we draw our last breath. We are known, so deeply. We are held, so close; we are loved, so tenderly, by the one who calls out to us: You! You! You!

Lord, you have * searched me out

O Lord, * you have known me.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


  1. Translation from Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Psalter; Psalm tone by Hal Hopson.

  2. Thomas Keating, cited by Cynthia Bourgeault, Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God (Boston: Cowley Publications, 2001). 41.

  3. Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1947), 212.