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Search Me 
By Rev. Mark DeVries
07/17/11

Search Me
PSALM 139
JULY 17, 2011
THE REV. MARK DEVRIES


Over the last couple weeks I've been asking friends, via email and Facebook, to give me their impressions of our text today from Psalm 139. 

Curiously, I received two very different reactions. 

The first, the one I expected, was a sense of comfort in being known and loved by God.

But the other, which came from just as many folks, expressed vague uneasiness about these words. My policeman friend sent back five words: "It scares me to death." 

We don't want to be searched – not by a TSA agent at the airport, not by a nosey neighbor, and usually, not even by God. We like having our own little world. We are comfortable, even if unsure, hiding in the shrinking little worlds of our own making. 

Our text today seems to take seriously both our desire to be known, really known, and our desire to keep part of ourselves hidden. And I believe that, by the time we land at the end of the Psalm, David will have brought these two together.

The Terror of Being Known

The Psalm starts out with the simple words, "O Lord, you have searched me and known me." Scary words for my policeman friend (and for a good many others I talked with). I was having trouble understanding why these words would be even remotely frightening, and then I remembered where I'll be tomorrow morning.

Tomorrow morning at seven, I'll be in the dentist chair. I love my dentists – Temp Sullivan, Jamie and James Pace – but I'm always terrified of going to the dentist. My fear of the dentist all started, of course, when I kissed Susan Wilson when we were in third grade. 

You see, Susan's dad was our dentist. I went to see him soon after he had learned that I had kissed his daughter. And, let's just say, he was none too happy with me. 

And to make matters worse, I had a toothache. I kept hoping that the pain would go away if I stopped chewing on that side, if I stopped drinking anything cold or hot. But it didn't. And eventually, I had to break down and tell my mom about my toothache. 

I went to the dentist that day not knowing what would await me. But when I got there, I could see by the expression on Dr. Wilson's face that he "had searched me and known me…." He knew more about me than I wanted him to know. Then he got to work on my teeth. Of course he found a cavity that had to be dealt with that day. This was before the days of Novocain, at least before the days that Dr. Wilson offered Novocain to the kids who had kissed his daughter. 

Even as a little guy, I knew there were things you really didn't want to hear coming out of our dentist's mouth, words like "Uh oh" and "Dang!" At one point, I remember Dr. Wilson got so frustrated with my wiggling that he dropped his instruments and walked out just to cool down. 

But my tooth was repaired and within a day or so the toothache was gone. But I carried a residual fear of dentists until almost 20 years later when Jamie Pace did my first filling here in Nashville. Knowing a little about my story, Jamie offered me, in addition to Novocain, to have a little gas to take the edge off. 

Is it possible that we might resist being known by God in the way I resisted going to the dentist? I knew I had a toothache, but I also know my dentist – that he will not be satisfied just to take care of that one tooth. He'll start looking around with all the rest of them, seeing problems I never knew where there. 

I love the way one of my friends described this fear: 

In my life this passage is always passed along as comforting (Hey, no worries, it's all good, God knows everything about you!). But because I wasn't totally down with the unconditional love part, it has always actually scared me to death …. I did not want all [my] anxiety and insanity and badness to be seen by a holy God…. That whole part of my belief system I had to sort of intentionally toss and ask God to rebuild a better idea from scratch, starting with "I love you no matter what," then the "I-know-everything-about-you" [could] be … cushioned by … grace…. That might sound a little neurotic for a sermon. But I doubt I'm the only human out there who has trembled at the idea that the God of the universe knows me inside and out.

Fear may be our natural starting point. But if we stop there, we will have missed it. C.S. Lewis said, "The only place free of the dangers of love [of being truly known] is in hell." 

The Longing to Be Known

In the movie, Something's Gotta Give, Diane Keaton says to Jack Nicholson, "You know, I can't decide if you hate me? Or if you're the only person who ever really got me." 

That's what we all want on some deep level – someone who gets us.

I've seen this on our youth mission trips more than once. The very young person most resistant to being known – who said in a multitude of ways, "I don't want you to know me" – said the last night or later, "Thanks for not giving up … thanks for being willing to take me in all my mess." 

Leigh, our 22-year-old, the one who gets extra points for staying in Nashville, has introduced me to a group called The Weepies. And they have a song that captures both the longing to be known and the comfort in not being known: 

"Nobody Knows Me At All"

When I was a child everybody smiled, nobody knows me at all
Very late at night and in the morning light, nobody knows me at all

Now I got lots of friends, yes, but then again, nobody knows me at all 
Kids and a wife, it's a beautiful life, nobody knows me at all

I know how you feel, no secrets to reveal, nobody knows me at all
Very late at night and in the morning light, nobody knows me at all
Nobody knows me, nobody knows me, nobody knows me at all

"…I've got lots of friends, yeah but then again, nobody knows me at all." If you're like most folks, you can relate to these words, some of us more acutely than others. We long to be known … not just be in the room with other people, not just have hundreds of folks "friend" us on Facebook, not just people that know about us but people that really "get us." 

We all know there is a gap between the person other people see and who we really are. Brennon Manning says it beautifully:

"There is the 'you' that people see and then there is the 'rest of you.' Take some time and craft a picture of the 'rest of you.' This could be a drawing, in words, even a song. Just remember that the chances are good it will be full of paradox and contradictions." — Brennan Manning (The Furious Longing of God)

But it's not just that other's don't know us, that other people don't "get us," it's also that we have a chronic tendency not to know ourselves clearly. We humans have this quite consistent tendency to view ourselves with startling inaccuracy. 

There was a study done in the military recently to see how accurate people's self-awareness was. One study revealed that peer predictions of which of their fellow soldiers were most likely to be promoted were amazingly accurate. Soldiers, by observing each other, could accurately predict which of them were most likely to be promoted to a higher rank.

The same study asked for self-assessment, asking each soldier for his or her prediction about when he or she should be promoted. The results here were strikingly different. Self-assessment was determined as one of the least accurate indicators of promotion. 

We have a longing to be known … beyond the surface, beyond the fog of our own illusions about ourselves. 

The Antidote of Intimacy

The fear of being known and the longing to be known come together in the final line of the Psalm, "lead me into the way everlasting." David yields his agenda and invites God to take him from where he is to where God would have him be. 

David responds to Gods invitation to intimacy. At some point, as followers of Christ, we are invited to move from an intellectual assent to ideas about God to an intimate relationship with the living God. 

Take an ordinary chair…

I can believe that the chair exists. I can even believe that it is strong enough to hold me. But until I place my full weight into that chair, my belief is an intellectual exercise, not trust. 

How many Presbyterians are there who might have excellent understanding of the fabric of the chair of the Christian faith but who have never actually sat in that chair for themselves? Believing a set of ideas about God is not the essence of the Christian faith. The book of James tells us that even "the demons believe and tremble." 

The invitation of the Christian life is not simply to know about God but to know God. And this is the request with which David ends his Psalm, "Lead me into the way everlasting." 

Taking It Home

In England in the 19th century, a recovering opium addict named Francis Thompson wrote a now-famous poem in which he describes God as the Hound of Heaven who, like a bloodhound, would not give up on the chase: 

"I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind, and in the midst of tears."

Contemporary novelist Anne Lamott experienced God not as a hound, but actually as a cat: 

But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever. So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my houseboat door when I entered or left.

About one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn't stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but that last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling – and it washed over me.

I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God's own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head, [cursed and said,] "I quit." I took a long deep breath and said out loud, "All right. You can come in."

Maybe you find yourself at that kind of place right now. Maybe today is the day for you to take a long deep breath and say, "All right. You can come in." The promise of the gospel is that the Hound of Heaven, Aslan the great lion, even Lamott's annoying little cat is, is Jesus Christ himself pursuing us out of nothing but love.

Henri Nouwen reminds us, 

Many voices ask for our attention. There is a voice that says, "Prove that you are a good person." Another voice says, "You'd better be ashamed of yourself." There also is a voice that says, "Nobody really cares about you," and one that says, "Be sure to become successful, popular, and powerful." But underneath all these often very noisy voices is a still, small voice that says, "You are my Beloved, my favor rests on you." That's the voice we need most of all to hear. To hear that voice, however, requires special effort; it requires solitude, silence, and a strong determination to listen. That's what prayer is. It is listening to the voice that calls us "my Beloved." (Bread for the Journey) 

Whether you find comfort or terror or a little bit of both in this Psalm, I want to invite you to join me this week, this month, maybe even this year, by ending your day, as your head hits the pillow in praying David's prayer at the end of Psalm 139:

Search me, O God and know my heart
Try me, and know my anxious thoughts
See if there be any wicked way in me
And lead me into the way everlasting.
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