From a Baccalaureate address by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Associate Professor of English
When my father was dying just two months ago I had a chance to sit by his bedside and read him the Psalms. As I began Psalm 139, “O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me,” I realized forcibly how much I did not know and would not ever know about my father. I realized how much in each of us remains unknown and unknowable, even to those who dwell in the close circle of family life.
We all long to be known, but will never be known to one another, even to those who love us most, the way we are to God. Our lives are “hidden in Christ.” Which is to say that only he knows your whole story. We all want our friendships to last. But they all end in this life, and they end for different reasons. We must nurture them and cherish them, but not cling even to them unduly.
Verse 7 of this Psalm reads: “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me and thy right hand shall hold me.” The Psalmist isn’t talking here about being comforted by the abiding, beneficent presence of God. He’s talking about being pursued, rescued, and sometimes ambushed on his escape route.
Here is where the active verbs in the Psalm are important to remember. God won’t just be wherever you happen to be. He’ll show up. He’ll meet you there. Surprise you. Find you. Hunt you down. Seek you out. Suddenly, just where you aren’t expecting him. In your moments of profoundest weakness, lostness, alienation, aloneness. On “the wings of the morning,” when you’re at your most passive. At a moment when you may not be seeking him at all.
Thinking about those times—when the world, to quote Arnold, suddenly seems to have “neither love nor joy nor peace nor certitude nor help for pain”—brings me to a third idea in this Psalm: that we cannot calculate the thoughts of God. To try to think of things we can’t imagine is another of those paradoxes the Psalm confronts us with.
To ponder what the human mind cannot conceive can either make us crazy or lead us into humility and trust. We can’t fully imagine the Trinity. We can’t quite imagine eternity. We can’t really even imagine tomorrow; the future is veiled in obscurity and our plans are always provisional. We can seek God’s purposes and they can be revealed to us, but we can’t “get a handle on them.”
Even in the life of faith we seem, frequently, to work in the dark. Often it’s not even given to us to know what we’re about until we’re in the middle of it. The inscrutability of God’s purposes, therefore, is both baffling—or even scary—and deeply reassuring. God will use us to his ends one way or the other. Our cooperation is called for. Our understanding is not always.
So remember, you are completely known and completely loved; no matter where you go, the Lord will be there, in the darkest moment, in the unlikeliest spot, and His right hand will be holding you; and you haven’t the least idea, really, what’s in store for you—and that’s very good news.
May you always consent to be surprised by joy.