Is God Dead or Am I Just Sleeping? – a reflection on Psalm 139
Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 (NRSV)
139:1 O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
139:2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
139:3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
139:4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.
139:5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
139:6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
139:7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
139:8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
139:9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
139:10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
139:11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
139:12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
139:23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.
139:24 See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
In 1966, the cover of Time Magazine asked the question, “Is God Dead?”
The article inside addressed the growing atheism in America at the time. There had been some 20 years to reflect on the deadliest war in human history, World War II, the wonder of Oppenheimer’s (and others work before him) ability to split the atom and create weapons of mass destruction. Today, we just use the slang, WMD, it’s part of our common vernacular.
The previous century before the Time cover shook the country, a German philosopher/author by the name of Frederick Neitzsche released a book called, “God is Dead,” asserting the power of the individual to transcend limitations through human effort, a modern concept of this might be what we call humanism, in other words, the lesser need for a deity in our world.
In this span of our human journey, with the advent of modern science, advances in space exploration, medicine and technology, we began to see less and less of a need for God to explain or even be in charge of the natural world. We became more and more the creators of our own reality, not God.
God simply just began to take up less space in our daily, modern lives. When the Time article was released, it is strange that as many as 97% of people in the U.S. claimed belief in God, but only 27% claimed deeply held religious beliefs. Belief in God came to be synonymous with being a good, moral, upstanding citizen. Not a bad thing to be, but it is not a religion in and of itself, just plain civic duty.
In short, we may have limited our imagination to a God that is no more than a moral police-man in the sky, and we moved further and further away from the wild, untamed, omniscient deity who “discerns our thoughts from afar” and is intimately “acquainted with ALL our ways.” We put some safe distance between us and the One who “knows our words completely even before we have chosen them.” This kind of God is too risky for us, this kind of God does not easily fit into the formulas that now seem to govern our world, and in fact, to know this God or rather to allow God to know us, might require that we set aside some of our own conventions, the structures that make our world more certain. This God might ask us to consider mystery and wonder as higher attributes than knowledge, science and technology. This God might even like poetry, heaven forbid, might ask us to be reverent to something greater than what we have created, to suspend our disbelief in order to comprehend our being.
But, the twist in the Psalmist prayer is that it’s not even up to us, really, is it, whether or not God is alive or dead. If we are to hear our Psalmist words and take them into our hearts, we have to acknowledge that it’s not a question of whether or not we believe in the living God, the statement made is that God believes in the living us.
God is already here, if we are to see and experience God, the key is to surrender to that reality, to move, as our gospel states, from death to life, to be born of the spirit, the re-birth.
So, the question is not Is God Dead? But simply, Are We Dead? Or more relevant to us in the world today, are we asleep?
Each time a spiritual renewal takes place, it is called an awakening. Those who have testified to a spiritual awakening in Christ say that they have come to a realization of the sacred dimension of reality. This awakening indicates that there has been a sleeping going on, a kind of walking around in a dream state. In this dream state, you are simply unaware of God’s presence in the world because it has not yet become for you, an experience.
But there is so much standing in the way of that experience, isn’t there?
Into our world of critical thought, reasoned explanation and technological genius the Psalmist brings the question of all questions:
“What if its not about you at all, what if it is, rather, about God?”
What if our very existence is about the unfolding of God in the world?
God is not a doctrine, the Psalmist claims, but a personal experience.
We spend endless amounts of time and energy on how we think about God — is God dead, is God alive, does God even care? Is God a man or a woman or an it? God hates me, God is punishing me…these are our thoughts, but there is little said about what God might think of us or might know of us or of God’s search for us. Perhaps it is because it seems like a barren pursuit in the shadowy realms that we occupy, where in one day a plane is shot out of the sky by a missile and an entire community is set on fire with bombs in what is deemed a Holy war. It is easy to give in to despair, it requires much more faith to believe in a God that everyone seems to be denying.
It would seem, the way we see it in our world, that God simply doesn’t care or is no longer at work in the world.
The Psalm comforts us by telling us there is another way, that in all of our vain searching, there is One who has searched us completely and knows us, One who is perfect and has the ability to relieve us from our painful vanity in which we feel so trapped.
Not only does God know us, God is with us wherever we go.
This is both good news and bad news. It is a comfort and yet we resent God’s presence. We ask God to possess us in times of great need and grief and then we long to have our way when the discipline of the Almighty is needed most, it is often rejected. We are loathe to trust that there is One more important than us, at times, because we are taught that we can make our way as lone survivors in the world. In fact, we are praised for it, by others and by systems that reward autonomy and the brilliance of the individual who makes her own way in the world.
The truth is that God doesn’t often do the kind of work that we get rewarded for in this world. We don’t serve a trophy God, we serve a God who cares about the state of the heart and the self, who cares about a self that feels a true worthiness, not a false one fed by achievements and popularity and success. We serve a God who cares about the outsider, the one who is lost, the one who is rejected. And that is all of us in one way or another, at one time or another.
Sometimes we just don’t understand God, God is both intimate and unknowable. If we could wrap our heads around God, dissect the formula of God, we could bottle it and re-sell it, you know that’s what we would do, as enterprising as we are. We would pollute the whole world with the massive manufacturing of God. We would build factories and make children work for pitiful wages and long hours to reproduce God, some of us would buy God never knowing that God was made under these terrible and awful conditions.
It is good that God is safe from us.
It’s a scary thing to admit the world is not about us, but about God.
It doesn’t take much time spent out in the nature of creation to understand this, to feel wonderfully small and insignificant. That is one of the greatest feelings in the world, at last, to realize that it’s not all about you and you can give up that illusion of specialness.
Yet, for God, you are incredibly special, not for the world, but for God. It is in this realization that your very life becomes valuable and purposeful and enduring.
It is in God that you are safe to give up the fight of self-worth and understand where your true worthiness lies.
God heals and brings you to this through your own surrender.
The Psalmist says, “search me and know me, see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me to life everlasting.”
In nothing but surrender is the fullness of life to be found.
Our impulse, when we realize this perfect love of God, is to hide from it. It’s overwhelming, it is hard for us to believe, it is difficult to trust, we have been so bolstered by our successes or so wounded by our failures that we trust only a few in our inner circle and even they are questionable at times.
It is difficult for us to envision this kind of freedom because we live in world that dispenses despair as our daily portion of the truth.
Yet, even in the hardest of hearts and the most seemingly God-forsaken of events and times and realms, God is there.
We are torn as to what to believe because we have dual impulses. One is to give in to the reality of God, to surrender ourselves to love and service. The other holds us back, tells us to shut our ears and our hearts to all Divine invitations.
Yet, as we pray the Psalmist prayer, our impulse, our instincts, begin to lean towards God. Indeed, the Psalmist gives us the perfect prayer when we cannot pray, when despair has gripped us so tightly that we cannot form words upon our lips. In these dark times, we can simply say to God, “Search me and know my heart.” This implies that we cannot know our hearts fully for we are blind to the wonder of us without God’s sight. We simply cannot see beyond our own limited seeing. We may be able to do wondrous works in the world, split the atom, make a mechanical heart, and even clone a human being, but the wonder of creation is simply a mystery to us, scientists have never solved it, and the more they uncover, the more the wonder grows. We simply cannot see the wonder of us through knowledge, particularly when our knowledge is skewed to our own understanding, only through the experience of God’s mystery can we experience the true hope of wonder.
When we ask God to search us and know us and lead us to life everlasting, we are acknowledging a kind of reverence and awe for God as creator of us, as sovereign, as not only partner but maker in whom we live and breathe and have our being.
We stop hiding from God and begin hiding in God.
Psalm 139 is a prayer for us when we have forgotten how to pray. When we no longer feel like praying or simply cannot find words.
Awaken, today, to the sacred already at work in the world and see that you belong, not to the realm of death, but to life everlasting. Amen.
-Rev. Sherry Cothran
July 20, 2014