When I went to Israel in March 2014, it was in a sense like returning to the archetypal homeland; the place where we began; where I somehow began. Wandering in that land made a difference in the way I understand the world, as if prior to the trip I had been operating with only half-formed thoughts based on incomplete truths. It also re-shaped a question I have wrestled with about my place in the world. I first wrestled with the question of belonging four years ago on the Isle of Iona, when I had the feeling that I had drawn close to something just out of sight. Whatever it was had something to do with my place in the world.
There are buildings in the Abbey that date back 1000 years. That’s one of the ways we mark our place in the world – we build things that say “WE WERE HERE.” We also build other less-permanent things that mark our place if not for the eons, then for the immediate: houses and churches, bridges and highways, structures that bear witness to our resourcefulness, to our ingenuity in solving the basic needs of living. They are evidence that we were here, but they don’t really speak to our belonging.
We build walls and fences too, but they speak more about our notion of who doesn’t belong: the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, the wall on our border with Mexico. These clearly articulate: “YOU DO NOT BELONG.” I couldn’t help but notice all the fences in Israel, fierce-looking, barbed-wire fences. They were effective in restricting my movement among the places Jesus walked. There were a lot of fences on Iona, too. They crossed pastures and clung to the edge of cliffs — they were to manage the flocks of sheep. Sheep outnumbered humans 100 to 1 on Iona and every sheep had a lamb or two by her side. Did you know that lambs jump and leap and play, just for the sheer joy of it? They frolic! Neither the lambs nor the sheep paid much attention to me. Funny, despite those fences, those sheep seemed more secure about their place in the world than I did. Yes, we leave our mark on the world, but all the buildings and fences in the world don’t shed a lot of light on our place in the world.
I made one good friend on Iona - a cat. I thought she belonged to the hotel. Turns out she just had a good eye on sizing up people who would give her a saucer of milk. The people I met there were harder to get to know. Maybe they too, were trying to figure out their place in the world. One day, while out on a walk, I extended my hand to keep a cow from advancing toward the gate I was coming through. A harsh voice scolded me… “Don’t pet the cows! They’re working animals!” I turned and recognized it to be the woman who had presided over communion in the Abbey the night before. Rather than get defensive, I smiled and told her how much I enjoyed the beautiful liturgy. “It’s all written down – you can buy it in the community store,” she said, without stopping. She was walking in the same direction that I was going, so I tried a few more times at conversation, but she was safe and secure behind her fence. No doubt she was having a bad day (though how you have a bad day on Iona is beyond me). Never the less, she had a wall around her and I wasn’t welcome. I didn’t belong. It’s hard to be a stranger. It’s hard to be unsure of your place in the world.
At some point, a phrase from the bible came to me: I AM STILL WITH YOU. “That’s something to go on..” I thought. I searched the Psalms for it and eventually found it – verse 18 from Psalm 139. Psalm 139 is one of the most personal expressions of a relationship with God to be found in the Old Testament. I’ve turned to it countless times for pastoral care. It’s also a doctrinal classic, speaking of the omniscience and omnipresence of God. Even the old Presbyterian standard of “predestination” is there: “…Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.”
Omniscience, omnipresence and predestination are all fine, they are doctrines that speak about the nature of God – from a distance. But to reduce this psalm to a lecture on doctrine would be to miss the point. The psalmist who wrote the 139th psalm had a personal, intimate knowledge of God that comes from a long, extended walk, and deep, significant conversation. This psalm affirms that we are known, completely and totally by God.
What we do, where we go, that we ARE, - these are fully comprehended by the knowledge, presence and power of God. In the middle of this psalm comes that wonder-filled exclamation and awed declaration; “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 I try to count them-- they are more than the sand; I come to the end-- I am still with you.” Nothing, not even all the grains of sand in the earth, can outnumber, outlast, outrun God’s presence with us, to us, for us… “I am still with you.”
In 1983, Monty Python set out to address a similar question in the bawdy comedy, “The Meaning of Life.” They poke fun at society’s most sacred topics; they mock institutions like the church, marriage, education, and health care, they ridicule the corporate realm, and the military. At the end of the film, a presenter is handed an envelope that reveals “the meaning of life.” She opens it and says, “Well, it's nothing special. ‘Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.’” That’s the meaning of life. The point of the film is to suggest that people make life too complicated, when it’s really much simpler than all that.
Strangely enough, the psalm suggests something of the same. There is a profoundly simple answer to the question of our place in the world: GOD KNOWS US. We may search for something formulaic, like the Monty Python answer. We may want something concrete, firm, tangible. But the real answer has something to do with the fact that we are completely and wholly known by God. When others have fences up and we feel isolated and alone like strangers, God still knows us. We are born, we exist, and we live at the pleasure of God. That is where we belong.