Readings: Psalm 139: 1-18 and Romans 7:15-24
We are so often a mystery to each other, as we are, at times, mysteries to ourselves. Actions appear inscrutable, feelings arise out of nowhere, relations often stress under confusion.
I’ve read two books recently where the plot centres on the surprising disappearance of an ex-spouse. In both Katie Kitamura’s A Separation and Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman is in Trouble so much of the mystery, tension, and conflict derives from how unnerving it is for someone to disappear and be unreachable – an event all the more unsettling in our contemporary age where everyone is always reachable through manifold methods. The disappearance though, in both cases, proves to be not the only mystery. For in the course of the book the protagonists are forced to reckon with so many of the certainties they felt that possessed about their former partner. These people, to whom they were once closer with than anyone else in the world – are suddenly inscrutable, shrouded in mystery, unable to be reached, anticipated, or understood. And then, in the sudden gulf of estrangement and mystery that emerges in being utterly unable to comprehend one they thought they knew so well, the protagonists are forced to grapple with the unsettling suspicion that perhaps – if they could be so wrong about another – they are also wrong about themselves. Perhaps they are themselves less predictable and understandable. Perhaps they are more a mystery than they would have previously admitted. Both books evoke a familiar feeling: the unnerving and unsettling landscape that we find ourselves in when something we have always thought we were able to comprehend and assume, suddenly surprises us, suddenly appears strange and inscrutable. It is in times such as these we find ourselves as utterly baffled at our own reactions and responses as Saint Paul was, when he penned those words of timeless clarity - For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
The psalmist too, knows all too well the vast estrangement and mystery that can emerge between people, and within one’s own self… and it is out of the angst caused by such inscrutability that they testify to the truth that there is one who knows us perfectly. Knows us completely. To whom we can never be a stranger, from whom we can never be estranged.
From the moments in which we were stitched together in our mother's womb, through and beyond the passage of death, we are known perfectly, intimately, and lovingly by God.
The psalmist notes that there is no distance they could go - not to the farthest reaches of the sea, not to the highest corners of the heavens, not to the deepest depths, there is nowhere that they could be found, that God is not also found, that God is not already present to remind us that we are not alone. It might be possible to vanish from all others, but not, the Psalmist attests, from God. Wherever we are, it is within God's tender embrace, standing before God's loving vision. God meets us, even when we feel apart from everyone else, and says, I'm here, I'll go with you where you go next.
Even those times that feel unflinchingly dark - where the world feels either so huge, riddled with chaos and complexity - or so small that no other path appears, God is there, and the darkness is nothing to God, for God is the light and life of the world, against whom no darkness can triumph. And so even in the darkest of times, there too is God, there too is one who perfectly knows us, loves us, embraces us, and goes with and before us.
The testimony of the Christian faith is that neither our own actions, nor the forces of this world, nor even the great powers of Sin and Death are able to disrupt God's presence with us; nothing cannot sever God's love for us. We cannot, will not be forgotten, forsaken, or abandoned. No matter how mysterious the world might be, no matter how senseless it may feel, no matter how much we cannot find a way to why, we are reminded - not of the folly of those feelings - but of the fullness of God's knowledge, and love, and presence in our lives amidst those feelings.
And so the psalmist reminds us that in the pain and mystery of life (the mystery of our own actions, the depths of our own despair, the strain of our relations, the cold absurdity of the world, the spectre of death) the truth is that no one is alone. For no matter where we find ourselves we are found in the source and end of all life. And this holy and loving presence cannot be shrouded or dispelled by the dark, cannot be driven away by our own efforts (however dramatic).
This doesn't necessarily dilute the pain, the anger, the confusion, or the questions raised by living with the mysteries of ourselves, and others, and this bewildering world. We have, and can, and will be starkly surprised and disturbed by the actions of others and ourselves. What this promise reminds us is simply that in life and death we cannot be overcome, nor can we be separated from the love of God. God has known us, and gone with us, and will continue to know us and go with us as we depart. Even in death, we do not find ourselves in a harsh darkness of God’s absence but the peaceful darkness in which we take perfect rest in God, awaiting, like all who have gone before and will still go, that great and glorious day, where we all shall rise, where we all shall be restored, where we shall all come forth from that rest into the heavenly city where we will need no torch or candle, for God, Godself will be our light, and all tears shall be wiped away, all confusion cease, all pain be forgotten, and we will live together in the fullness of God’s beauty, presence, and love.
Image: Rev Nicholas Wheret, 2019 The Road to Emmaus
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