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Sunday Worship 10 October | Psalm 139: we are wonderfully made

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

The audio quality wasn't great again this week, so again we are sharing the written text of the reading and reflection, as well as links to the hymns.

Psalm 139:11-18
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand - when I awake, I am still with you.

I want to start by reflecting very briefly on the last two verses of the reading we heard. “How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand - when I awake, I am still with you.” I imagine the psalmist falling asleep while trying to count God’s thoughts like sheep. This is a psalm of David, who was of course a shepherd. Falling asleep while counting sheep would have been a terrible habit to get into, so perhaps it is fitting that he found an alternative, but this is also a beautiful image of resting and rising in the presence of God. I have been known to fall asleep while praying, and at first I felt terribly guilty about it, but then I came to see that it is only because I feel so at peace in the presence of God that my anxious and insomniac mind can finally rest, and now I will sometimes deliberately listen to a guided meditation when I am struggling to sleep, allowing the gentle words of prayer and scripture to soothe and settle me. I absolutely recommend it to those of you who also suffer from disturbed nights.

I want to go back now and focus on the phrase “fearfully and wonderfully made”, perhaps one of the best known phrases in all of scripture. Fearfully isn’t a word we use much outside of this text, and perhaps it feels a little out of place to invoke any sense of fear in this context, but you may remember that some weeks ago we talked about the fear of God, and how that means something closer to reverence. I think we can bring that same understanding to this verse, and translate it as brilliantly or awesomely or carefully. It means we are made in such a way that the creation and creator must be respected. As Ephesians 2:10 puts it, we are God’s handiwork or accomplishment or masterpiece.

On our good days, we may hear this as a wonderful affirmation of what we are and can be, as well as what God is and has done, but what about on our bad days? How do we hear these words when we feel our bodies aren’t fearfully and wonderfully made? When our limbs don’t work the way we want them to? When we starve ourselves so that we take up a little less space? When the shape or the face we see in the mirror doesn’t feel like it belongs to us? When our brains feel too fizzy or too foggy or too flat? When other people treat us as less because of our colour or our gender? Most of us will experience anxieties and frustrations connected with our bodies, and for some people they can be overwhelming and debilitating. On those days, these words can seem like a cruel joke. I know what it feels like to trust that the promises of scripture are for other people but not for us, to feel abandoned or forgotten or excluded. But I also know that all of that is self destructive nonsense, the nasty whispering of our doubts and insecurities. It’s powerful nonsense, and it can take a lot to overcome it, but overcome it we must because the word of God is for all of us, and every one of us needs to understand and believe that we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

I think part of the problem is that we can assume, perhaps not consciously but on some level, that to be fearfully and wonderfully made is to be perfect, and so if we’re not perfect then this verse can’t be true for us, but I think that is putting on this text a weight it cannot and need not bear. We need to begin by reading the psalm as a poem not a textbook. As heartwarmingly domestic as the image is, God did not literally knit us together. God set our creation in motion at the beginning of time, and we carry the image of God as every other person born before and since has done, but our bodies are the products of chance as well as design, and so the results are never going to be perfect. When Charles Kingsley first heard of the theory of evolution, he marvelled at what a noble conception it was that God had not only made the world but a world which could make itself, and it is indeed a wondrous thing, even if it leaves creation and us a little less than perfect. What I’m really trying to say is that the imperfection of our bodies does not mean that we are not fearfully and wonderfully made, but rather this psalm affirms that we are fearfully and wonderfully made in spite of those imperfections.

Or perhaps the psalm may help us redefine perfection. Perhaps we might understand it not as an abstract concept, a flawlessness which we cannot ever really define or imagine, but as what happens when we live as our most fearful and wonderful selves, when we live at our best and our truest. We’re not any less that fearfully and wonderfully made because bits of our body don’t look or work the way we wish they would, but we do sometimes live as less than fearfully and wonderfully made when we don’t live up to our potential. One of the meditations from the Northumbria Community’s daily prayer takes some lines from George Appleton: “May I become that self, the seed of which you planted in me at my making”. I first read those words while I was pregnant with Miriam, and embroidered them to hang in her nursery, and they still resonate with me as a powerful prayer. May we all have the freedom to grow into the most fearful and wonderful people we can be, and know that neither God nor the world nor ourselves can ask anything more.

I said a little way back that we are made in the image of God. In doing some reading for this morning, I found a wonderful meditation on the body of God by Rebekah Anderson, which I want to share an abridged version of now: Imagine the body of God. Imagine it with all the genders and races of the world. God is male and female and both and neither and all. God is black and red and olive and tan. And God has every ability and every disability in the world. God walks, God limps, God rolls, God crawls. God gets where God needs to be, gets to us, however God can. God's mind works with the speed—and sometimes the randomness—of ADHD. God feels pain with the depths of depression, and energy like an episode of mania. God paints with their feet and reads with their hands. God can dance by swaying and shuffling, and sing by making noises that are not words, but express emotions that words cannot. God is too busy reaching out to us to be concerned that they cannot see. God is too busy feeling the rhythms of music in their bones to worry about what it sounds like. God is too busy loving, loving with all God's arrhythmic heart to be anything but grateful for the body they have. I wonder how much more positive we would feel about our own bodies if we saw them as reflections of God’s body. I wonder if we might find it easier to believe that we are fearfully and wonderfully made if we recognised that every part of us is to be found in the image of God.

I said the psalm was poetry, and there is a poetry to that meditation too, but if science is more your thing, let’s look at this another way. One estimate puts the chances of your parents meeting at one in twenty thousand, the likelihood of that relationship resulting in a baby at one in two thousand, and the probability of the particular genetic material that created you being combined in that baby at one in four hundred quadrillion. And that’s only the beginning, because before you there were around one hundred and fifty thousand generations, all of which needed to reproduce successfully, and the chances of that happening is one in ten to the power of forty five thousand. But they didn’t just need to reproduce successfully, they needed to reproduce in such a way that your exact parents and grandparents and so on were born, and the probability of that happening is one to the power of two million six hundred and forty thousand. Add all of that up and the chances of you existing are so infinitesimally small that they are as good as zero. In short, you are not an accident but a miracle, the result of countless decisions and chances, all set in motion by and held within the creativity of God. That is a fearful and wonderful way to be made.


(no recordings are available online, but you can read the lyrics here)

All Things Bright and Beautiful |

(not the version we had in church, but a setting by the great John Rutter)

This Little Light of Mine |

(again not the version we had in church, but a favourite of our younger members)

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