The Summer of Love: The Love that Pursues Us

Lesson: Psalm 139:1-18

When my kids were little, they loved the book, The Runaway Bunny. A little bunny tells his mother he wants to run away from home. His mother doesn’t stop him, but she warns, “If you run away, I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.” The bunny and his mother then share an imaginary game of hide and seek. The bunny says if his mother follows him, he’ll become a fish in a trout stream and swim away from her. If he does that, says the mother, she’ll become a fisherman, and fish for him. The bunny says he’ll become a rock on the mountain, a crocus in a hidden garden, a bird, a sailboat, and a circus acrobat. The mother answers each plan of escape with a way to be with him no matter what. Finally, the little bunny gets the point. “Aw, shucks!” he says, “I might just as well stay home and be your little bunny.” Which he does.[1]

My children found this story profoundly comforting. To my surprise, I’ve since discovered that some parents think The Runaway Bunny is stifling, even creepy. Likewise, I was surprised to learn that people have similarly opposite reactions to today’s psalm, Psalm 139. While it’s probably my favorite psalm, others have told me they hear not comforting reassurance, but something more threatening, along the lines of “I know where you live.” For some, this psalm is God as Stalker.

But it’s exactly God’s initiative to pursue us that fascinates me. It’s a radical idea, when you think about it. For the entire sweep of human history, people have assumed that we have to seek God. That’s one way to look at religion: the organized attempt to find and connect with God. And so we create rituals, duties, and beliefs designed to access an elusive, mysterious God; to explain or define God; sometimes to put God in a box of our own making.

But here in Psalm 139, it’s God doing the pursuing. As with The Runaway Bunny, it suggests that God seeks and finds us, and that there’s nowhere we can go, either by accident on purpose, that will take us out of the range of God’s presence and mercy and love. “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; . . .”

That’s a very different idea of God, and a different approach to religion. Instead of the human pursuit of God, religion becomes the way human beings respond to God’s initiative, to the love that will not let us go, as an old hymn puts it.[2]

This theme runs throughout the Bible. In one story, God comes to the boy, Samuel, as a voice in the dark calling his name. Samuel thinks the old priest, Eli, is calling him. Three times the voice says his name, and three times Samuel goes to Eli to find out what he wants. The third time, Eli suspects that the voice is actually God, and tells Samuel to answer. It takes four tries to get Samuel’s attention, but you get the feeling that God will try as long as it takes. Old Eli’s role, the priest’s role, interestingly, is not to be the voice of God, but simply to suggest that Samuel might try listening to the voice calling his name.[3] And maybe that’s the better function of religion, and of church: helping people hear the voice of God calling their names in the middle of their lives.

Few people literally hear God’s voice or come to faith because of a single dramatic event. Some of us can’t remember not having faith; for others of us, it’s a lifetime of small moments. Author Sara Miles writes that what we call conversion “isn’t, after all, a moment: it’s a process, and it keeps happening, with cycles of acceptance and resistance, epiphany and doubt.”[4] Psalm 139 points to this lifelong conversion, in which God pursues us across the years.[5]

The stories of people who reflect about their religious experience are helpful. Anne Lamott describes her gradual return to church and faith when her life was falling apart at the seams. She started attending church, and says the sermons she heard sounded ridiculous to her, like someone trying to convince her of the existence of extraterrestrials. But she kept coming because she felt something was rocking her in its bosom, holding her like a scared kid. Finally she said, “ ‘I quit,” or, rather, something like that, but not quite so pulpit-friendly. Something had been following her, something hard to describe but she knew, somehow, it was Jesus. She writes, “I took a long breath and said out loud, ‘All right, you can come in now.’”[6]

Kathleen Norris was raised a Christian but like many of us, left the church for years. When she finally returned to her family’s farm and went to church in Lemmon, South Dakota, she writes: “I came to understand that God hadn’t lost me, even if I seemed for years to have misplaced God.”[7]

In the first volume of his three-part memoir, Frederick Buechner writes that life, any life, his or yours or mine, is a sacred journey into which God speaks and comes. That’s what makes it sacred.[8] Buechner didn’t grow up going to church. As a young man struggling to become a writer in New York, he discovered that he couldn’t write a word. He started going to church, for no better reason than that there was one down the block from where he lived and he had nothing better to do on lonely Sundays. The church was Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church; the pastor was George Buttrick. Buechner kept returning, Sunday after Sunday.

“It was not just [Buttrick’s] eloquence that kept me coming back,” he writes. “What drew me more was whatever it was that his sermons came from and whatever it was in me that they touched so deeply. And then there came one particular sermon with one particular phrase in it that does not even appear in a transcript of his words that somebody sent me more than twenty-five years later so I can only assume that he must have dreamed it up at the last minute and liked it – and on just such foolish, tenuous, holy threads as that, I suppose, hang the destinies of all of us. Jesus Christ is King, Buttrick said, because again and again he is crowned in the heart of the people who believe in him. And that inward coronation takes place, Buttrick said, among confession, and tears, and great laughter.”

“It was the phrase ‘great laughter,’ that did it, did whatever it was that I believe must have been hiddenly in the doing all the years of my journey up till then. It was not so much that a door opened as that I suddenly found that a door had been open all along which I had only just then stumbled upon.”[9]

“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”

I connect with these words on a very personal level. I was raised Presbyterian, and my father’s rule was, “As long as you live in my house, young lady, you’ll go to church.” That pretty well guaranteed I’d quit going to church in college, but I had a solid theological excuse, as well. I hadn’t been exposed to any brand of Christianity that wasn’t all about who was and who wasn’t going to heaven after they die based on what they believe. I wanted nothing to do with that, so I ran away from God and avoided the whole church question until I was in my thirties. That’s when my older daughter said she wanted to go to Sunday school, because someone at preschool told her it was fun, other kids were there and she could wear her party dress. “And a little child shall lead them”[10] rings true to me.

I took her to a Presbyterian church, thinking, there, at least the B.S. would be predictable. I eased my way – I slouched my way back to church by going to adult ed. classes while my daughter went to Sunday school. Those adult ed. gatherings introduced me to a very different approach to Christianity, one focused on Jesus’ teachings and God’s love for all rather than believing the right doctrines. When I finally went to a worship service, it was the hymns that broke me open. I began crying during the first one, and wept through the benediction. Maybe, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I had to leave home to find home, which had been there all along.

And so, this morning, just on the off chance that you might be fleeing from God, trying to hold God at arm’s length, this idea of God’s persistent love might be at least tantalizing. And even if it never occurred to you to run away from God, Psalm 139 reassures us that God is with us, loving us no matter what, and even more than that, God is trying to reach us, every one of us. Not, at least for most of us, in a deep Charleston Heston voice from a cloud but quietly, subtly, in moments of joy or despair; when we are about to give up hope that we or the world can change; when we don’t know which way to turn. Even when we come to the end of our lives, even beyond death, God is there, pursuing us, loving us.

Frederick Buechner again: “There is no event so commonplace but that God is present in it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize [God] or not to recognize [God], but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly.” And so, he says, “Listen to your life.”[11] It is into our lives that Christ comes. It is into our lives God speaks our names in love, and waits as long as it takes for our response, our faith, our trust, our love, our “yes.”

“If I take the wings of the morning, and settle at the farthest limit of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”

Aw, shucks. We might as well be at home in God.

May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.

[1] Margaret Wise Brown, The Runaway Bunny, illustrations by Clement Hurd (New York: Harper & Row, 1942).

[2] “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go,” lyrics by George Matheson (1842-1906), music by Albert Lister Peace (1844-1912), composed in the 1880’s. You can find it at #833 in Glory to God, the new Presbyterian hymnal.

[3] 1 Samuel 3:1-10.

[4] Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (New York: Ballantine Books/Random House, 2007), 97.

[5] John M. Buchanan, “Inescapable God,” January 16, 2000, http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2000/011600.html.

[6] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), 50.

[7] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace (New York, Riverhead Books, 1998), 104.

[8] Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1982), 1, 4.

[9] Buechner, The Sacred Journey, 108-109.

[10] Isaiah 11:6.

[11] Buechner, Now and Then (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1982), 8.

 

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