The Selfless Open

Psalm 139                                     Sept. 8, 2019

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd


It is so good to be back amongst you again. I’m particularly indebted to Rev. Earl Gould and Eunice Pratt, who kept the good ship sailing for 4 months during my sabbatical and now both need a well-deserved holiday! I ask for your forbearance as I try to catch up.

I learned so many things in my cross-country travels as I visited thriving United Churches. Over the next few Sundays, I’ll be weaving some of what I learned into the services. One of the things that most of these churches did well was to create a sacred space that evoked the presence of God.

Psalm 139 from today’s lectionary is the perfect path into divine presence. David Rosenberg’s words take us into the mystery of the divine, who has created each one of us with tender, loving care. God intimately knows us with all of our foibles as well as our strengths. There is nowhere we can go to hide, for even in the darkest shadow, there is light for there is God.

This is a psalm of comfort and hope for those who don’t like themselves very well. It assures us that God does. If we feel forgotten, God remembers us. If we feel inadequate, God assures us that we are enough. If we feel lost, God’s hand is reaching out to guide us. If we feel insignificant, we can know that God has created each one of us with our own unique personalities as one of a kind. Even if we can do nothing more than offering prayers and little words and actions of love, it is enough. We each have a part to play in the health and healing of our world, no matter how big or how small. Most importantly, you are beloved and what you are able to offer is enough. Don’t try to do more that what you can, but do try to live up to your full potential, even if it keeps changing, just as God has created you to be.

Saint Hildegard of Bingen, of the 12th century, depicted God as the cosmic womb from whom the entire universe, not just the earth, was birthed. I asked Heather to print for each of you a coloured picture of this vision of hers. It depicts the four winds (you’ll see little faces blowing from each side), the four elements of earth, air, fire and water, and the four seasons. Her vision of the cosmic womb of God was undoubtedly inspired by Psalm 139, which describes how God knits each one of us together in our mother’s wombs.

The medieval theologians, including Hildegard, carried forward this holistic theology and philosophy from the ancient psalms. All of creation is connected and the health of one part affects the health of another.

Today’s scientific theory is returning to this holistic understanding. Chaos theory tells us that there is some unexplained force that is holding all of the various parts of creation together. For Christians, this force is love—divine love who has created each minute part of Creation, as well as the entire web of life that holds it all together.

A few weeks ago, I was meditating on a point at Dogtooth Lake in the early morning. Mists swirled in the shadowed waters as golden rays began to reach the opposite shore. A distant call of a loon echoed down the lake and then a small, black spot on the horizon began to grow into a bald eagle that flew the length of the lake towards me and veared off just as it reached my point. I was held in a mystical moment of awe and felt deeply at one with Creation. I was only one, small part of an infinite canvas of contrasts that are all connected through divine love.

We can only begin to imagine the creative, evolutionary energy and design required to form and sustain this incredible universe. Even more, the transcendent Creator is also the immanent lover of each one of us. The psalmist paints for us this mind-blowing picture.

But then, even the inspired psalmist takes a turn for the worse when he allows his gaze to fall back to earth, and his love disappears into fear. There are four very unsettling verses in Psalm 139, which Voices United leaves out in its responsive version. I expect that you were jarred, as I was, when you heard them, in two different version, a few minutes ago.

The psalmist asks God to smite those who kill and maim, promising to hate them with an all-consuming hatred. Where did this suddenly come from, in the middle of such a tender psalm? This psalm attributes its authorship to King David, who was frequently at war with his enemies. Defending and killing were never far from David’s mind. This is where we see the human side of the biblical writers. They were not perfect—rather, they vulnerably expressed both their deepest yearnings for God, for love, and for justice, as well as their deepest fears. The Bible contains stories of faith for saints who were also sinners—just like you and I.

Along with David, it seems as though hate and violence are never far from our own society’s conscience. Gun violence continues here and around the world. I followed the tragedy of the two young men who left a killing spree in their wake and were finally found dead near Gillam. I’m also following the disappearance of a Manitoban who is a member of a violent right-wing extremist group. We need to remain vigilant, but it is easy to fall into fear and hatred of the other. I’m trying to learn how to hold these news items with compassion—for both the victims and the perpetrators, for all are in desperate need of God’s love. As I offer prayers, I also realize that we all could do with a healthy dose of self-examination. What is there within each of us that might breed intolerance and hatred?

As if realizing and repenting of his own fall into fear, the psalmist concludes Psalm 139 by returning to the moral high ground of self-examination. As David Rosenberg translates,

“My Lord—look at me

to see my heart

test me—to find my mind


if any bitterness lives here

lead me out

into the selfless open.”[1]

Lead me out into the selfless open. When we can step—even momentarily—beyond the icy grip of fear into open-hearted selflessness, we will step into the heart of God. It takes tremendous courage to be open-hearted, because then we are vulnerable, stripped of all pretensions, our weaknesses and faults nakedly exposed.

Now, our fragile egos resist this with all their might. We tire of apologizing to others and to God for the same things over and over again. We are afraid of being seen as weak and a failure if we admit once again that our shadow side has taken over.

But when someone else sincerely apologizes to me, even if it’s for the same thing they’ve apologized time after time, my heart still softens and it is easier to forgive and let go. I don’t think ill of them, especially when I know that they are sincere. Yes, it will happen again because that’s their shadow side that will always be there. But we are usually much more compassionate and forgiving with others who apologize than with ourselves. Perhaps King David, a strong and faithful ruler memorialized throughout time who also confessed to God his serious faults, can be our inspiration.

The thriving United Churches across Canada that I visited shared many characteristics and spiritual attributes, including humility. I found that they are able collectively to set aside the fragile ego’s protests and engage in self-assessment and invitation of critique on a regular basis. Psalm 139 assists with this exercise of humble self-examination.

There’s a certain freedom that comes from honest confession to God and to those affected by our actions and words. Just last week, I was angry with a couple of individuals on two different occasions and had to apologize to both of them. One of the occasions was a gathering around our dining room table when the topic of elections came up. Election time can bring out the worst in us. It is difficult for me to be open-hearted when I am irritated or passionate about a particular issue. I should know that when I feel the blood rising, I should be very careful about what I say.  And I should be quick to own up to words that I shouldn’t have said. Apologies are so important to keep our hearts open. Even if the other person doesn’t accept our apology or forgives us, God does.

There is such a relief and a lightness of being that comes from being forgiven.  When you can apologize sincerely and forgive repeatedly, there is a heaviness that is lifted. You become open-hearted to the tender side of life and there, in the heart of God, you can be transformed by love. Transformation isn’t a one-time event. It happens over and over, one little step at a time.

This is the countercultural message of good news that we can bring to one another and to our wounded community that seems to be more divided than ever by intolerance and insult—especially during elections. As we vote this week on what we would like our province to look like, we might also want to consider our part. Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” What would happen if we met animosity with compassion? division with deep listening? blaming with taking responsibility for our own part? What would happen if we, as Christians, move collectively to the selfless open?

[1] David Rosenberg, A Poet’s Bible: Rediscovering the Voices of the Original Text (New York: Hyperion, 1991)