On Sunday I will preach on Psalm 139 for probably the 10th time. I can find 3 sermons on this topic but I know that there are many more than that. It’s a favorite and is imminently preachable, and I get so excited when it rolls around again in the lectionary because I know I can make it work without too much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
But it’s a little different this time. Always before, the Psalm seemed to speak to my experience and the experience of the young adults with whom I worked. I love the play between “where can I run from your spirit?” and “Search me, O God, and know me.” It’s the perfect tangle of wanting to be known and wanting to hide–pretty much sums up adolescence and young adulthood.
I haven’t preached this text since Selam and I became a family, though, and it’s changed the text for me.
There are three whole years of her life that are lost. I have the scantest of details. I hope more than anything to raise the money to do a search for her birth family details (grandparents or aunts and uncles) before the trail is too cold. But even finding those wouldn’t flesh out the other parts.
I can ask my mom about her pregnancy with me. I can ask my dad about my first few days home. I can recite, as if I knew them, stories about my being a baby and young toddler. There are photos and stories and little niblets of truth embroidered with memory. I have nothing like this for Selam, and even a successful search would likely yield some names or photographs, perhaps some family stories, but nothing like the ability to ask, to receive one’s history on demand, to hear the stories over and over again by those who lived them.
Selam wants this. She can’t articulate it, but she wants it. She asks for stories from our first days at the guest house over and over again. She has to hear how we drove in the gate and what she said and what I thought and she must recite the story about me giving her 5 bananas in one day because she asked for them, and I was too inexperienced to figure out what 5 bananas would do to a little girl’s system. I was just so happy that I understood what she wanted. These are the stories she hears over and over and over again. She asks questions, too, that I can’t answer. Was her birth mother pretty? How did she get that scar? What was her first word? I have nothing for her. Just the knowledge that she was very loved and my paltry stories about bananas and cars. I offer these up, over and over. They are what I have. Ssometimes she is angry. “You were there!” she said to me the other day, convinced that I was lying. I really was there when she was 1. “Tell me,” she says, when I say I don’t know where the scar came from, but it was very old.
I cannot will a religious faith onto this child, and I wouldn’t if I could. So far, she seems to be a pretty spiritual kid, though. She talks about Big Mama all the time now and offers up small thanks for blessings received. She traces the picture of Big Mama in the picture book, with the baby on her hip and says that the baby was her when she was little. Although that baby is blue-eyed and blond, I agree with her. It’s her, riding on the hip of Big Mama, diapers and dimples and all.
When she has the words to understand this psalm, I hope it is a comfort to her. I hope that the knowledge that someone beheld her unformed and hidden, someone wove her secret self together. Someone holds her history, her yesterdays that come before I walked in, the good and the heartbreaking both. For all that I cannot give her, please let this knowledge hold her fast.
And at the end, when I am no more, and she is still, please let her hemmed in self know the peace of the one who wrote her days, whose first word for her was a name that beckons peace, and who remembers the day she got the scar and the day it was knit back together in grace.