January 14, No place to hide

No place to hide

Psalm 139:1-18

One interesting measure of how well known, how familiar, a scripture is, is to see how many songs reference it. And I’ll tell you what: Psalm 139 has more than a few songs and hymns that match up to its text.

One of those hymns, we sang just a few moments ago – “Lord, thou hast searched me,” and another – “If I take the wings of the morning” -- will serve as the choral anthem after the sermon. Even the last phrase of the opening hymn we sang this morning, “I sing the mighty power of God,” is an echo of Psalm 139: While all that borrows life from thee is ever in thy care, there’s not a place where we can flee but God is present there.

So, by that measure, indeed, this Psalm is not unfamiliar. But even without the help of music, I am sure you recognized some phrases from the Psalm when it was read – things like “O Lord you have searched me and known me,” or “Even darkness is not dark to you,” or “I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” And maybe that’s because you’ve heard Psalm 139 read often enough at funeral, where it’s reading is often meant to comfort those separated by death.

But even though Psalm 139 is most frequently presented that way – as an offering of assurance – it really begins not with words of comfort, so much as with words of exposure – a clear statement about visibility and vulnerability, about being seen and known: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.”

That’s where it begins. According to the Psalmist (who in this case happens to be a biblical character with whom we are quite familiar, King David) …according to him, God knows us.

That’s where it all begins: God knows our thoughts, our intentions, and our actions. There is no pretending with God, no poker face, no hidden motives, no trickery, no clever sleight of hand. Everything is right there, right in plain view. God sees us and knows us – sees into us, knows the inside of us – all the time, every day.

And, not only that, not only are our thoughts, our intentions, and our actions in God’s view when we are standing in the middle of normal every-day life, but even in those moments when we are trying to hide, when we may want to be hidden, there really is no place to hide.

So, it’s not just that as we stand out in the open, doing our every-day things, that God sees us, but it is also the case that even when we try to stay hidden, God sees us.

“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” asks David. His answer? Nowhere. There’s no place to hide. He writes, “If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol (the underworld) you are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” That is to say, there is no place to hide. Even darkness, David says, is not dark to God; “night is as bright as day, and darkness is as light to God.”

So, here’s the question that begs to be asked: Is this exposure, this complete and constant visibility, good news or is this bad news? This being known, this having no place to hide, this exposure of your external and internal life – is this good news or bad news?

That is, do you want to be known? Really known? Do you want to be seen? Do you want to be in plain view?

I think for most of us, the answer to that question, “Is this good news or is this bad news – this being known, being seen, being noticed, being exposed?” is this: “It depends.”

It depends. 

Because, sometimes we want to be hidden. Sometimes, whether because of shame or because of feelings of vulnerability or confusion or disappointment, we want to be out of view. Sometimes it feels safer to be out of sight. When we are out of sight, we might imagine we won’t have to answer for our choices, especially those of which we are not proud. When we are hidden, we don’t have to risk the answer to the questions of self-doubt that may dog us: Am I worthy? Am I good enough? Will somebody love me?

Sometimes we want to be hidden because in that hiddenness perhaps we think that we can act without accountability, without the judgement of others, without need for apology. Or maybe it seems to us that in those hidden places, we might be better able to indulge our smallness, our selfishness, without anyone pointing it out, or asking something better of us.

And hiddenness or darkness, and the imagined privacy that it affords, is sometimes the place where resentment can be caressed and anger can be nurtured and jealousy can be justified and wounds can be licked.  

So, if the Psalmist is right, if David is right – that God sees everything, knows everything about us, then the question is indeed before us: Is this good news or bad news? 

And as I have been saying, if it’s hiddenness that we want, or we imagine we want, then this is bad news. No place to hide? That means we are exposed and sometimes we don’t want to be exposed – not to others, much less God. 

But on the other hand, if being seen, being known, means that finally we are brought in from the cold, finally we are recognized, finally we are counted, then it would seem that this Psalm carries with it some very good news. 

Good news: God knows you. Good news: there’s no place you can go where the long reach of God’s love and mercy won’t reach you. Good news: Even darkness – the darkness around you or the darkness within you – is not darkness to God. Good news: God has known you from your very beginnings. Good news: God’s attentiveness to you stretches from beginning to end. Good news: you are not forgotten, nor overlooked, nor dismissed, nor underestimated, nor undervalued. Good news: God does not look at you and then, having seen what God sees, looks away.

      I suspect that there is something in all of us that wishes that we would be fully known. Maybe we don’t want to risk it, but there is something in all of us that wishes that we would be fully known, fully seen, fully exposed…and at the same time, fully understood, fully accepted, and fully loved.

One of the very deep, personal and private questions that each of us holds inside the most uncertain and tender parts of us is this: “If those around me – if those who say they love me – knew everything about me, every secret, every bit of shame, every way in which I fail to live up to the person I present myself to be, would they still love me? With all those cards on the table, would I still be accepted, respected, cared for, embraced? Or would the truth about me – what’s in my heart, what lives in the secret places of me – drive others away?”

And so, with those uncertainties stirring inside each of us, we have to decide, again and again, whether to show ourselves; whether to keep a façade in place, or expose our real thoughts and feelings. We have to decide whether to live on the outside the way we live on the inside. We have to decide whether to hide ourselves or show ourselves, and whether to risk rejection when what we show isn’t all that attractive or admirable.

And here’s the other thing: we imagine that all of this matter of whether we hide or show ourselves, is within our control; that people don’t really see inside us; that even God, perhaps, doesn’t know the hidden parts of us.

But, the fact is, not only does God see you and know you, but over time, those around you, especially those closest to you, see you and know you. Your secrets may stay secret in specific – all the details might not be known by others – but who you are is not really hidden.

Over time, in the close company of others, the quality of your character, your honesty or dishonesty, your priorities, the largeness or the smallness of your spirit, your blind spots, your reliability, your prejudices, your places of growth and limitation, your fears, your empathy or lack of empathy – all that comes into view.

Over time, we all get exposed. And guess what? Quite often – more often than you might expect – people give you grace. God gives you grace. And amazingly, lots of people stick with you. Sure, some march away in judgement, but lots of people are kind and generous in their acceptance. And God is kind and generous in God’s acceptance.

You’re not perfect, but neither is anyone else, and neither does any reasonable person expect perfection. You are you – the good and the bad, the strengths and the weaknesses, the impressive parts and the disappointing parts, the public face and private places.

The God-message that David shares is that there is nowhere to hide, but neither is there any need to hide. God made you, after all, fearfully and wonderfully. If there are things that can be affirmed, so be it. If there are things that need to change, those things need to be seen and known. Hiding doesn’t help us; being seen and known might just save us.

I don’t know if I’ve said this to you, but there is an ongoing feeling of gratitude inside me that has to do with the experience of being known by you and loved by you -- because of and despite what you have come to know about me. I experience that with you, and I hope you experience that with me, and with others in this community of faith.

One of the great gifts of long term relationship in the context of community is the experience of becoming more and more real and true and acceptable to each other, even in the grit and twist of life’s difficulties and disappointments. In becoming more aware of each other, we become more real to each other, and in becoming more real to each other, we give ourselves opportunity and incentive to step closer to acceptance and understanding and grace.  

Not long ago, I was looking through my office filing cabinet for a file of search committee information. Our search committee is trying to get our pastoral search process for a new associate pastor for youth and congregational life up and going, and I was hoping to come across the profile we created for our congregation when Jim and Karen were hired. And as I looked, I found there in the back of the filing cabinet in my office, a file marked “search committee” and I thought to myself, “Ah, here it is.”

But imagine my surprise when I opened the file and discovered that it wasn’t a file I had ever seen before. It wasn’t the file from when we went through the search for Karen and Jim’s positions, but rather a file of information from back when the search committee that brought me to the church was doing its work.

Oh boy, oh boy! There was information in that file that should have never been kept, much less bequeathed to me – information about other candidates the committee considered – so that stuff is on its way to the shredder,

But then, behind that file, there was another file – another one that I hadn’t ever seen before -- and this one was marked, “Kurt Borgmann material.” And in that file, was my pastoral candidate profile, and copies of the emails that were sent back and forth between me and the search committee, and negotiation materials, and even the information page that was prepared for the Manchester congregation when I was presented as a candidate. It felt a bit like opening a fifteen-year old time capsule. 

That paper that the committee pulled together to show the congregation on the day that I came for the trial sermon, the question and answer time, and the congregational vote, made me look pretty good – highlighted my best qualities. It said that I had “a good sense of self-definition…stands up to pressures well…good administrator, a very caring person, intellectually sharp, has been in both traditional and progressive settings, and very trustworthy.” Not bad. Not bad at all.

But then right behind that presentation page was a page of notes by the committee chair about his conversation with one of my references.  And I confess I looked at that page of notes. I don’t know exactly which of my references the committee chair was talking too, but do you know what I discovered? That the people who know us, know us pretty well and so there really is no hiding. We may think we are adept at presenting our best side, but the people who are closest, and who know us best, have our number. They see all the sides of us.

Because I realized when I looked at that page that I was looking at the broader, more unedited material from which my presentation page was crafted.

That page had all the nice comments that showed up on the presentation page, but the person who was my reference also said this: “Kurt is reserved in some ways, not as warm perhaps as some, but (still) a very caring person. Sense of “being right” has sometimes led to him being perceived as arrogant or overly self-assured, but….even when this happens, listens well and able to work through difficulties. Has really strong opinions, and sometimes not real cautious about sharing them.”

That’s the unvarnished version. But you know what? I like that the person who gave me that reference didn’t hold back, that that person knew me well enough to name the solid parts and the rough edges. And I am willing to own all of that.

And do you know what else I realized when I read that page?  What else dawned on me (an epiphany perhaps)? That maybe one of the reasons we’re still clicking along after all this time is because the very things that that person knew and saw and exposed in me, are true of not just of me, but of us, of this congregation collectively.

Think about it: a good sense of self-definition, internal strength, stands up to pressure, intellectually sharp, traditional and progressive, trustworthy, sense of being right has sometimes led to being perceived as arrogant or overly self-assured, listens well, able to work through difficulties, has really strong opinions and sometimes not real cautious about sharing them.

It dawned on me that maybe that’s not just me – that maybe that’s the unvarnished version of you too! How about that?

Maybe one of the things that we are called to do with each other over time is to get past the sanitized, carefully airbrushed, speak-only-the-positive version of ourselves, to that place where we can see, and then clearly name and honestly hold the solid parts and the rough edges of ourselves, all in the same basket, with less need to hide, less need to pretend, less need to deny, less need to judge; a place where exposure leads to epiphany.  

And when we can do that, if we can do that, then maybe we finally come to the place where we can freely say, “Isn’t it nice to be known?”

Isn’t it nice to be seen, exposed even, for who we really are? Isn’t nice to be known, to have no need to hide – to be known and accepted and loved, because of…and despite…everything?

Thanks be to God, who has known us from beginning to end, and loves us still.




Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

January 14, 2018