July 21, 2002

Psalm 139:1-10, 13-18, 23-24

We have all tried at one time or another to get a thought out of our minds. It could be a song that we overheard someone singing, perhaps even a song that we greatly dislike, and we just keep hearing it over and over again on our mental CD players. It might be something that we have misplaced, often something insignificant, yet we cannot think of anything else as we stubbornly continue to search for it. Often, such a thought is the unwelcomed memory of something that we have said or done before that we wish we would not have, and are now struggling to be free of. We have all tried before to clear our minds of certain persistent thoughts.

But have you ever tried deliberately to keep a certain thought in your minds? My aunt Dot, born 22 years before my mother, lost her husband of a heart attack in the 1940’s when he was only 39 years of age—he died in her arms. She was madly in love with this man, and his death devastated her. I remember her telling me years later how memories tend to fade, and she did not want to forget what Wes looked like and the things that he said and did. So she intentionally cultivated thoughts of Wes—she looked at the few pictures she had of him, read letters that he had written, and held such memorabilia as his ring or shoemaker’s hammer. Dot wanted to keep thoughts of Wes alive.

Frank Laubach, the great missionary to the Philippines, tried hard to keep certain thoughts in his mind as well, though thoughts of a different nature. “Can I bring God back in my mind-flow every few seconds so that God shall always be in my mind…?” he asked himself. Though most people told him that thinking about God all of the time was impossible, Laubach chose, in his words, “…to make the rest of my life an experiment in answering this question.”

Here in Psalm 139, we find the Psalmist grappling with concerns that are in some ways similar to Laubach’s. The precise context of the Psalm is impossible to determine. Some interpreters find buried here the prayer of a religious leader who stands accused of idol worship, while others imagine a ruler plagued by fierce enemies. Whatever the exact setting, it is clear that the Psalmist had experienced considerable duress, not unlike some of the early setbacks that Laubach himself encountered. Yet, two simple but profound convictions changed his life. The Psalmist came to realize, first of all, that God was with him at all times and in all places. In addition, he began to see that this same God could be actively present in even his deepest thoughts.

Note how these convictions develop as Psalm 139 progresses. In verses 1-6, the Psalmist affirms God’s presence in the many and varied experiences of life. Throughout the Bible, people often celebrate God’s most noteworthy appearances in human history. Seemingly countless texts tell of God’s miraculous deeds as he led his people out of Egypt. The same can be said about his wondrous involvements in the lives of noteworthy characters like Joshua and Elijah in the Old Testament and Jesus and Paul in the New—city walls falling down and people rising from the dead. God is present, such texts inform us, in the miraculous events of life.
The Psalmist, of course, does not deny here in Psalm 139 the importance of such events, but he does fill in some crucial gaps. “You know when I sit down and when I rise up,” he quietly acknowledges. God is aware, in other words, of the whole of one’s life and the entire range of activities. “You even know when I lie down,” the Psalmist suggests with at least a hint of amazement. God is present, he seems to say, not only during the earth-shattering occurrences in our lives, but in the daily, ordinary routines. Seemingly unimportant and mundane experiences cannot separate us from God’s presence.

In verses 7-11, the Psalmist shifts his attention from ordinary experiences to geography. “God is present,” he suggests, “wherever I go.” Once again, various places in Scripture are at times associated with God’s involvements in the affairs of men and women. The mere mention of Mt. Sinai was surely enough to stir the hearts of everyday Israelites, and to this day Christians attach particular significance to such places as Bethlehem, the Sea of Galilee, and the Garden of Gethsemane. Some even suggest that they experience a unique sense of God’s presence in these and other important places. I recall hearing a preacher in New Jersey several years ago who was about to travel to the Holy Land. During the sermon, he invited his listeners to jot down prayer requests on small pieces of paper. He promised to then collect them, place them in a bottle, and throw them into the Sea of Galilee when he got there!

Here in Psalm 139:7-11, the Psalmist does not dismiss the importance and even sanctity of certain places, although I am quite certain that he would have little appreciation for the type of “spiritual wizardry” so popular with that New Jersey preacher. What the Psalmist does declare, however, is that God’s presence is in no way limited to such central locations. “Where can I go from your spirit?’ he asks, obviously anticipating the answer. “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol—the abode of the dead—you are there.” Obviously sensing the limitations of language, the Psalmist desperately concludes: “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea”—today we might say something like “If I boarded a mega-space shuttle and flew beyond Mars”—“even there your hand shall lead me,…” “If God would be with me in such distant and imaginary places”, the Psalmist insinuates, “then I’m sure he is with me while I am shoveling up my donkey’s manure in my own back yard.” Geography cannot separate us from God’s presence.

Thirdly, in 139:13-16, the Psalmist declares that God is present during the various chronological phases of our lives. At times in the Scriptures, people seem to freeze God at some point in the past. When the prophet Haggai describes for us the rebuilding of the temple, for example, he refers to a group of people who have this unhealthy, somewhat nostalgic connection to the former temple. It is as though God lived entirely in the past. For others, however, their futuristic longings often overshadow and even nullify God’s activities in the past and present.

Here, the Psalmist boldly depicts the whole of time—past, present, and future. “You knit me together in my mother’s womb.” “Way back then, before I had even taken shape, you were there.” Yet the Psalmist hardly leaves God back there in the past. “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me”—the days gone by, the days now here, and the days yet to come. Time, the Psalmist concludes, cannot separate us from God’s presence.

God is here, the Psalmist boldly and confidently announces. He is with us during the varied experiences of life—the relative importance or unimportance of life’s affairs cannot keep him away. He is with us at home and afar—geography cannot keep him away. And he is with us in the past, present and future—time cannot keep him away. Why, the sheer awareness of God’s presence in every area of life—this profound sense of connectedness to God—leads the Psalmist to a level of spiritual amazement: “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you (verses 17-18). It’s overwhelming. To put it in Paul’s words: “…I am convinced that…[nothing]…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).

So what does all of this have to do with the prayer-filled life? As Frank Laubach came to understand, virtually everything. In the midst of his amazement—“God is with me everywhere and at all times”—the Psalmist brings his cry to a close by inviting God to penetrate his own heart and mind. “Search me….” “Know my heart….” “Know my thoughts….” “…lead me in the way everlasting.” The Psalmist, in essence, asks this always-present God to be alive and involved in his very thoughts. If we share this belief that God is with us in every area of life, then prayer is freed to take on entirely new possibilities. No one that I know of can be more helpful to us here than Laubach.

In addition to the many activities that he was engaged in, including his efforts to stamp out illiteracy around the world, Laubach devoted substantial time and energy to “experimenting with prayer.” In March of 1937, Laubach was developing a literacy plan for the Urdu Dihate Indian dialect. In his book entitled Learning the Vocabulary of God, Laubach describes a monumental discovery that he made that day about prayer:
Of all today’s miracles, the greatest is this: To know that I find Thee best when I work listening, not when I am still or meditative or even on my knees in prayer, but when I work listening and co-operating.
Laubach, of course, never denied the value of times set apart especially for prayer, nor did he encourage people to live frantic and compulsive lives that failed to leave space for silence and reflection. What concerned Laubach, however, was what he perceived to be an artificial and unhealthy separation between our everyday lives, on the one hand, and our prayer lives, on the other. We don’t pray and then go live our lives. If God is in fact everywhere—with us at all times and in all places—then even the most mundane affairs of life provide wonderful opportunities for us to be in prayerful touch with God.

Think again about the various areas described in Psalm 139. If it is true, as the Psalmist suggests in verses 1-6, that God is with us during even the ordinary experiences of life, then we can pray while we wash the dishes, mow the lawn, clear off our desks, burp the baby, pump gas, drive the car, wait in the check-out line, walk the dog, boot-up the computer, or take a shower. If it is true, as the Psalmist suggests in verses 7-10, that God is with us wherever we go, then we can pray here at church, at home in the closet, or outside under a tree. We can pray in Pennsylvania or Transylvania, by the Yellow Breeches or on Italy’s beaches, among Hershey Garden’s mums or in Calcutta’s slums. And if it is true, as the Psalmist suggests in verses 13-16, that God is with us in the past, present and future, then we can pray when we are first learning to talk and when we are too old to walk. If the Psalmist’s passionate description of God in Psalm 139 is true, then we can pray, as Paul encourages us to, “without ceasing” (I Thess. 5:17). What amazed Frank Laubach and what captivated his heart and mind for all those years was not so much that we can kneel down quietly by an altar and pray, as wonderful as that is, but that we can pray just as well with sweaty overalls and greasy hands. If we haven’t learned to pray during the everyday, ordinary experiences of life, than we haven’t yet learned to pray.

In order to better cultivate such a prayer-filled life, to pray at all times and in all places, Laubach experimented with what he liked to refer to as “flash prayers.” As though a photographer rapidly snapping picture after picture of people as they go by, Laubach flashed prayers wherever he went for whoever he saw. “Lord Jesus, have mercy on the person in the car next to me.” “May the young woman running the cash register sense your grace at some point today, O God.” “Shower your love, Lord, on that street sweeper over there.” With each passing year, Laubach sought to pray more and more like this in whatever situation he found himself, and it changed his entire life. As he described a particular experience at a station in Allahabad, India:
This morning, as I came from the train and prayed for all the people on the street, I felt new energy surge into me. What it does to all of them to receive that instant prayer I may never know. What it does for me is electrical. It drives out fatigue and thrills one with eager power.
Frank Laubach, like the Psalmist, believed that God was present in every area of his life, and for that reason he further believed that every area of life provides an opportunity to pray.

All of us have at one time or another tried to get certain thoughts out of our minds—recurring songs, nagging images, and unpleasant memories. But how many of us have tried to nurture certain thoughts? How many of us have committed time and energy to filling our minds each moment with the things of God. Frank Laubach is a hero of the Christian Faith, not simply because he helped literally millions of people learn to read, but because he modeled the prayer-filled life.

In his book entitled A Thirty-Day experiment in Prayer, Robert Wood offers a prayer that both the Psalmist and Frank Laubach would very much resinate with. I hope that you and I will too:
Father God,
Why is it that I think I must get somewhere, assume some position, be
gathered together, or separated apart in the quiet of my study to pray?
Why is it that I feel that I have to go somewhere or do some particular act
to find you, reach you, and talk with you?
Your presence is here
In the city—on the busy bus, in the factory, in the cockpit of the airplane; in the hospital—in the patients’ rooms, in the intensive care unit, in the waiting room; in the home—at dinner, in the bedroom, in the family room, at my work bench; in the car—in the parking lot, at the stoplight.
Lord, reveal your presence to me everywhere, and help me become aware
of your presence each moment of the day.
May your presence fill the nonanswers, empty glances, and lonely times
of my life. Amen.