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. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, 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. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. 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.
If it isn’t true, it ought to be.
I find myself saying that about a number of things, and including the origins of the word “orientation.” Maybe some wiser reader can confirm or debunk, but I’ve been told that the word finds its origin, at least in part, from baptismal services in the first centuries of the church.
These services were held on Easter eve, and they went on for a long time. The liturgy included long lists of renunciations, renouncing every imaginable kind of evil in the cosmos, in our social systems, in our hearts. They also included long lists of affirmations, positive and hopeful statements about how the baptismal candidate intends to live. In the Episcopal liturgy, knowing that many Episcopalians don’t have the stomach for really long liturgies, the number of renunciations and affirmations has been reduced. There are three of each. You can find them on page 302-303 of the Prayer Book.
But here’s the deal. I’m told that way back when, in the course of those early liturgies, the renunciations were said in darkness of night, facing west, the place of darkness, the place where the sun disappeared, a place that at that time people imagined was inhabited by barbarians and stupid people.
When they were through with the renunciations, the candidate would pull a 180 and turn to the east. If the timing of the liturgy was right, the sun was just cracking the horizon. With that turn, the baptismal candidate would turn to the light. That was their new orientation, as in facing the orient, the east. It was about choosing a direction. It was about turning to the light.
The word ‘orientation” has many meanings in our culture. It speaks to human sexuality, as we are called to respect the dignity of every human being. It speaks to the way a home or office building is situated on a plot of land. And in September, as schools and churches start, it speaks of programs of initiation and information and explanation, by which people are oriented, by which they can be told how to move in a forward direction.
If this baptismal stuff is true, it speaks of direction, and how we as people of faith are to orient our lives. I thought of this in particular on Saturday when in the daily readings assigned by our church, we read Psalm 139. It made me recall my orientation to seminary a few years ago. We were gathered as an entering class to learn about our three year course of study at Union Seminary in New York. We were excited to be there, a place whose history was marked by theological giants. We were on hallowed ground. We anticipated deep, rigorous, erudite study.
In the course of that orientation, we were addressed by the Rev. James Forbes, preaching professor who went on to serve as Senior Pastor at Riverside Church. He told us he had orienting advice for us. Since I had been out of school for a while, and was not sure I had the academic chops to cut it, I was all ears.
He said in this orientation session: “I have just one word of advice for you: Memorize Psalm 139. It will change your life.” And I thought, “That’s it?” I grew up in a church where we engaged in lots of bible memorizing and little serious biblical scholarship. I thought he’d tell us to study hard. Memorize?
He told us to let this particular psalm be our guide. Let it orient us, in heart and mind. I did commit it to memory at the time and still remember a lot of it. A chunk of it is included above. I commend it to you. Let it guide you this week and beyond. Let it orient you with the promise that God goes with you, knowing you better than you know yourself. Take some time this week to think about how your spiritual life is being oriented, in which direction you are headed. Like those early Christians on Easter morning, turn to the light, remembering what Jesus said: “I am the light of the world.”
Leading for Discipleship: A conference especially for those who have worked with RenewalWorks Sept. 30-Oct. 2 Wilmington, NC