Monday Matters (January 15, 2024)


Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17

1 Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.
2 You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.
3 Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, but you, O Lord, know it altogether.
4 You press upon me behind and before and lay your hand upon me.
5 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain to it.

12 For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
13 I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and I know it well.
14 My body was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth.
15 Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb; all of them were written in your book; they were fashioned day by day, when as yet there was none of them.
16 How deep I find your thoughts, O God! how great is the sum of them!
17 If I were to count them, they would be more in number than the sand; to count them all, my life span would need to be like yours.

This year, Monday Matters will focus on wisdom conveyed in the treasures of the book of Psalms. We’ll look at the psalms read in church on the day before Monday Matters comes to your screen.

Memorization: Try it, you’ll like it.

I left my job as an art director in a New York ad agency on a Friday. The next Monday morning, I showed up at Union Seminary to start the three year Masters of Divinity program. Slight career shift (though some snarky friends say I’m still in advertising.)

I was excited to show up on campus. As I walked the halls, I was struck with its history, sensing the presence of spiritual giants who had studied or taught there, people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, Raymond Brown, James Cone.

We had an orientation session, led by the Rev. James Forbes, who was teaching at the time at Union, and went on to become Senior Pastor at Riverside Church. I was impressed with the headiness of it all. So I was a bit surprised by the counsel given by Dr. Forbes, the advice he offered to help us navigate our course of study. He said: Memorize Psalm 139. It will change your life.

I grew up in a church that held memorization of bible verses in high regard. There was an almost magical way of thinking about the value of the practice. We would get points if we could recite verses in Sunday School. I developed an ability to locate the shortest verses in the Bible, for example, John 11:35: Jesus wept.

Fast forward to my matriculation at Union. I did not expect that coming to this high-falutin’ institution I’d be asked to memorize Bible verses. But I quickly came to admire Dr. Forbes, and so in that first year I memorized the first 17 verses. I don’t remember them all now, but whenever the psalm turns up in liturgy (as it did yesterday in church…see the portion of the psalm included above), I remember Dr. Forbes’ counsel. So think with me about why this psalm might be so important.

Lord, you have searched me out and known me. Psalm 139:1

For one thing, it reminds us that God knows us better than we know ourselves. It reminds me that my prayers are not a matter of clueing God in on what God does not already know. I’m coming to realize that perhaps the most powerful kind of prayer has to do with contemplation, with finding a way to sit in silence in the holy presence, trusting God knows the secrets of our hearts, that God knows what we need before we can even articulate those needs.

You are acquainted with all my ways. Psalm 139:2

It also reminds me that with such intimate knowledge of my inner thoughts, God is not put off. The great grace of our faith may be that God knows us and still loves us. In many human interactions, we sense that if people really knew who we were, they would have little to do with us. Not so with the Holy One. Which is probably what makes God holy. It’s what makes grace amazing.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me. It is so high I cannot attain it. Psalm 139:5

Finally, the psalm reminds us that our lives unfold in the face of mysteries beyond our understanding. Speaking for myself, there’s no way I can wrap my mind around the mystery of God knowing us and loving us, knowing every person on every floor of every apartment in my neighborhood, in my city, in the world. That’s where faith comes in. Albert Einstein said that there were two ways to look at life. One, as if nothing is miracle. Two, as if everything is miracle. The journey of faith, which often involves a leap, asks us to trust that this divine knowledge is our reality.

So as the new year begins, maybe you want to memorize this psalm. Or perhaps pick just one verse to chew on. And see if Dr. Forbes was right. See if it changes your life.

-Jay Sidebotham

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