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Last night, my dear friend Jane Zwart was the host of Calvin’s Named Scholarship Dinner–a time when college donors gather with the students whose scholarships they fund to celebrate together. As part of the evening, Jane gave a beautiful speech (which is finding a home in another venue), but she also began the proceedings with a lovely devotion. I thought The 12 readers might enjoy it–and add it to their collection of fine writing with which Jane gifts us all. I pick up mid-introduction:

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Whatever I owe the honor to, I am so grateful to be with you tonight. Because I do love occasions like this, occasions where we dwell, deliberately, on joy. And to be in the presence of such generosity and such promise–to be in your presence–is such a joy. But our joy has greater cause than this human company: we are also in the presence of God, held fast by his Providence. And not just on this occasion, but always.

To begin, then, I’d like to spend a little time on a psalm that sings the constancy of our God. It’s a psalm that insists that God’s omnipresence is a part of his providence for us. Well, maybe you’ve already guessed: it’s Psalm 139.

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

Now, let me interrupt David for a minute.

What I love about the first verses of this psalm is how they fill the roster of what God knows about us with ordinary things. Because we’re often aware, I think, of God’s presence with us, his attention on us, at the moments in our lives that a biographer would care about. We feel the weight of God’s faithfulness when we make vows and, often, when we make grave mistakes. We clamor for God’s benevolence when a sibling dies, when the oncologist calls us in for a consult, when the airplane taxis or the moving truck pulls away from the curb. And in all those cases, God’s omnipresence is as good as a promise that he is there.

But what the psalmist points up is that God’s omnipresence is also as good as a promise in the seemingly inconsequential moments. He keeps us company when we work our knees, be they young or creaky, to rise from our beds in the morning. He pays attention when we cross from our dorm room or our front yard into the frenzy of the world. He hears our half-formed questions, and unformed thoughts, and unbidden doubts. He knows us. We live nowhere but in his presence.

The psalm goes on:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

And there’s more, too, but let me stop here and tell you: I find in these verses a truth that I think we should, together, hold up to the light tonight. And that truth is this: our questions and our wonder and our creativity do not strain our relationship with God but instead tether us to him.

Look at the questions this stretch of the poem starts with: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee your presence?” In my line of work, we’re quick to point out rhetorical devices, and these are, of course, rhetorical questions. That is, they’re the kinds of questions we ask to underscore the obvious answer. And the obvious answer here is that we can go nowhere from God’s Spirit. We cannot flee from him, not really, no matter how recklessly we hurtle through the world. But it’s not just these questions–with their obvious answer–that confirm God’s constancy, his omnipresent providence. It’s all our questions. Or at least it’s all the questions we ask wholeheartedly–from a place of wonder rather than a place of cynicism.

And notice, too, that several versions of that word “wonder” appear in this psalm, one of them right on the heels of the other. David praises God because he–the human poet–is “fearfully and wonderfully made” and then, in the next line, he proclaims “your works are wonderful; I know that full well.” Part of the resonance here has to do with the fact that we, who are “wonderfully made,” number among God’s works. We’re called to be wonders, signaling the glory of our Creator.

But we’re also called to wonder because our wonder–our capacity for inquiry, for invention–deepens our knowing full well our God’s very glory. In fact, our wonder attunes us to God’s presence. It is wonder, after all, that makes us attentive–and praiseful–when we go up to the heavens–whether we look upward as astronomers or as poets. And when we make our bed in the depths, wonder makes us praiseful–whether we’re studying aquatic locomotion or sampling the water in Plaster Creek. Wonder makes us praiseful when we settle on the far side of the sea–whether in Budapest, Hungary, or Accra, Ghana. (And of course some of the international students with us tonight consider Calvin to be on the far side of a sea.) At the same time, though, the psalm reminds us that we’re called to wonder even in the most ordinary moments, so that we might be attuned to God’s presence as we rise and repose, as daily we venture out, and as nightly we dream in the dark that is not dark to him.

As we enter into this time together, then, I’ll ask you to pray with me to the God who counts even our ordinariness wonderful. He is also the God to who, to borrow a line from the novelist Don DeLillo, makes “every word and thing a beadwork of bright creation.”

Let’s pray:

Almighty Creator, All the days ordained for us were written in your book before one of them came to be, and we praise you for that. We praise you because we are the work of your hands–because you know us entirely, every quirk and joint and hope in us. But we also thank you. We thank you because you have not only made us wonderful but filled us with wonder. We thank you because you have not only created us but given us the rudiments of creativity: the syntax for questions and the tug of curiosity, the equipment for awe and the knack of invention.

And we thank you that we are here together tonight. Bless this night. Bless the food we eat, and all those who had a hand in bringing it before us. Bless the stories we tell; bless these hours when our stories overlap.

Bless the students who are here and the students who are not: ordain them to be salt and light. Bless the donors who are here and the donors who are not: ordain their generosity to further your kingdom. And bless Calvin College, too, ordaining it to be an outpost of your grace. Amen.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

10 Comments

  • Dale Cooper says:

    I was in Jane’s audience and will confirm–with hearty praise and gratitude to God–what Jennifer wrote about Jane’s speech: She was Spirit-anointed; we who heard her were blest; and our Lord was honored.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    As I am this morning, Dale.

  • Ron Calsbeek says:

    Thank you for this perfect start to my day. It’s worthy of sharing widely, and I will.

  • cathysmith001 says:

    Blessed by that!

  • Jane Porter says:

    Thank you for introducing me to Jane Zwart.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Lyric and lovely. Thanks, Jane (and Jennifer)!

  • RLG says:

    Here’s a bummer. Sorry. This sounds like a nice Psalm and sentiment for a group of people sitting down to a lavish meal where charitable money is flowing. But for many, such a Psalm is a mockery of God. People in third world countries where there is not enough food for three square meals, or even two, where family members are dying of Aids, where government is so corrupt that there is no justice, where tomorrow is anything but a certainty, cannot fathom the idea that God knows or cares about them. How lucky we are as well healed Christians that we can praise the all knowing and caring God who blesses us so richly. In the right context a Psalm like this is a wonderful sentiment. Thanks, Jennifer.

  • EK says:

    RLG, I don’t know which third world countries you have been to/are referring to, but I don’t think that the truth this psalm speaks is reserved for, or experienced only in, affluent countries or conditions. Having been born and raised in what is considered a third world country, I daresay that this psalm is more real to several of us than it is to people who “have it all”.
    I hope that our prayer will be that this psalm will not be just a sentiment but a lived-out truth by all believers everywhere, and in all situations. Our blessings indeed consist of much more than we have on our plates, the governments that rule, or the diseases that afflict. Our blessing is in the knowledge of our Lord, and in the solace we find in His knowledge of us.

    Thanks for blessing us with your words, Jane. Thank you for sharing, Jennifer.

    • RLG says:

      Thanks, EK, for your comment. Of course your sentiment may apply to some in third world countries, but the “some” are few. Remembering some of the missions classes at seminary we were reminded often that spiritual needs cannot be addressed until physical needs are first addressed. The physical needs weigh so large in a person’s life, whether it be poverty, physical or mental abuse, serious physical illness, or loss of loved ones, that they are not interested in spiritual remedies. David (if he is indeed the author of this Psalm) wrote as king of Judea and not from a position of distress, least wise, physical distress. It is much easier to see the hand and presence of God when your life is prosperous than when you are living beside the garbage dump. It is much easier to thank God for your daily bread when you have great supply than when you have nothing for tomorrow. That’s common sense.

  • Amy Clemens says:

    Jennifer, thank you for sharing this! It is a wonderful meditation on 139, and in the midst of writing a series of devotionals called “Ordinary Time,” I was inspired to keep writing. Our God is all the more amazing for his love of the ordinary, as Judy so eloquently laid out.

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