There is a very powerful video, put together by a technologist, journalist, entrepreneur, artist, and author named Alexander Tsairas. It is called "From Conception to Birth: A Life Unfolds," and that is precisely what it shows, with incredible colorful images of a cell becoming a fetus. In his quest to produce such realistic artworks, Alexander taught himself mathematics and physics, and has designed lenses that are used to photograph the human egg in the in vitro fertilization process as well as photographing the fetus from outside the amniotic sack before birth. In the video, before we watch the egg develop miraculously into a little human being, he explains that collagen is the substance from which much of the body is created – hair, skin, bones, blood vessels. Collagen is a rope-like substance, he tells us, that adapts itself for all of these body parts. Most incredible is that only for the cornea of the eyes does it become transparent, made so, of course, so that we can see. As we watch the video, we see what looks like a human being by 44 days into the process. We can see the heart developing, the arms and legs, the head, the vertebrae, the fingers, the eyes. And though we may know a lot more about biology, genes, and evolution than the people of biblical times, it is clear that it takes more than just science to create a little human being inside another human being.
"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." (Psalm 139:13-14)
Why, then, we have to ask as we look at these beautiful images and verses, are some babies malformed? Why do some babies not make it to birth? But there are no clear answers, in science or medicine or in faith. Made in the image of God, we are nonetheless not perfect. There are mysteries in life we cannot answer.
Psalm 139 is one of the most beautiful of the psalms. There are no laments, no specific complaints. Most of the psalm is spent regaling God’s marvelous connection to the self. The first 18 verses are full of praise for God. Every single verse talks of God (You or your) and the psalmist (I, me, my) in relation to one another. In four verses, 19-22, the psalmist talks of the "wicked," as he tries to separate himself from those who do not follow God, whether by choice, ignorance, or apathy. The wicked are those who threaten our relationship with God. They can lead us away from God, or damage our belief with their unbelieving words and ways. And so the psalmist separates himself from them as much as possible, hating them because they hate God. Most of all, the psalm celebrates that God is present with us, within us, and around us at all times. There is no place we can go that God is not with us. We cannot hide from God, even if we desire to do so. God has claimed us, and God stays with us always.
Psalm 139 is a relational and incarnational song. It celebrates the beauty of human life created by the God whom we know loves us enough to come and be one with us. Today at the table we celebrate and remember God’s incarnation among us, and God’s miraculous grace that saves us from our selves and from our world through the love and saving acts of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The psalm is also a confessional poem. That is why we used parts of it for our joint confession today. The psalmist acknowledges that God is greater than we can imagine, that we are dependent upon God, that we can trust God. It is a very spiritual hymn, with beautiful and uplifting words and images that remind us of God’s presence with us throughout life’s ups and downs. It is steeped in theology. We can see in this Psalm one of the reasons for infant baptism – God knows us, claims us, forms us before we are even born. With infant baptism, we simply acknowledge that we are already God’s children, and we vow to bring up our children in faith that they might truly know the God who has shaped them.
Psalm 139 is a beautiful and inspirational song. Especially watching the video I mentioned earlier, it is easy to see how this psalm can be used to say that abortion at any point in the cycle is wrong. God knows us as a full human being before we are even born. God knits us in the womb, making that collagen into all the parts we need to live and breathe and survive. God loves us throughout our lives, before we are born and after we die. And yet, as with any Scripture, we can use it for good or for bad.
A recent article in "USA Today" told the story of a young woman who went into the Shared Pregnancy Women’s Center in Lansing, MI and asked for an ultrasound. She revealed that she was thinking of having an abortion, because she was single, had very little money and two other children. She felt, she said to the woman attending her, that God would understand. The woman handed her a Bible bookmarked to the verses we have read: "For it was you who formed my inward parts. You knit me together in my mother’s womb…" The woman cancelled the abortion the next day. Some could debate whether that was the right thing for her to do under the circumstances of her life, or whether that was a heavy-handed use of Scripture to sway someone’s decision. Psalm 139 has, for obvious reasons, been the byword of the anti-abortion movement for decades, since the early 1970’s.
But other groups have found solace and support in the psalm as well. The homosexual community has recently found the verses of this psalm comforting as they struggle with identity in a culture that can be hard on them for their orientation. "I did not choose to be this way," says one of my homosexual friends. The psalm affirms that we are all made in God’s image, shaped by God’s hands, beloved by God from before our birth. Therefore, we can conclude from these verses, no matter how we turn out – black or white or red or yellow of skin, big or small, strong or weak, handicapped or not, straight or gay – we are God’s children, we are all "fearfully and wonderfully made."
I could not help but think of this same verse as I stood by the bedside of our brother Verne in the hospital. Stricken with a hematoma and brain surgery 4 weeks ago, he was in a coma for over 2 weeks. Verne is now smiling and raising his eyebrow in response to what is being said, and forming words (Dean says he mouthed, "Hi Betty" when I entered the room). Verne was in a coma for longer than the medical folks liked, and yet he is coming back to life, slowly but surely, defying medical predictions. "We are fearfully and wonderfully made," I whispered into his ear. And he squeezed my hand which was holding his.
Psalm 139 delights in the creation of the body in ways that Christianity has not always embraced. Especially in the pre-Enlightenment era, Christians and other faiths wanted to separate body and soul, with the flesh being evil and the soul being connected to God. The author of Psalm 139 would not have understood such a separation, seeing God as Creator, as Judge, and as loving Shepherd, taking care of the whole person, body and soul.
Marcia Mount Shoop, a pastor and theologian in our midst, in Chapel Hill, has written a book called "Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ." It is a very scholarly work, her thesis for her Ph.D., but it is also a very passionate work dealing with some of the issues that women face within a society that still does not like to talk about certain things. Acknowledging that we are a society that values intellect and technology more and more, she says that the church has been afraid to discuss the body, that we are "collectively uncomfortable in our own skin" (p. 145). Marcia reveals that she is a rape survivor, and says that rape "dis-members" the victim from self, society, and often the church community. The church can and should help victims to "re-member" by helping them to express and release their conflicting and complex feelings, by reminding and loving all people as whole beings who are indeed formed and embraced by the Holy One, even in the face of tragedy that is hard for us to even comprehend. Being Christians, she says, means that "we are transformed bodies, not simply minds and hearts. Living into these embodied gifts of God takes practice. Christian communities and believers are the Body of Christ in the world. We flesh out God’s love for the world – the hope that defeats all despair, the healing that outlasts all suffering, and the mystery of God ‘within us’" (Shoop, p.129). We as Christians can take the theology of Psalm 139 "one giant leap for humankind" [My nod of honor to Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, who died this week.] further as we struggle to be the Body of Christ in the world. That does not mean that we strive to BE Christ in the world, for we cannot be Christ, but that we love as we are loved, and we treat one another as whole beings – heart, mind and soul – created for and by God, not for or by ourselves. There is a verse from Romans that we often use in funerals because it comforts us, but for any time of our lives, it sums up what Psalm 139 tells us: "If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s" (Romans 14:8). Our communion table reminds us too that we are the Body of Christ. Let us come to the table re-membering, and let us live as if we are the Lord’s, every day.
Mays, James L.,Psalms; Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1994
Shoop, Marcia W. Mount, Let the Bones Dance; Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 2010
Van Biema, David, "One Psalm, Two Causes, Two Meanings, in USA TODAY (March 28, 2012 issue)