I don’t really wear jewelry. Well, I do wear a watch. It’s an Apple® watch—perhaps you’ve heard me talk about it before. I once preached a sermon on things (other than God) that shepherd us around in life… including our smart watches. I think my favorite thing about my watch is when I go to the gym early in the morning, and after I finish whatever it is that I do there, my watch will suddenly beep (or vibrate) and tell me, “Keep it up! You’re off to a great start.” And I’m like, “A great start? Believe me, this is all you’re going to get today.”
Anyway, I don’t really wear jewelry, but I do sometimes wear a dog tag. I’m told it’s kind of a collector’s item, because it’s one of the rare ones that has the soldier’s next-of-kin’s name and address on it. The address is in Catlettsburg, Kentucky, where my dad was born, and the name is Belle White. She was my great-grandmother.
I didn’t come by this dog tag until early in 2016, when a guy from Australia contacted my family. He’d been to this little island off the coast of Papua New Guinea, and using his metal detector in the sand, he dug up Fred White’s dog tag. Fred White was my dad’s uncle, and he served in the army in the only U.S. battalion sent to a place called Milne Bay. Few Americans have heard of it, but all Australians have. They say down there that if they’d lost the battle that was fought at Milne Bay in 1942, the Japanese would’ve invaded the Australian mainland.
Even though he lost his dog tag, my great uncle survived the Battle of Milne Bay. But whatever happened there, he was changed. He was pretty much a non-functioning alcoholic from the time he returned until he died shortly after I was born. In fact, I had five great uncles that served in World War 2. None of them were able to function after their service. One was killed, one was blinded, and three were substance abusers.
I think of this today, because Psalm 139 makes me think of people who are far from home or under attack. Sometimes, we think, only God knows us and only God is with us. And I think the reason I make the connection between my Uncle Fred far away in New Guinea in a war that probably seemed to have nothing to do with him was something that happened somewhere else.
A friend of mine had been transferred to England for work, and I went to visit for a few days thirty years ago almost exactly. We took a couple of day trips, and one of those was to see Stone Henge. On the way back, we wanted to tour Salisbury Cathedral, but when we got there, the police wouldn’t let us past the parking lot. “There’s a concert tonight, and Sir Edward Heath is conducting, so the cathedral is closed for security reasons.”
Edward Heath was a former prime minister, so the security concerns made sense. And the concert was quite a big deal—it was to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day. So we couldn’t see the cathedral… unless we attended the concert. It was a no-brainer. And well worth the extra time and the small amount of money for admission.
The concert consisted of a little bit of everything: classical music, sacred music, and even some popular music from the 40’s. But I remember almost none of what was played… except, that is, for one piece. The cathedral choir chanted the 139th Psalm, and I’ll never forget the woman who introduced it. She was just a child during the war, and—as was the case with most children near the southern coast of England—she had been evacuated north when the German bombing began. She talked of how frightened and lonely she was. But she told of how she found comfort in the words of Psalm 139:
O Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me, the Psalm begins in the old Book of Common Prayer, thou knowest my down-sitting, and mine up-rising; thou understandest my thoughts long before. Thou art about my path, and about my bed, and spiest out all my ways [vv 1-2].
These were the words a child living with strangers needed to hear. These poor substitutes for her parents didn’t know her—maybe they didn’t even particularly care for her. But there was One who did know her. Who cared where she went and what she did, and who, when she went to bed at night, surrounded and protected her.
I was surprised once when somebody told me they didn’t like this psalm. To them, it spoke of a threatening God, watching and waiting, ready to pounce and punish. No, Psalm 139 doesn’t use the word love. But the God it speaks to and about is One of love. This God is One who cares and is present in a way no one else can be. Psalm 139 is to me the Old Testament proof of the words of Jesus when some religious teachers asked him when the Kingdom was coming.
Jesus answered, The Kingdom of God is not something you can point to and say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is.’ No, the Kingdom of God is already within you [Luke 17:21].
It means something to me that there are two places we can look to to remind me of God’s presence around us and within us. Psalm 139 assures us that a loving God pervades the space within and around us, and cares deeply about us. And in Luke 17, Jesus tells us that this new world we wait for and hope for, the time of promise when all things will be right, is already present within us. If we want to search for something better, all we need to do is look within. God is there and the promise has been fulfilled.
We come to church to know about God. But the reality is God is already with us, pervading the same space we occupy. Our prayer should be that we move from knowing about God to actually knowing God. It’s what the psalms teach us, and it’s what Jesus taught. And when we are lonely or isolated, when we are frightened or far from home, when we doubt ourselves or think we’re not good enough to be part of the family of God, let us listen once again to the Apostle Paul, who asked, What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, he answered, who is against us? [Rom. 8:31]
—©2023 Sam Greening