Masked Mourners & Bagpipes

Across the street from our house stands an old Catholic church, its magestic steeple reaching far into the sky. From eight o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night, the church rings out the hours on bells that echo across Charlestown. During this time of year, along with the bells are old Christmas Carols – “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” are all treats for the ears during this season. The carols start at the beginning of Advent and go through Epiphany on January 7th.

It is also a church that holds a lot of funerals. Almost weekly, parking signs will appear warning us not to park across the street by the church. The unspoken message is for us to give honor to those attending the funeral by giving up our hard fought parking spaces, for it is a city, and fights landing people in jail have happened over parking spaces. Most of us willingly give up our spots, our contribution to what is already a grief-filled time for those who attend.

In recent months the most common scene at the church has been masked mourners, the most common funeral sound bagpipes, their melancholic sounds echoing through the neighborhood. It has brought me to tears more than once. Could there be an instrument more mournful? I don’t think so.

Whenever I hear the bagpipes I know that a hearse is not far behind.

Though I feel sad, I also feel hope with these funerals. People are gathering. They are mourning together. As a family that has gone through profound grief alone, postponing a memorial service for months following a death, I delight in seeing these masked mourners gather. They are bearing witness to grief and in doing so showing the strength of community.

As I think of the regular occurrence of funerals across the street, and the millions of other deaths and subsequent funerals from this past year, I think of the words of Psalm 139, a Psalm that I have been reading and rereading during these first couple of days of the New Year.

More than any other Psalm or words in scripture, this one gets to the heart of a God who knows and loves us. The words “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” are a powerful reminder that God knows the number of our days. He knows when the masked mourners and bagpipes or their equivalent will be played for each person.

But the Psalm is so much more than just knowing our days. The messages are profoundly comforting: We are seen clearly. We are known fully. We are loved extravagantly. The disconnect comes as I contemplate the truth of those three things with the way I live my life. If I really believe that I am seen clearly, known fully, and loved extravagantly, would I not rest easier? Would I not be more secure? It’s something I’ve struggled with for possibly my entire life.

The Psalmist, because he is human, seems to understand the disconnect. Indeed, he admits his own inability to understand saying that it is too much and too wonderful to understand.

Our world offers a lot of substitutes for the truths in Psalm 139, and many of them feel quite real, but the past year has shown that they are fleeting at best. Our security in health, jobs, travel, friendships, and safety is an illusion. While the “enemy” used to be something that the West thought they could keep out with high fences and strong borders, an invisible virus has broken through all of those illusions, making us servants to fear and grasping and gasping for hope.

What better time then, to lean in hard to these truths of being seen, known, and loved, for the more I lean in, the more aware I am of false substitutes and the more I find rest in God’s safety net.

All things find refreshing calm and peace when they have found their center.

Based on writings from St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain written in verse by Scott Cairns in Endless Life

Indeed I am Fearfully and Wonderfully Made


I lay flat on my back, a hospital pillow tucked under my head. The nurse has started an intravenous line in a small vein in my right hand, so skilled that I felt just a needle prick. I have a blood pressure cuff on my left arm, a pulse oximeter on my index finger, and the nodes of an electrocardiogram on my chest. I watch my heart beat through the green of a monitor – the rhythms jagged on the screen. The monitor tells all: my pulse, my blood pressure, my heart beats, the oxygen level in my system. It is the inanimate, all-knowing object in the room. It searches my body and monitors its activity, but it knows nothing of my soul.

I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Modern medicine can identify many things about the workings of my body and I am grateful. A breast lump caught early gives a woman hope she will enjoy her grandchildren, a polyp identified and taken out means a man can live to see retirement. But only One knows all the goings on in my body.

I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

The nurses and assistants are busy with tasks – I am Preparation Bay 12. “Have you gotten Preparation Bay 12 ready?” says someone who seems to be in charge. I can’t hear the reply but I know the answer because I am Preparation Bay 12. They are kind. They are efficient. But all of us in here are just a part of this day’s work. There is talk of cookies in the break room and laughter from a couple of them recalling something one of their children has done. They will not remember me after I leave today. And that’s okay. Many people enter this place every day. And all day they give of their skills to make sure we who are fearfully and wonderfully made will be well-cared for.

I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Nothing illustrates this more to me than laying here on this hospital bed. I am more than an electronic green rhythm, I am more than a heart beat, I am more than an oxygen level, I am more than a vein. And while the all-knowing monitor can tell so much, it is the creator who really knows what’s going on. The bones, the vessels, the arteries, the muscles, the tendons, the heart, the brain cells. But most of all the soul.

I lay back and sigh. The nurse comes in and tells me about the medicine that she will be giving me through the intravenous line. It will make me sleepy she says. I probably will sleep through everything and wake up in another room. The last thing I think of before I drift off is that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.*
From Psalm 139:14
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The Psalm 139 Challenge

The Psalm 139 Challenge – Fridays with Robynn
I still remember the challenge that Debby gave us: memorize Psalm 139. For four years she was my dorm mother at our small “Nestled ‘neath the great Himalayas” boarding school, and for four years the challenge remained the same: see if you can memorize Psalm 139. There must have been some sort of incentive, high school girls rarely agree without one, but I can’t remember what that was.

You see, I find myself now the age Debby was when she dared us to take on the Psalm. I’m forty-two years old and I’ve recently stumbled again in to the arms of Psalm 139.

And I love it.

It’s deeply consoling and reassuring. And I think I finally understand Debby’s deep attachment to it all those years ago.

This psalm of David speaks repeatedly of how well the Lord knows us. It doesn’t merely mention it once or twice. Oh no. The Psalmist wants us to be certain,

“Oh Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord. You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head.” Psalm 139:1-5

It’s unnerving and overwhelming, even to King David who writes in verse 6,

“Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand.” 

But he won’t let it rest,

“I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your Presence! If I go to heaven you are there. If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me. I could ask the darkness to hide me and the light around me to become night—but even in darkness I cannot hide from you. To you the night shines as bright as day. Darkness and light are the same to you.” Psalm 139:7-12

To a room full of high school girls, such a Formidable Presence of a God wasn’t necessarily what we were looking for. The All Knowing God wasn’t our ideal deity. We had secret crushes, late night clandestine rendezvous (okay, most of them were in our dreams—but every once in a while we’d actually manage one)! We had serious doubts and relentless questions. We had our cliques and our dramatic divisions. There were sins, flirtations and temptations. There were hidden tears and muffled sobs. Insecurities, rebellions, deceptions played hide and seek in our souls.

We weren’t interested in a God who truly knew us. We didn’t like Him knowing where we stood, who we sat with, what words we were thinking to use but not quite daring to.

And we certainly shirked from the Psalms great climax:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.” Psalm 139:23-24

However, we were quite happy to know the God which every graduation card and yearbook signature attested to. The God who, “(knew) the plans (He had) for (us)…plans for good and not for disaster, to give (us) a future and a hope”. The God of Jeremiah 29:11. That was a safe, promising God – a God of the Future and of a happy ending.

This other God knew too much. He knew way too much!

But now that I’m in my forties I think I understand. There seems to be a fresh round of horrors in the forties. Some of the same adolescent questions continue to haunt: Who am I? Who am I really? Where do I belong? Where am I from? Why am I here? Where am I going? What’s my purpose? For the adult Third Culture Kid our midlife crises are traced with the same old questions…only in this decade those questions seem louder and less easily silenced.

Now I read Psalm 139 and I am consoled. It’s no longer frightening to be found out—it’s comforting to let Someone else know me. When suddenly in my fifth decade I realize to my surprise that I hardly know myself—that I can’t make sense of the riffraff and noise in my head. When I can’t seem to see where duty ends and me begins—I find great joy and relief that God, who created me and formed me up—that He knows me. He understands. He gets it. All of it. Me. The hormones waxing and waning, the intentions, the dreads, the longings, the griefs, the perpetual insecurities (surely I should have outgrown those!?), the foibles, the faults. He knows me. All of me. He knows my story. Where I’ve been. Where I wish I was. Where I feel most at home.

And even more mysterious and maddening—He loves me.

Once when I was stopped at US Immigration and denied entry I tried to explain, “Can I just tell my story?” If the border guard could just hear how complex my comings and goings had been, I reasoned, surely then he’d have pity on me and allow me to enter. Imagine my pain when he gruffly replied, “I don’t care about your story!”

The God of Psalm 139 knew me. In fact He knew my whole story and He loves me.

And I realize something about Debby’s challenge—it wasn’t so much to us as it was to herself. And it wasn’t really about memorizing Psalm 139. It was about knowing the God of Psalm 139 and the sweet, sweet reality and relief of being truly and finally known by Him.

Debby, I finally get it. And even more amazing, He gets me!

Missing Puzzle Piece

We’ve put together puzzles this summer. White Mountain Puzzle Company has puzzles full of detail and information. You can buy puzzles on the Civil War, the American presidents, Biblical events, pop culture, the fifties or many other topics you could name. Once you have done a White Mountain puzzle all others feel like they are average, you’ve completed the best! They are more than fun to put together because there is a clear pattern to follow and minute by minute you feel you are accomplishing something that goes toward the bigger picture. Sometimes it’s three o’clock in the afternoon when the puzzle is finished, but more likely it’s three in the morning, as you realize you are unable to sleep until, with a final hurrah and fight to put in the last piece, you get that last section finished.

Occasionally there is that worst of all nightmares – a missing piece. All that work and time only to find the crucial edge piece is missing. Or that piece with the bit of writing on the right, the blue of the sky on the left and a brown building in the middle. The picture is incomplete. There is a piece missing.

There are times when I feel like a puzzle is being put together somewhere else in the world, and I am the missing piece. I have been absconded by some amateur puzzle maker and am being forced to fit into a puzzle in the United States. I look like the piece and I have a similar shape but if you look closely you’ll see that the person putting together the puzzle squished me in, distorting me in the process and with that inadvertently distorting some of the other pieces as well.

On this Wednesday morning I want my piece to be rerouted to the puzzle where I fit, where I can take my place among the other puzzle pieces and feel like I am part of a bigger picture.  My sister-in-law would wisely tell me at this point to go back and read my blog posts – “The one on the sovereignty of God” she might suggest “Or how about that one you wrote recently ‘It’s Not Your Story‘”?

Today I want to wallow in my wish to be in a different puzzle, completing another picture. I want my puzzle piece to fit into a puzzle of the Middle East or Pakistan, Istanbul or London. I don’t want to be part of the puzzle of the Boston Common and Washington Street, where the Borders bookstore is closing and I stopped going to my coffee shop because they are so grumpy. I want to stop pretending I feel normal in this puzzle and wiggle my way out, make my way to the puzzle and picture where I belong.

I’ll get over this – I always do. I will realize that accusing God of being an amateur puzzle maker and putting me into a puzzle where I don’t belong is neither mature nor beneficial and that wallowing is primarily for little piggies that don’t know better.

And even as I write those words I am acutely aware of Psalm 139 and the words “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be”