LORD, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.
You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.
Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, but you, O LORD, know it altogether.
You press upon me behind and before and lay your hand upon me.
Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, “I am running away.” “If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”
Where can I go then from your Spirit? where can I flee from your presence?
“If you run after me,” said the little bunny, “I will become a fish in a trout stream, and I will swim away from you.” “If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother, “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”
If I climb up to heaven, you are there. If I make the grave my bed, you are there also….
“If you become a fisherman,” said the little bunny, “I will become a rock on the mountain, high above you.” “If you become a rock on the mountain high above me,” said his mother, “I will be a mountain climber, and I will climb to where you are.”
Margaret Wise Brown published The Runaway Bunny in 1942. How many people here heard that book in their childhood, or read it to kids in their family? … How many of you really love it? …. How many of you find it deeply unsettling? …
I haven’t been able to discover, with some casual poking around, whether Brown was intentionally riffing on Psalm 139 or not. (If you’d like to look at the Prayer book version of the Psalm, instead of the verse setting we sang, it’s on page 794.) Regardless of whether Brown intended it or not, the parallel is there. Not just the superficial similarity of content – but Brown nails the emotional ambivalence of being loved so relentlessly. There’s just no other word for it. Relentless.
Some people who find the book – and the Psalm – unsettling do so because it’s grounded in parent images, and their experience of parenting has not been so great. Maybe they were parented by someone whose love was conditional, intermittent, or who didn’t have a lot of capacity for love at all, in which case these images of relentless love may simply feel unrealistic at a deep level. Maybe they were parented by someone whose love was controlling or manipulative, in which case these images of relentless love might feel realistic in the worst possible way. People whose experiences of human parenting have been deeply flawed or damaging may find more solace and hope in other ways to imagine God, of which there are many.
But God as the persistent Mama Bunny is emotionally ambivalent even for people like me, who have been loved well by their parents and first family. Accept the premise that the Parent in storybook and psalm is a good parent, who knows and loves the child deeply and desires the child’s wellbeing. This is still a complicated little story.
The child – the bunny and the Psalmist – wants to run away. Seeks distance, space, freedom, autonomy. And the Parent – God, our Mama Bunny – says, Fine. Run. Go where you need to go, do what you need to do. But I’ll be there when you stop running.
The line between reassurance and threat is – very unclear. Our prayer book Psalter renders verse 4 of the Psalm this way: “You press upon me behind and before.” That verb in Hebrew is “besiege.” Like someone surrounding a city to conquer it. You besiege me on all sides, God. No wonder the Psalmist goes on to say, How can I run away from you? Where can I go to escape this Presence, this scrutiny? …
I know that feeling, the hot prickly tight feeling of the push-pull between attachment and autonomy. I think everyone who’s been either a child or a parent knows that feeling. The feeling when you run to your room and slam the door, and sit in there alternately hating your parents and hoping they’ll come check on you. The feeling when your child runs to their room and slams the door, and you stand there letting your blood pressure come down, remembering to breathe, remembering that the reason that little monster can make you so angry is because you love them so freaking much. And eventually, once you can trust yourself, once you’ve found one true, kind thing to say, you go knock on their door, and ask if you can come in.
It’s hard to know someone that well, as well as you know your child. Your parent. Your spouse. Your sibling or best friend. It hurts to know and love someone deeply, and see them struggling – dealing with hardship, or making lousy choices.
It hurts to know someone so well that you understand exactly why something is so hard for her, exactly why he’s making that particular lousy choice. And yet your love and your understanding can’t always save or spare them. The poignancy, the pathos of those moments, when we’re swamped with pity and fear and even anger for someone we love so much, and cannot save from themselves – that poignancy and pathos is one of our purest glimpses into the heart of God. Who knows each of us that well. Who loves each of us that much.
Being deeply known and deeply loved is a huge blessing, compared to any alternative. But it can feel stifling or overwhelming at times. That’s simply a human truth – and the source of the impulse to escape, in both storybook and psalm. And yet even in the frustration, the door slamming, the running away, there is deep trust. That’s why we can afford to struggle, to push away, to shout anger and defiance. Because we know that parent, that friend, will still love us afterwards. We know there is something unbreakable there. Something steadfast. Something, yes, relentless.
Bunny and Psalmist both come to some resolution. The Psalmist lands at awe and gratitude, towards a God who knew him even when he was being formed in the womb, who numbered his days before his life began. The bunny ends at resignation, at acceptance: Aw, shucks. The dialogue between mother and child seems to defuse whatever conflict sparked the child’s initial desire to run away. Mother and child are reconciled, and carrots are shared, because the mother’s love was bigger than the child’s anger.
This morning we will baptize baby B, naming her as a member of God’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, and affirming her as a child of God. B is blessed with a human family that loves her deeply, with parents and brothers and a sister who will always have her back, who will honor her growth and need for self-determination, even as they continue hold her in safety and steadfast love. I hope the church will be another such family for her, and for all the children growing up among us.
But human families and human love are finite and imperfect. Sometimes parents aren’t equipped to love the way a child needs. Sometimes children run farther than a parent can reach. Sometimes a person goes through a season in life in which it feels like there’s no person that can give them that fierce, trustworthy, unbreakable love we all need.
But there is a Love that we will never wear out, never outrun, never outlive. There is a Love that will be the wind that blows us where we need to go, the tree that we fly home to. There’s a Love that is beside us in our darkest nights, that goes before us even into the depths of the grave. That is the Love in whose name we name B today, the Love that will encompass her growing, seeking, and striving, all the days of her life.