O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
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.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you. (Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18)
At the very end of 2014, on the second-last day of the year, I did something I never thought I would do in my life: I got a tattoo.
At first glance, it’s a little cryptic: a planet, ostensibly Earth, and the motto underneath: “That’s why I believe in you.” If I told you that it’s the logo of the MOTHER video game series, you’d probably scratch your head until I explained that Ness, the baseball-bat-wielding 13-year-old from Super Smash Bros., was the protagonist of the second MOTHER game, known in the U.S. as Earthbound. The motto itself comes from the series theme song, “Pollyanna (I Believe in You).”
At which point you’re probably thinking, “You must be a pretty big fan of these games!” Which would be true, obviously. Much as I adore the MOTHER games, however, that doesn’t explain how much my tattoo means to me. For that to make sense, you need to know that the he same day I got my tattoo, my little brother Kennedy got a tattoo of a lightning bolt with the caption, “I believe in second chances.”
Again, doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense at first – until you realize that it’s the Franklin Badge, one of the most important items in the world of MOTHER, and that the caption is also from “Pollyanna,” from the final chorus:
You may say I’m a fool
Feeling this way about you
There’s not much I can do
I’m gonna be this way my life through
‘Cos I still believe in miracles
(I swear I’ve seen a few)
And the time will surely come
When you can see my point of view
I believe in second chances
And that’s why I believe in you
Kennedy was the person who introduced me to the MOTHER games. He was also the unwitting catalyst of the existential crisis out of whose depths I heard my call to the ministry, possibly the single person most responsible (however unintentionally) for my joining the Church and going to seminary.
I believe in second chances, and that’s why I believe in you. Dork siblings, marked permanently as dork siblings, forever.
My tattoo is incomplete without my brother’s. There’s a silence that precedes the affirmation “That’s why I believe in you.” Why do I believe in you? And who do I believe in? Only when we place our arms alongside one another can you see the whole picture. That’s not something we get to do very often, seeing as how I live in California and Kennedy lives in Texas. But when I look at my tattoo, even though I may not be able to see its other half, I know that it exists. And that fact–the fact that I cared so deeply about these games and this song and my relationship with Kennedy that I had this thing engraved on my body forever–still brings me to tears on a pretty regular basis. What makes my tattoo meaningful to me is not what you can see on my upper arm, but what you can’t see.
As I meditated on the reading from Psalm 139 this week, I was also struck by what I couldn’t see there. Full disclosure: Psalm 139 might just be my favorite passage in the entire Bible. But the lectionary left out my favorite part of my favorite Psalm, verses 7-12:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
For me, this is the crux of the whole psalm right here – indeed, the crux of the whole Bible. If I were to get a Bible verse branded permanently into my flesh, it would probably be Psalm 139:12: “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for the darkness is as light to you.” Why, I wondered, does the Lectionary leave out the single most important part?
Of course, the point of the psalm is precisely this: that God is with us everywhere. Even in the midst of the deepest darkness we can imagine, even when we can’t see a way forward. Because what we can see isn’t nearly as important as what we can’t see. I don’t need to see my favorite verse in this week’s reading to know that it’s there, to remember it when I need it and repeat it to myself as a talisman against the darkness. I don’t need to be able to see Kennedy’s tattoo to know exactly why “I believe in you.” I don’t need to be able to see through the darkness to trust that there is a way through, to know with every fiber of my being that the Spirit of Love is always present. “L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux,” as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it: “Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”
So I pray this week that we might all find those psalms, those verses, those songs, those tattoos, those talismans that remind us of who we are and what we believe. That shine for us as a light in the darkness. That, even though we don’t always say them aloud, even though we can’t always see them with the eyes, are written on our hearts as indelibly as if they had been written on our arms.