“You have searched me and known me…such knowledge is too wonderful for me!”
from Psalm 139
Years ago, on a trip to Washington D.C., I visited the Air and Space Museum, where I saw the award-winning film “Powers of Ten” by Charles and Ray Eames. It began by focusing on the arm of a man sleeping on his stomach on a sandy Miami beach. The narrator announced that, beginning from this point, we were going on a journey that would take us into outer space. The camera began to travel away from his arm, higher and higher above him. For every 10 seconds, the boundaries of our vision were to be multiplied exponentially by 10. As the scope of our vision rapidly broadened, we could see the streets of Miami, the terrain of Florida, the familiar shape of North America, then the entire planet Earth. Once in space we traveled past the planets of our solar system one by one, and then we entered into a deep dark space. It was many seconds before we reached the nearest star, Alpha Centauri. From there, moving much faster, we left our galaxy and entered into the deep space from which our entire galaxy could be viewed. Time halted, speed accelerated. There was dense blackness, except for the light from the Milky Way.
I have since learned The Milky Way is but 1 of roughly 1 trillion galaxies in the universe. Galaxies are to astronomy what atoms are to physics. There are 20 galaxies in the group which includes our Milky Way. After galaxies, there are groups, after groups there are clusters, after clusters there are superclusters. The nearest cluster in our supercluster is called Virgo, 50 million light years away. To get a feel for the distance of one light year, if you drove your car at 55 miles an hour, it would take you 12.2 million years to travel just 1 light year. Astronomers estimate that the distance across the universe is more than 40 billion light years and that there are roughly 100 billion trillion stars. My mind cannot even begin to grasp this great distance–infinity. But back to the film…
From that distant point in the universe, in ever-increasing speed, we began the return to our galaxy, moving past the stars into our solar system, past the planets one by one, back to the earth, North America, Florida, Miami, and the back of the arm of the man sleeping on his stomach on a sandy beach. But then the narrator announced something I did not expect–that the journey would continue into inner space. For every 10 seconds of travel, the scope of the camera was to be divided and magnified by 10. As the boundaries of our vision narrowed, we entered the skin of his arm, a single cell of his skin, a single molecule of that skin cell, then the atoms in the molecule, then just one atom. Into the atom we traveled, passing its electrons in energetic motion. After this, within ever-decreasing boundaries, we entered into a long, deep, dark space. It was many seconds before we reached the nucleus of the atom. Then, within the atom, we journeyed into the frenzied activity of the protons and neutrons.
I was amazed to see all this energetic activity underway deep within one atom of one molecule of a man sleeping on a beach. I have since learned that 1.8 meters of DNA are folded into each cell nucleus. A nucleus is only 6 microns long. This is like putting 30 miles of fishing line into a cherry pit. And it isn’t stuffed in, but folded neatly in. If folded in one certain way it becomes a skin cell. If folded another certain way, it becomes a liver cell. To write out the information in one cell would take 300 volumes, each volume 500 pages thick. The human body contains enough DNA that if it were stretched out, it would circle the sun 260 times. DNA molecules have almost limitless potential in the manner in which they combine to make the person you are: the number is 10 to the 2 trillionth/400 millionth power. That number is the likelihood that there could ever be another person exactly like you. If you were to write out that number, with each zero being one inch wide, you would need a strip of paper 37,000 miles long.
What this means is that there has never been and never will be anyone exactly like you. Your brain care store 100 trillion facts. Your mind can handle 15,000 decisions a second, your nose can smell up to 10,000 different odors, your touch can detect an item 1/25,000 of an inch thick. Your heart never sleeps; it pumps over 1000 gallons of blood a day, over 55 million gallons in a lifetime, enough to fill 13 supertankers. Your lungs never sleep, working day and night to exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide in a process so complex that “it is more difficult to exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide than for a man shot out of a cannon to carve the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin as he passes by.” Incredible. My mind can hardly grasp it. But back to the film.
Once again the camera reversed its path, its focus ever-widening, as we journeyed out of the atom, out of the molecule, the cell, and finally to the back of the man sleeping in the sand on a beach in Miami. The two journeys—one into outer space and one into inner space were remarkably similar in both appearance and length. I walked out of that little theatre years ago as a changed person. It was a religious experience for me, not only because of the marvelous wonders of outer space and inner space, but the similarity! Never before had I seen these two parallel worlds juxtaposed, nor did I knowI had such a cosmos within!
Never before had I thought of infinity in quite this way. Yes, I believed that infinity extended far beyond me into forever reaches of a limitless cosmos. I got that part. But never before had I imagined that there was such a journey to be taken within me. You. Of course, it makes sense: for infinity to be infinity it must proceed in every direction! There is a journey to be taken not only to the moon and to Mars and Alpha Centauri, but a journey to be taken deep within to my heart of hearts. And as a person of faith I could not help but marvel that the same God who created the sun, the moon, the stars, the galaxies, the limitless cosmos, has created this fathomless cosmos deep within.
And the words of King David and his 139th Psalm, came to my mind, “I praise thee, O God, for I am wonderfully, fearfully made! How precious to me are thy thoughts, O God! If I would count them, they are more than the sand! Wonderful are thy works! Such knowledge is too wonderful for me!”
David was no scientist. He lived 1000’s of years ago in a pre-scientific world. Even so, how keen was his insight! He marveled not only at the creation of the world, all that was above him and beyond him, but at the creation of himself and all that was within him. He may not have known a thing about Alpha Centauri, but he marveled that the same God who had flung the stars into the spangled heavens had formed him, his body, his organs, his inward being. He may not have known a thing about miles of DNA neatly folded into each molecule, yet he knew somehow that God had carefully, painstakingly brought him into being within his own mother’s womb. “Thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
I love that image. Knitting. I don’t knit, but I do crochet. The two crafts are similar in that you go one stitch at a time. Each stitch is handled, seen, touched, with care. If you drop a stitch, you must go back, pick it up. At the end of row, you stop, you study, you count, you admire, you continue, stitch by stitch, each one held in your fingers, row by row. To think that God has knitted me stitch by stitch, molecule by molecule, to be the unrepeatable, infinitely unique person I am blows my mind. It blew David’s mind. “Thou knowest me right well! Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up. Thou discernest my thoughts, searchest out my path, my lying down, all my ways, even before a word is on my tongue, oh Lord, thou knowest it all together.”
What an incredible breakthrough a poem Psalm 139 represented at the time it was written– in a world in which most people worshiped idols, trinkets, talismans, amulets, images carved of wood or stone. You hold them your hand. You put them on a stand. You recite repetitious formulas and incantations. In the midst of that kind of magic, sorcery, and superstition, there was born the faith of Israel, faith in a God who cannot be made, but who, on the contrary, is the author of all that was, is, or ever shall be. Faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Jesus, and you and me, who knows us by name. There is no place so far, so high, so distant that God is not already there. No place so low you can stumble and fall that his arms cannot reach to catch, to carry. He knows us by name, he knows you and me, molecule by molecule, stitch by stitch, your neatly folded DNA. Is there anything in your life of which God is not aware? Is there anything so small that God does not care about? Is there anything we can hide from a God like this? No, this is a One who is intimately, intricately involved in all your stuff!
There are those who say God is too big, too important, too preoccupied, too distracted to think about you and your trivial problems, too big to be small! But Psalm 139 lets us know that everything God is out there, God is also within. The same eternal hand of infinite love that reaches outward to the limitless edges of the cosmos, reaches inward to the depths of my DNA. I believe what David believed: that God knows us—every square inch of us, better than we know ourselves! And yet, knowing all he knows– the good, the bad, and the ugly–still he loves us with an everlasting love. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me!
Some day, some very outgoing, zealous Christian is going to ask you, “Do you have personal relationship with God?” I hope you will say, as I always do, “No, I have a deeply personal relationship with God!” For the One who made you, the One from whom you come, the One to whom you go, the One in whom you live and move and have your being, loves every square inch of you with a love that is from everlasting to everlasting!