“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.’”
So begins The Runaway Bunny, which was once a regular part of the bedtime ritual at our house. The little bunny in Margaret Wise’s classic children’s story is determined to find a way to escape from home.
But no matter where he goes, his mother is always there.
If the little bunny becomes a rock, high on a mountain, his mother becomes a mountain climber and finds him. If he becomes a flower, she is the gardener. If he is a bird, she is the tree that he comes home to. If he is a sailboat, she is the wind, blowing him to safety.
After imagining exotic escapes, the little bunny offers this last try at running away. “I will become a little boy and run into a house,” he says.
“And I will become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you,” the mother bunny replies.
The little bunny finally admits defeat.
“Shucks,” he says. “I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.” And so he does.
Margaret Wise Brown died more than 65 years ago, so we cannot ask her what influenced her writing The Runaway Bunny. Bu t the first time I read it, and each of the dozens of times I reread it, I was reminded of the psalm we read today.
“Lord, you have searched me out and known me…” it begins.
“You trace my journeys and my resting places and are acquainted with all my ways.
“You press upon me behind and before and lay your hand upon me.
“Where can I go then from your Spirit?
“Where can I flee from your presence?
“If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
“If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me.”
Just as a certain young boy once took comfort in sitting in my lap and hearing the story of the bunny who never escapes his mother’s protective care and love, so I take comfort in this psalm that reminds us that there is no place where God is not present.
The psalm also reminds us that God is more than just present; God actively pursues us and takes time to truly know us.
“You know my sitting down and my rising up,” the psalmist writes. “You discern my thoughts from afar.
“Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, but you, O Lord, know it altogether.”
This truly is a God “from whom no secrets are hid,” a God who cuts through all our pretenses and deceptions to see our true character.
Psalm 139 reminds us that we are completely surrounded by God and held in God’s firm grasp. Indeed, our lives are saturated with God. There is no escaping God’s presence.
This psalm has always been my favorite. So it surprised me to discover that a theologian I greatly respect, Paul Tillich, has a very different perspective on it.
For Tillich, this inescapable presence of God is not always a comforting thought.
“There is no place to which we can flee from God which is outside of God,” Tillich writes about this psalm. “But the poet who wrote these words to describe the futile attempt of humans to escape God certainly believed that humans desire to escape God.”
Just as there once was a little bunny who wanted to run away, there are times when humans want to escape, want to be someplace where God is not, where God doesn’t search out and discern our every thought.
I came across an article by a woman whose young son hated The Runaway Bunny.
“Why doesn’t the mommy let the bunny do what he wants to do?” the little boy demanded.
He referred to the book as Run Away, Bunny! When his mother read it to him, he would devise escape routes for the rabbit, assisting the little bunny in his quest for freedom.
Most of us at some point in our lives can relate to that desire to escape, and in those times the words, “Lord, you have searched me out and known me” may seem more like torment than comfort.
“Who can stand to be known so thoroughly even in the darkest corners of his soul?” Tillich asks. “Who does not want to escape such a witness, a God who know all that we are and all that we do?
“Who does not hate a companion who is always present on every road and in every place of rest? Who does not want to break through the prison of such a perpetual companionship?
“God stands on each side of us, before and behind us,” the theologian says. “There is no way out.”
Surely to be fully known is to be completely vulnerable, a condition that is not always comfortable. Tillich’s points are well taken, but theologians don’t know everything.
Psalm 139 still strikes me as some of the most comforting words of scripture.
That’s because the God who searches us out and knows us so completely is a God motivated by love, not anger or judgment.
This is the God who always repents of divine anger; this is the God who remembers promises and forgets offenses, whose anger is never forever, but whose love always is.
The God described in this psalm is not like a Santa Clause who “sees us when we’re sleeping, who knows when we’re awake,” checking to see whether we are bad or good.
Psalm 139 is not a warning that we “better watch out.”
This psalm is a reassurance that God knows us completely – and loves us anyway. This is the great truth of good and simple faith that sometimes even great theologians need to remember – that God is always with us and for us, no matter how dire the circumstances of our lives may be.
God is there in comfort and sorrow – in earthquakes and hurricanes, in the caravan of refugees seeking a new and better life, in the nursing home where an elderly person dies alone, in prisons and hospitals, in times and places of great joy and great despair.
There is no escaping God.
God pursues us when we run, finds us when we hide, and stays with us in any and all times. We are never alone – runaway bunnies or runaway believers.
“If I climb up to heave, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
“If I take the wings of morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
“Even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast.”