Magazine article The Christian Century

One Psalm, Two Causes and Two Meanings

Magazine article The Christian Century

One Psalm, Two Causes and Two Meanings

Article excerpt

Saralee Howard remembers the woman who walked into the Shared Pregnancy Women's Center in Lansing, Michigan, last year and asked for an ultrasound even though she was leaning toward an abortion.

Howard sat with her during the ultrasound, and together they listened to the fetal heartbeat. When the woman identified herself as Christian, Howard talked about "God valuing this precious unborn child made in his image." The woman, with little money and two children, said she thought God would understand her decision.

As the woman stood to leave, Howard slipped her a Bible bookmarked to a prayer that sings of God's prenatal involvement in the swelling rhythms of sacred poetry: "For it was you who formed my inward parts," it read, "You knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made."

The next day the woman canceled her abortion.

Rebecca Voelkel, a minister who coordinates religious programs for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, recalls a gay pride parade some years ago where she noticed a simple white poster bearing only the words "FEARFULLY AND WONDERFULLY MADE." She smiled at the public display of a phrase that had, privately, played a huge role in her own coming out.

Howard is ardently antiabortion and believes that active homosexuality is a sin, if no worse than many other sins. Voelkel, meanwhile, supports abortion rights and is an out lesbian. But the women were citing the same verses from Psalm 139.

For decades, Psalm 139 has been a byword of the antiabortion movement, printed on posters in crisis pregnancy centers. More recently, it's been tied to the use of high-resolution ultrasounds, the movement's most potent technological persuader.

At the same time, the psalm has also emerged as a source of strength for gay and lesbian Christians. The two uses illustrate how a Bible verse can attract diverse constituencies.


All the Psalms assume intimacy with God, in petition, complaint or praise: it is why the Psalms remain one of the Bible's most indispensable and beloved books. Psalm 139 portrays that intimacy in precise yet lyrical detail.

It probably started as a kernel of a legal oath of innocence--an ancient Hebrew version of "As God is my witness"--and blossomed into a hymn to God's nearness to believers, wherever they roam.

"You know me when I sit down and when I rise up. I ascend to heaven, you are there," it declares. "If I make my bed in Sheol [hell] you are there. If I ... settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall hold me fast."

It would be affirmation enough if it ended right there. But instead, Psalm 139 extends God's familiarity backward in time--into the womb, with the stanza culminating in the clause, "I am fearfully and wonderfully made."

The womb verses arrived in the antiabortion discourse in the late 1970s, along with vocal conservative Protestants. Sermons on Psalm 139 helped establish a biblical antiabortion bridge between scripture-minded evangelicals and Roman Catholics who are motivated by official church teaching.

When crisis pregnancy clinics appeared in commercial districts to compete with abortion clinics, the psalm came too: often as calligraphy, on a poster over a photo of a fetus floating in a soft red fight, and in counseling sessions.

Bob Foust, a longtime pregnancy center activist from Alabama, calls the verses "foundational to my life. …

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