I Kings 5:1-5 & I Kings 8:1-13 "God's Presence"
This is what cool cats and kittens call a viral sensation…not the pandemic respiratory kind, but the germ of a song mixed with personal testimony that takes off spreading faster than a spark in wind swept tinder.
Night Birde is the name she’s adopted. Her story is that of a singer who left school, got married, chased her dreams, ascendant…and along the way discovered cancer in her breasts that metastasized to her lungs, spine and liver almost overnight.
Her partner came to the realization that this isn’t what he signed up for. He left her to navigate this wilderness alone. She moved to California, to a new set of doctors and maybe a last shot at her musical dream, at the very least…to make it to 31.
Here is a longish piece that she authored during the pandemic.
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I don’t remember most of Autumn, because I lost my mind late in the summer and for a long time after that, I wasn’t in my body. I was a lightbulb buzzing somewhere far.
After the doctor told me I was dying, and after the man I married said he didn’t love me anymore, I chased a miracle in California and sixteen weeks later, I got it. The cancer was gone. But when my brain caught up with it all, something broke. I later found out that all the tragedy at once had caused a physical head trauma, and my brain was sending false signals of excruciating pain and panic.
I spent three months propped against the wall. On nights that I could not sleep, I laid in the tub like an insect, staring at my reflection in the shower knob. I vomited until I was hollow. I rolled up under my robe on the tile. The bathroom floor became my place to hide, where I could scream and be ugly; where I could sob and spit and eventually doze off, happy to be asleep, even with my head on the toilet.
I have had cancer three times now, and I have barely passed thirty. There are times when I wonder what I must have done to deserve such a story. I fear sometimes that when I die and meet with God, that He will say I disappointed Him, or offended Him, or failed Him. Maybe He’ll say I just never learned the lesson, or that I wasn’t grateful enough. But one thing I know for sure is this: He can never say that He did not know me.
I am God’s downstairs neighbor, banging on the ceiling with a broomstick. I show up at His door every day. Sometimes with songs, sometimes with curses. Sometimes apologies, gifts, questions, demands. Sometimes I use my key under the mat to let myself in. Other times, I sulk outside until He opens the door to me Himself.
I have called Him a cheat and a liar, and I meant it. I have told Him I wanted to die, and I meant it. Tears have become the only prayer I know. Prayers roll over my nostrils and drip down my forearms. They fall to the ground as I reach for Him. These are the prayers I repeat night and day; sunrise, sunset.
Call me bitter if you want to—that’s fair. Count me among the angry, the cynical, the offended, the hardened. But count me also among the friends of God. For I have seen Him in rare form. I have felt His exhale, laid in His shadow, squinted to read the message He wrote for me in the grout: “I’m sad too.”
If an explanation would help, He would write me one—I know it. But maybe an explanation would only start an argument between us—and I don’t want to argue with God. I want to lay in a hammock with Him and trace the veins in His arms.
I remind myself that I’m praying to the God who let the Israelites stay lost for decades. They begged to arrive in the Promised Land, but instead He let them wander, answering prayers they didn’t pray. For forty years, their shoes didn’t wear out. Fire lit their path each night. Every morning, He sent them mercy-bread from heaven.
I look hard for the answers to the prayers that I didn’t pray. I look for the mercy-bread that He promised to bake fresh for me each morning. The Israelites called it manna, which means “what is it?”
That’s the same question I’m asking—again, and again. There’s mercy here somewhere—but what is it? What is it? What is it?
I see mercy in the dusty sunlight that outlines the trees, in my mother’s crooked hands, in the blanket my friend left for me, in the harmony of the wind chimes. It’s not the mercy that I asked for, but it is mercy nonetheless. And I learn a new prayer: thank you. It’s a prayer I don’t mean yet, but will repeat until I do.
Call me cursed, call me lost, call me scorned. But that’s not all. Call me chosen, blessed, sought-after. Call me the one who God whispers his secrets to. I am the one whose belly is filled with loaves of mercy that were hidden for me.
Even on days when I’m not so sick, sometimes I go lay on the mat in the afternoon light to listen for Him. I know it sounds crazy, and I can’t really explain it, but God is in there—even now. I have heard it said that some people can’t see God because they won’t look low enough, and it’s true.
If you can’t see him, look lower. God is on the bathroom floor.
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As our author reminded us in rich pathos.
The Israelites had wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, their sandals never wearing out. God was with them, even if they couldn’t see it most of the time. There was a hidden mercy. On more than one occasion there was an unambiguous sign of God’s presence among his people…a pillar of cloud.
The people were instructed by God, through Moses, to pack up their things and follow the cloud by day, and pillar of fire by night. When it would come to a stop. The people would set up camp. When they finished setting up the portable house of worship that was the tabernacle, the pillar of cloud would funnel down into the Holy of Holies. Some say you could see the covering of the tent expand and contract like a pair of lungs.
When the Israelites finally made it into the promised land, the Tabernacle moved around a lot less, and the head down routines, the cares of this world…the people were numbed to the presence of God in their midst.
But we can fix that! A building project has a way of focusing diverse energies and concerns on a common center.
Let’s convert this tent into a stone temple. A house for God…
We deserve something Graaan…I mean, God, deserves a proper building, worthy of respect and admiration?!?!? Something people will see from a distance and have no doubt, God is with us!
A creature comfort indeed, we try to construct walls to guard our own sense of security.
What does God think of all this? I mean for more than four decades God seemed content to be on the move, with God’s people. The accommodations were never a source of complaint.
God never said, “Hey babe, now that you’re all settled. I think I’m gonna sleep in my own bed tonight. I’ll catch up with you tomorrow, we’ll do brunch”
We’re told in scripture that David desired to build God a house, but was told he could not because their was too much blood on his hands…He was also reminded that God was not in need of a house, he would rather build David a house…and someone would sit on his throne forever.
In today’s scripture, David’s son Solomon seeks to complete the unfinished task.
The world is large, and dangerous, threats come from every angle: to the economy, neighbors vying for land, We think marriage is challenging….imagine having 400 wives and 600 concubines. In a world with those kind of pressures, as responsible, accountable people, we want to believe that we can construct an ecosystem around us that reflects our values, communicates our desires, and accomplishes our will.
This even applies to the Almighty. We set about to fix The Creator of the Universe... a place. Doesn’t that just sound ridiculous on its face? And yet God still throws on a feather boa and costume jewelry when we play tea party.
The sign of God’s presence today. The temple is completed, the only thing left is for God to move in and check out the new digs. Solomon gathers the elders of Israel, the priest and levites, the barbecue is all gassed up and ready to go. And we look up. Our gaze ascends…to big buildings, towering columns and spires reaching like hands of prayer heavenward…But the movement of God….condescending
God moves down….like a pillar of cloud descending in darkness, in a fog. Down in the dirt of life.
In the fullness of time, long past many cycles where we build our hopes and dreams upward in glory only to have them dashed to pieces…by our own hubris, carelessness or inability. God comes to us in a manger, where even the animals bend low to feed.
But he will grow in stature before God and people….he’ll grow up, gather disciples, and one day he’ll stroll into city center….when that day comes, look out Rome, Look out you false leaders of Israel, our God is a warrior, and he’s coming for his rightful throne…but that’s not what happens at all. No God descends even further into the thick darkness that is death. He takes on our condition, giving himself over completely.
Our God doesn’t conquer with the sword or the semi-automatic rifle of our day…no need to gaze upward, for even when he is high and lifted up…his arms are spread in love on the hard wood of the cross…NO, our gaze is directed downward…our God is found in a garden tomb.
What we’ve always wanted, what we really needed, was just to know God’s presence. Like a mother who bends low to inspect the splinter you got on the playground.
Like a father who gets his hands dirty because the chain has come off your bike.
Or that time, he dug the hole and helped you bury your first hamster. You were just glad there was someone there with you as the lot of you shrink before the mystery of death.
God has promised us his presence, but we struggle to discern his place. We fall back on old patterns and assumptions…we gaze upward and shout “Where are you? Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down here!” Forgetting that he already has…His messengers reminding his followers, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
A man in his congregation asked “but why do the innocent suffer? Nobody has ever answered that for me in any kind of satisfactory way”
If you’re asking it about someone else, as a hypothetical or just trying to preemptively solve the problem for when it comes your turn…it will never make adequate sense. All I CAN say is that when you suffer, God has a way of showing up.
A friend of mine had a son, he was a troubled kid, my friend did everything in his power to help his son shake free from his addiction. One week, he put everything on hold at work, they planned a hunting trip, to spend some uninterrupted time together just the two of them. He came into his sons room at 6:00am to start their adventure, only to find his son had killed himself.
“I felt like I was in a cave of grief that I couldn’t get out of”, he said I could see the mouth of the cave. I could see people outside in the sunshine, laughing, living their lives. All I wanted to do was go out of the cave and to go where they were, and I was like “where is God, where is Jesus?!?!”
And finally realized….where Jesus was….he was behind me.
I had to turn into the cave, and look into the darkness, into the pain, because that’s where Jesus was. He was behind me, he was with me.
I HATE THIS Story. I wish it wasn’t true. I wish it wasn’t true that Jesus shows up most powerfully in our pain, in the place of surrender where we’ve given up pretense and collapsed on the bathroom floor searching for secret messages in the grout.
Grief is often this place where are heart is broken, and always will be to some degree…a place our fear tells us we will never escape. Profound suffering changes you
In a way you wish you never had to go through and at the same time, it’s a gift.
It can be the place we understand for the first time, that God didn’t promise to meet us in buildings, in glory, reaching up…but in the flesh of his son. “That unreachable power came down and put on limbs that could be touched so that the needy could approach Him and, embracing His humanity, become aware of His divinity” - Ephrem the Syrian, 4th Cent. AD
When Jesus was asked what sign he would give: 19 [He] answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken." - John 2:19-22
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.