Via Negativa: The Hunger Games / Hunger for Absence

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.

The Glory of GOD filled The Dwelling. (Exodus 40:34-38)
Do not worry about your life. (Luke 12:22-31)
Praise God for these two insomnias. (Rumi)

Our song this morning comes from singer and songwriter Cyndi Lauper. Born in 1953 in Queens, New York, she burst onto the music scene in 1983 with her debut album “She’s So Unusual.” Since then she’s sold some 50 million records worldwide and was ranked No. 58 of the 100 Greatest Women of Rock & Roll by VH1. This song was a hit from that first album. Time After Time spent two weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1984. Let’s try it:

Lying in my bed I hear the clock tick, and think of you
Caught up in circles confusion, is nothing new
Flashback warm nights; almost left behind
Suitcase of memories, time after . .
Sometimes you picture me, I’m walking too far ahead
You’re calling to me, I can’t hear, what you’ve said
Then you say go slow; I fall behind
The second hand unwinds
If you’re lost you can look and you will find me; time after time
If you fall I will catch you I’ll be waiting; time after time
If you’re lost you can look and you will find me; time after time
If you fall I will catch you I will be waiting; time after time

All I remember about that day was the panic – and the one thought in my head: “Where is she?”

I was frantically searching up and down each aisle in the store – waiting for that moment of relief when I would spot her and my fear could subside. It never came. Each aisle revealed only strangers.

“Mom!” I yelled down each aisle. “Where are you?”

No response, only puzzled stares from women who were not my mother. My panic grew, my breathe grew short. I was only 8-years-old, and now I was an orphan. My mother seemed gone forever. Then, it came to me – my mother’s voice in my head, “If you ever get lost, go to the customer service desk and have them page me and I’ll find you.”

I ran as fast as I could to the customer service desk. Through my panicked tears, I managed to tell the lady that I had lost my mom. She calmed me down and made the page: “Norma Chellew, your daughter is waiting for you at the customer service desk.”

It seemed like an eternity, but my mother eventually appeared around the corner. I rushed into her arms, relieved beyond belief to see her, not caring about the scolding that was to come – the stern reminder to never wander away again. For that moment my security – my very soul – had been restored. I was home in the arms of my loving mother.

During that lost time all I could think about was my deep hunger to be back in the presence of my mother. It was a dull ache, tinged with fear and panic. It was a hunger to back in a familiar place, back in a place that I knew intimately, a place that was comfortable and safe.

This is what we all hunger for – a presence in our lives that makes us feel safe, loved, content and protected from all harm. As children this presence is often our parents, or some other person who loves us and looks after our needs and wants.

As we grow, that presence that makes us feel safe and secure may become a spouse, or a partner, a friend, or relative – it could even be a beloved pet that we depend on for feelings of love and safety.

In our spiritual lives, we’re taught that God is always with us. The apostle Paul even assures us in Romans 8:38-39 that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love – not even death. Or, as Rumi so beautifully puts it:

“When I am with you, we stay up all night.
When you are not here, I can’t go to sleep.
Praise God for these two insomnias.
And the difference between the two.”

When God is present it is like a lover who excites our soul so much we don’t dare sleep because we may miss a moment of wakefulness with them. Ah, but when that love leaves, we are restless until they come back, unable to sleep because we may miss that wonderful return. Praise God for these two insomnias – and the difference between the two.

The first insomnia is one of excitement at being with the one love so dearly, the second is, of course, the insomnia of panic – the feeling of searching each aisle in the hope of catching just a glimpse of your beloved – and the crushing terror when you do not find them. We long for that relationship to be restored, so our soul can once again bask in the excitement of our loved one’s presence.

When we think of how God restores our soul, we may immediately think about God’s presence in our lives. We may reflect on those times that we truly felt God with us, holding us like a mother, standing beside us like a friend, working in, through and around us like a Creator. But, could it be that the times when God truly restores our soul is during times when we feel the crushing panic of God’s absence?

After my picture fades and darkness has, turned to gray
Watching through windows you’re wondering, if I’m OK Secrets stolen from deep inside; the drum beats out of time If you’re lost you can look and you will find me; time after time If you fall I will catch you I’ll be waiting; time after time

In our reading from the Hebrew scriptures, the book of Exodus describes the Tent of Meeting where God dwelled with the Israelites as they traveled. When God’s presence descended on the temple, no one could enter. The Israelites had to stay wherever they were until the cloud of God’s presence lifted. God’s presence meant that the Israelites were stuck. They could not make any progress on their journey while God occupied the Tent of Meeting.

If our lives are God’s temple, then God works in exactly the same way. When the presence of God fills us, it’s wonderful. When we are feeling God with us, we are happy, joyful, full of peace and love. However, we are like the Israelites. We cannot continue on our journey until we feel that absence of God.

Think back to the last time you felt God’s absence in your life. How did you feel? Restless? Panicked? Joyless? Afraid? Ready to make a change? Ready to do anything to get that feeling of God’s presence back? It is in that feeling of God’s absence, that dark night of the soul, that we make our most progress along our spiritual journey.

It was during my time lost from my mother that my faith was tested. My mother had taught me how to live if I ever found myself absent from her presence. Go to safety. Find someone who can help you. Rely on the knowledge I have given you and you will find your way home. It was in my mother’s absence that my faith, and my knowledge, was challenged – and rewarded. I followed her instructions and found my way home.

God has instructed us in our faith. We are equipped for those dark nights of the soul when we have wandered away from God. When the world distracts us and we turn around and find we’ve gone far away from God’s presence, we are not truly lost. We only need to stop and remember what God has taught us along the way. Go to safety. Find community. Seek out people who can help you find God’s presence again.

However, when we deeply feel the absence of the Holy in our lives, the temptation is to give in to the belief that there is no God. It’s understandable that many of us give up our belief in God’s existence in these times of darkness and hunger. We begin to wonder if God is anywhere or if we’ve just invented this idea of the Holy in our own heads.

In C.S. Lewis’ series of books on the fantasyland known as Narnia, there is a character in The Silver Chair named Puddleglum. He is the sort who always expects the worst to happen. He’s on a quest through the mysterious “Underland” with his friends when they are captured by the wicked queen. She knows they are part of kingdom run by the gentle and generous Aslan the lion, where the sun always shines.

In an attempt to gain the loyalty of the children she has them sit around a campfire and chant, “There is no sun, there is no Aslan.” One by one the children give in to the chant, but Puddleglum rebels. He stamps out the fire and says:

“Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one … We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why … I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”

This is the deep lesson of God’s absence, Jubilants. Even in the times when we don’t feel like the Holy is with us, we still must live as if God is present. We must live as if God is real – even when the Holy seems unreal.

When I lost my mother in the store, I didn’t sit and question whether or not my mother really existed at all just because I could not see or feel her in that moment. I knew that mother existed – I had seen her, felt her presence and been with her the moments before her absence. When we have truly experienced God’s presence, we are no longer afraid of God’s absence, because we know that we would rather live as child of the Holy, even if there isn’t any Holy – because it’s simply a better world to live in.

In those times of absence, we rely on our faith – our deep, inner knowledge – that the Holy is real and will return. Until that happens, we must live as if God is real and use the knowledge and skills we have learned in our relationship with God to survive those moments of absence. By relying on the knowledge that God is never truly far away though you may keenly feel God’s absence in the present, keeps us from giving in to the chant that there is no sun because we know, even in the darkness, the light will soon break through – time after time.

Breathe deeply.

You say go slow; I fall behind
The second hand unwinds
If you’re lost you can look and you will find me; time after time
If you fall I will catch you I will be waiting; time after time

Several years ago, I encountered a prolonged feeling of God’s absence. Wanda and I had just moved to South Carolina and had two houses in Georgia that needed to sell. I know this is a first-world problem – the privilege of being burdened with three houses. But, it was a financially dire time for us and I felt as though God was absent. We felt that we had answered God’s call to move to a new place, but the financial burden of three mortgage payments was overwhelming. I felt like God was not holding up his end of the bargain. My entire image of God had been shattered. God was not acting as I thought God should be acting.

My choice at that point was to become angry at the image of God that was failing me or find a new way to relate to a God that didn’t live up to my expectations. I chose the latter. It took many months for me to reconcile my own personal distress over the situation with the God I thought I knew. If it had not been for this long dark night of the soul, I would still be clinging to an image of God that no longer served me. It was only in God’s absence that I could make this kind of spiritual progress. If God had acted as I thought God should act – by getting into the real estate business and selling a couple of houses – I would not have been able to reach a new place in my relationship with God.

It is the sense of restlessness, panic, fear, despair and joylessness that moves us closer and closer to God when we feel God is absent. It is those times when God removes her presence from the temple of our lives that we make the most progress in our relationship with God.

It is tempting in those times of God’s absence to abandon God altogether, but if we understand that God, like a good parent, leaves us on our own to learn our way in the world, then we can embrace those times of God’s absence as opportunities to grow.

As Jesus tells his disciples in our Jesus story today, “Don’t worry about your life. Think about the birds and flowers – God cares for them throughout their whole lives. God is never absent from them, working to feed and clothe them, just as God works to feed and clothe us. Do not worry.”

And yet, we persist in worrying, in fretting over what bad things could happen to us, and in the midst of our worry, we feel that God has left us. But, nothing could be further from the truth. Like a good parent God is never truly absent from our lives. My mother was still in the store. The truth is, she was frantically looking for me as well. God is always there, searching for us, calling our name – hoping and waiting for us to send out that page when we’re ready to be reunited.

Like any good parent, though, God understands that often the best thing a parent can do for a child is disappear around the corner, if even for just a moment. In the ensuing panic at being left alone, the child can work out their own strategies for change and growth – and put into practice all the lessons that their parent has taught them. The child can find ways to give themselves comfort and joy in the absence of the parent.

In the meantime, the relationship with the parent changes – no longer is the child fully dependent on the parent, but understands they possess their own free will. Their parent has taught them the proper use of that free will and the child no longer needs constant supervision.

This is how God restores our soul. Time after time, God constantly disappears and reappears, giving us the space we need to walk on our own. Giving us the opportunities we need to grow, to rely solely on our faith in those times when we can no longer feel or see God in our lives. The Holy’s absence gives us the opportunity to put into practice all we’ve learned from our loving parent. The Holy beams with pride when we take our first tenuous steps in Her absence. In that absence is our restoration, producing a soul awash with faith, hope and love.

If you’re lost you can look and you will find me; time after time
If you fall I will catch you I will be waiting; time after time
Time after time

Oh, Yeah!