Several years ago, I found myself flying on a rickety UN flight from Juba to a refugee camp in South Sudan. I was traveling there on behalf of my aid organization to conduct some trainings for our staff on resilience and self-care. As we hurdled under, above, and around air streams and fluffy white clouds, I peered at the desert landscape below. From my vantage point high in the sky, I could barely make out the scrubby bushes, crisscrossing red dirt roads, and clumps of grass huts making up village communities.
The word wasteland came to mind. I knew each road told a story of communities in flight, escaping violence and traumatization at the hands of vicious military and rebel groups. Every abandoned hut told the story of a displaced family. The sparse vegetation offered little shade from the unrelenting heat of the sun, and no fruit for consumption or sustenance.
“God has abandoned this place,” I thought to myself. It seemed to me to be a wilderness completely devoid of His presence.
A sudden dip in elevation roused me from my reverie. I gripped the arm rest and breathed deeply. I have a fear of flying and whenever I get anxious, I try to meditate on scripture (and on the numerous statistics indicating the likelihood me dying via plane crash is less than that of me dying via donkey kick to the head…it’s actually true).
Psalm 139 often comes to mind. As I thought about that passage in the air over South Sudan, it’s as if God spoke to me audibly and said, “There is no place where My presence is not.”
Michael Card says one of God’s clearest and most poignant answers to the problem of suffering in the world is His Presence, the Presence that the Psalmist yearned for more than 1000 days in the courts of the rich and powerful, the Presence embodied by Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God who was with us. It’s a longing that still sets so many of us to pilgrimage, and we typically have in mind particular emotions that serve as indicators that God is indeed present in a particular space and time. Many worship songs implore God to show us His glory, to make His presence known. It’s like we know that He is everywhere, but, as my Pastor Jason often says, we are asking Him to be especially here, in this place.
But isn’t the point of Psalm 139 to say that it isn’t possible for God to be any more or less tangibly present, whether we are in the heavens or in the depths, whether on the fringes of the sunlight, or the far side of the sea? Whether I perceive the weight of His glory with my intellect or my emotions, or I am obediently and emptily trudging along on my way to Zion, He is there. He is guiding me.
Most aid workers I know have a hard time extracting themselves from all the places they’ve seen and been. I remember coming home from leper colonies in India and from a war zone in Iraq, feeling like I was carrying around something dark inside of me. I’d be at my nephew’s birthday party or at a friend’s wedding, huddled in the corner, hoping the shadowy places in my heart and mind wouldn’t slip out, wondering at the size and scope of a world as diverse as ours, marveling that on one planet, one child could be raised in a safe home, surrounded by toys and sunlight and loved ones, while another child could be nursing the wounds of an IED in a rain soaked refugee camp.
There’s an odd thrill that can come from being in those dark and devastating places, an ease of accessibility to our own resilient humanity, altruism, and meaning. At first, when you have the energy to look, God seems especially present, in wastelands and deserts (He’s notorious for haunting these kinds of places). You can effortlessly see His work through the hands and feet of His servants, pouring out for the least of these. But the slow and inevitable deterioration of spirit that comes with aid work can often lead to a profound cynicism, and where once God seemed to have been a bursting light into the darkness, His presence now appears to weaken to a flickering flame on a burned down candlewick. You begin to long for home, for the peace of the familiar, the comforts of the first-world where God, even though often relegated to an upper-middle class theological box, is at least easier to understand, His goodness more believable.
I’ve often heard the phrase “and then God showed up.” I’m not sure what that means anymore. I’ve watched God “show up” and then seemingly disappear in war zones and refugee camps, in church camps and megachurch worship services. I’ve come to believe that if God’s presence is dependent on my perception or detection of it, then God is no better than the stone idols I passed by in the temples in India.
Last night, I found myself watching from my front porch the glow of fireflies undulating over the blue and purple hills of North Carolina. And I could not stop thinking of the places I’ve been. Aid work is indeed a life lived at the extremes, and reconciling these two extremes is an art form you never really master; as we straddle peacetime or wartime the tangibility of God’s presence seems truly impacted, and it’s never consistent, never predictable. And my ability to be fully present at any given moment seems to have been significantly compromised. Sometimes God feels nearest in the most dangerous desperate places, and inexplicably absent in the places of peace and security. Sometime it’s the opposite.
My dad says we must learn the secret of living in plenty and in want, as Paul writes about in Philippians 4:11-12. We often focus on the difficulty of contentment in the season of wanting, the lean years of hunger. But dad says the real challenge for an aid worker may be learning to be content, present and thankful when you are back home, surrounded by plenty. We must learn to acknowledge the dark places, in the world and inside of me, without losing a gratefulness and even revelry of the light. And we must know, not just feel, we must know that God is present in both places.
And so as the fireflies gleamed and dimmed, I began to pray: God, in the quiet breathing of these hills, teaming with insects that sing and light up, contoured by coves and indentations, soft colors changing with the shifting light, outlined by tumbling streams of fresh water, You are here. You are present.
In a twisted jungle of untamed earth, red clay road littered with the abandoned belongings of fleeing communities, earth scorched and contaminated with the memory of blood stain and savagery. You are here. You are present.
In the kicking of my baby in the womb, in the joyous celebration of family, the warmth of a home fire that’s been stoked and tended. You are here. You are present.
In the margins, where Your children are riddled with bullet holes, used as human shields and bartered for bread, as they breath their last, You are here. You are present.
In the dark. In the light. You are here. You are present.
To preview the song You Are on itunes, click here.
If I go down to the roots of the mountains
To the heart of the sea, oh my oh me
If I lay low with my eyes to the heavens
And lift up my cry, oh me oh my
If I rise up on the wings of the morning
And settle down slow, oh bless my soul
Could You know my thoughts, would You winnow my journey
Could You make me new, do Lord oh do
Cause You are, You are
There is no place where Your presence is not
You are, You are
If deep has a face, Your hovering grace will find what is lost
You are everywhere I go, You are everywhere I go
You are everything I know, You are everywhere I go
Refugee Camp Airport