Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (I Samuel 4) transports me to one of the two times I ventured into downtown Asheville for the annual Bel Chere street festival. One of these times was to check out the Kenny Wayne Shepherd concert, and the one I’m thinking about now was to see Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez. On this outing, I also meandered around and saw some of the other venues, including the children’s stage, where Billy Jonas was delighting the kids and parents with renditions of What Kind of Cat Are You? and Some Houses and other fun tunes, accompanied by his percussion work on trash cans and water bottles. I was delighted to hear my favorite Billy Jonas song, God Is In, where he riffs through the implications of the Psalmist’s question – where can I go from your Spirit? For Billy Jonas, this means God is everywhere, starting with a child’s eyes and snowflakes and dark woods, moving on into tattoos and body piercing and cell phones, on into your ATM and the beggar’s cup, the microwave (unless you put in metal, then it’s the devil) and tupperware (but not the lids so buy some spares). You get the picture. God is IN. The third verse of the song runs through a litany of the many different religions God is in: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and many others, including those dancing Pagans (in each drop of perspiration) and the guru (how do you spell that? Gee, you are you).
Without going into any nuanced theological treatise on the similarities and differences between omnipresence and pantheism and what the implications are for the Psalmist’s and Billy Jonas’ claims that God Is In everything everywhere, we can be sure that there are other understandings of God presented in holy writ, such as today’s passage, where the Israelites were waging war. A stunning defeat at the hands of the Philistines got them to do some serious soul-searching, and they concluded that the root cause of their losing cause was the absence of God. God was Out. So they sent someone off to go and fetch God from Shiloh. The glory of God was understood to rest in the ark of the covenant, so they brought this ark back to the battlefield. The Philistines got some intel informing them what was happening, and they were filled with terror, crying out Woe is us (in the Hebrew, hoy l’nu, something akin to the modern Yiddish expression oy vey). The presence of God was a power not to be taken lightly. And according to this story, it was a woeful presence that could even be stolen and appropriated by your enemies. Had Billy Jonas been there to provide music for this scene, his God Is In song would have had one simple line, God is in the ark. He would have had to spend the rest of his time penning another song, Ichabod! (aka God Is Out, the glory has departed), which would have had many more verses.
I wonder if we can’t resonate with both understandings of God. The idea of an omnipresent Spirit that animates every atom and quark in the universe, that is everywhere all the time, certainly makes sense to me. How could it be otherwise? And yet there are many within the Christian tradition who want to argue vehemently against Billy Jonas and Psalm 139; it’s imperative for them to flatly deny that God could be in other religions; God is not in behaviors that are outside their norms; God is not in whatever they are against; God is especially not in downtown Asheville – Ichabod! And then there are those who do sing along with Billy Jonas, but haven’t yet added the verse that says God is in the exclusivist fundamentalist Pharisee holier than thou Bible thumper. But even if we have the gumption to affirm God’s presence everywhere, even among our enemies, I suspect that at a deeper level we all sometimes experience something of the absence of God, a sense that we have been robbed of the holy presence, that the glory has departed. I suspect there are times when we all want to send somebody to go fetch God while we cry out Ichabod! Hoy l’nu! Oy vey! If this feeling ever does come over you, just be careful not to fall out of your seat like Eli did while you’re busy lamenting the holy absence.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.