God's Refreshing Absence
By: Candace Chellew-Hodge
The Cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Glory of GOD filled The Dwelling. Moses couldn't enter the Tent of Meeting because the Cloud was upon it, and the Glory of GOD filled The Dwelling.
Whenever the Cloud lifted from The Dwelling, the People of Israel set out on their travels, but if the Cloud did not lift, they wouldn't set out until it did lift. The Cloud of GOD was over The Dwelling during the day and the fire was in it at night, visible to all the Israelites in all their travels. - -Exodus 40:34-38
"Where is she?"
I was in a panic. I frantically searched 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 there 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.
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 and through us like a Creator. But, could it be that the times when God truly restores our soul is during times when we feel God's absence?
In Exodus we read about 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 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 - people who can help you find God's presence again. Rely on the knowledge that God is never truly far away though you may keenly feel God's absence in the present.
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. It was a financially dire time for us and I felt as though God was absent. We felt that we had done God's will moving 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 serves 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.
Like a good parent, however, 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 - waiting for us to 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. In the ensuing panic at being left alone, the child can work out their own strategies for change and growth. 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. 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 when we can no longer feel or see God in our lives. God's absence gives us the opportunity to put into practice all we've learned from our loving parent. God beams with pride when we take our first tenuous steps in God's absence. In that absence is our restoration - a soul awash with faith, hope and love.
Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at editor-at-whosoever.org or by using the suggestion box.
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