I discovered this photo the other night, scrolling through the computer and finding others like it that, having been snapped, disappeared into the cloud. Unseen by me. Or, the scab always tells the truth: I was too busy to notice.
I cried big, eyelash-less tears when I double-clicked on it and watched us maximize the screen together. I didn’t realize Mommy had taken the picture, or possibly it was X who stole into the bedroom and snuck it, hoping to catch one or both of us drooling in our sleep.
According to the date on the computer, one of them snapped it on a Sunday this winter, but there’s no time stamped with the date. I don’t know if this image captures an early AM after you crawled into bed with us on late Saturday night or if this is you having joined me for a post-worship afternoon nap. So it’s a mystery. The winter light through the shades, the ratty undershirt, our exhausted faces. You could bet either way.
This picture, Gabriel, was taken a couple of weeks before that night the doctor called me when you, X and I were in the car, pulling into the driveway from swim practice. He asked- you overheard- if I was driving. ‘No,’ I lied. Then he asked if I was sitting down. ‘Yes,’ I said. Then I told you two to run along inside, and then I came in maybe 30-40 minutes later, having called your Mom and your Grandma and your Godfather, Dennis. And then you asked why I’d been crying and, afraid of not getting the words out or what they’d even sound like if I did, I then just rubbed your hair and hugged you.
Then I told you I loved you.
‘I love you more- too bad, so sad, you lose’ you said, scampering, innocent and unblemished to the shower.
The harder work of explaining cancer to you fell to your Mom. It always does.
Looking at this picture now, and not knowing the time of the day, I can’t help but wonder about it. Are we both really asleep with you on top of me? Or, is one of us (or both of us) just pretending? My guess is we’re both faking it and both know it, neither of us giving in, which is another way of saying we’re savoring the moment, stretching it out until it twists into a smile. My guess, that a picture can’t capture, is that you’re bearing down on my belly with your full dead body weight, waiting for me to gasp like the old man you accuse me of being. Maybe you went a sneaker route and are now, poker-faced with ostensible sleep- squeaking little farts onto me. That would, after all, explain the slight smile pursed at the corner of your supposedly snoring mouth.
I’m just now seeing this picture; I don’t recall the morning or the afternoon, but we’ve shared enough like them that I can wager a guess how the rest of this moment went down. You grabbed my belly or my ‘disgusting hairy armpits’ and tickle attacked me. And I rolled over- maybe flipped you over WWE style- and we roughhoused until you got hurt or overstimulated or I got red-faced and winded and Mommy started wondering aloud why she’s stuck living with so many boys in the house.
I cried when I first saw this photo, a God’s eye image of us as innocent, happy and- dare your Preacher Dad say it- #blessed. Even though I just saw this photo the other night, I don’t think I would’ve seen it before.
Not like I do now.
Mary Karr (you should read her someday) writes:
‘What hurts so bad about youth isn’t the actual butt whippings the world delivers.
It’s the hopes playacting like certainties.’
I know you don’t think I am, Gabriel, but my oncologist keeps assuring me that I’m young (‘and healthy!’). Both youth and health, I’ve learned are relative terms when it comes to stage-serious cancer, but I’m at least not so old that the truth of Mary Karr says stings because hope charading as certainty is what I see in the picture, unexamined confidence that we have all the time in the world with each other.
And maybe we do- God, I hope we do- but I can’t pretend to be certain anymore. Even you know that now, I think, in your way.
We’re in a different place now than we were when Mommy or X snapped that photo of us, unawares in more ways than one. You’ve gone with me to the cancer center and visited me in the cancer ward. You’ve seen the old people and the people who look like me and the kids who look like you there, all sick. The same day I discovered this picture you got angry with me, Gabriel, righteously angry, while I made dinner. I’d gotten sent to the hospital that morning for blood transfusions and I’d missed your class play I’d promised to attend. Facetime didn’t cut it.
‘I’m mad that you weren’t there. You PROMISED. I hate cancer. I hate that cancer has you. I hate that God makes cancer. I just wish there was no cancer.’
It’s not just you though, G. Just a couple of weeks ago, I cried a guilty twinge of tears when I heard your brother say:
‘My real birthday present this September will be Daddy being all done with cancer.’
The innocent, unqualified optimism that I can’t possibly promise to deliver upon made my heart go slack.
These last 4 months I’ve done a lot of ill-advised late night Googling about expected life spans with MCL and average remission rates and median times to first relapse and what’s so overwhelmingly tone deaf in all the literature is how none of the facts and figures stop to consider how your Mom and I have the two of you in our (wing) span. These years are ours not mine alone.
There’s a word that comes to mind, Gabriel, when I look at this picture. You ready for it? It’s called THEOPHANY. You don’t know the word but you enough of your Bible to know what it means.
THEOPHANY = ‘A public presentation of God’s immediacy’ is how my fancy Bible dictionary puts it.
Theophany- you know the stories G.
As in, the LIGHT that strikes the apostle Paul blind on the road to Damascus. As in the VOICE that tears open the sky at Jesus’ baptism and declares ‘This is my Beloved Son. Listen to him.’
Theophany. It’s God making himself known, in the now.
When God appears to Abraham and promises Abraham a future and a home and more children than the stars, God appears to Abraham as FIRE. Theophany.
And when the People of Israel cross over the Red Sea, the Lord appears to them as SMOKE and CLOUD and FIRE and finally in an EARTHQUAKE. And when it’s all over, the People of Israel are left promising: ‘We will do whatever the Lord says.’
And then there’s the story of Elijah. It’s in your Lego Bible.
But when it comes to Elijah, God is not so reliably typecast. When it comes to Elijah, God’s not there- not in the WIND, not in the FIRE, not in the EARTHQUAKE. With Elijah, there’s nothing. Just silence.
Elijah’s come to Mt Horeb, the place where Moses says to God, with bit lip and barely suppressed anger: ‘I want to see you. Show me…show me your glory.’
Elijah’s facing his biggest disappointment, his lowest point. Just when he should be celebrating, he has the rug of his faith pulled out from underneath him and he lands hard on his doubt and his hard questions.
For the first time Elijah can’t hear God all that clearly, and for the first time this prophet doesn’t know if God hears him. God’s gone silent on him. So, where does he go? He goes to the one place he can think of where he can ask God directly:
Why is this happening to me?
Why me and not them? Why me when I’m the one who’s been faithful?
Why have you let me down, God?
I thought if I served you, you’d watch out for me.
Isn’t that what relationship means?
Elijah goes to the place where God has spoken before, to the place where God has appeared as FIRE and WIND and SMOKE and CLOUD and EARTHQUAKE. He goes to the place where God gave Israel direction and certainty, to the place where God gave Moses comfort and guidance.
Elijah goes to Sinai in search of that word- theophany. You see, Elijah wants God to come in FIRE and WIND and TREMBLING. He wants God’s VOICE to tear open the sky and speak in a BOOM that sweeps all of his doubts and questions away. Just like Moses did, Elijah wants to put his foot down on Mt Sinai and demand: ‘I want to see you.‘ But what he gets is SILENCE.
I’ve preached sermons on that story at least 6 times that I know, Gabriel, and every time I’ve always emphasized the the silence, stressed that God’s presence is found in the small, grace-filled diorama moments of our lives not in the thunder and boom of events in the larger world. And every time I would end the sermons with predictable lines like:
Just because you can’t see him clearly at this point in your life, it doesn’t mean he’s not there.
Just because he doesn’t feel as close to you as he did at a former time, it doesn’t mean he’s not with you.
Just because your doubt feels firmer than your faith ever felt iIt doesn’t mean he’s not with you. It doesn’t mean he’s not at work. It doesn’t mean he’s not speaking.
Just because you’d like nothing more than a mountaintop theophany in your life, it doesn’t mean God isn’t at work quietly and invisibly in your life.
Mostly, I think I’ve preached this way because I’m a product of Mainline Protestantism where we’re not sure if God actually works in the world anymore, but we’re definitely sure we don’t want to be mistaken for those other Christians who see God at work on the green screen of the weatherman’s map.
Looking at this picture of you, though, and thinking of that word THEOPHANY I’m now convinced it’s wrong to privilege one angle over the over because God is most assuredly in the fire and the wind and the earthquake as well the silence.
Lest God’s not God.
At the risk of sounding heretical (and, honestly, I’ve got bigger worries these days), a clearer way of putting this is that I think the narrator of Elijah’s story is wrong, no matter his/her dramatic aim.
God IS in the fire and the wind and the tremble.
After all, as God self-reveals to Moses: ‘I am He who Is.’
God, in other words, is the Source of Existence itself in that everything which exists owes its existence to God. God, please remember this in high school and college Gabriel, is the name we give to the question ‘How come________?’ God is our answer to the most important question of all: ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’
Of course, that doesn’t mean God is the direct cause behind every boom and bolt and quake, anymore than every diagnosis, but as Creator, continuously holding all things in creation in existence, God IS IN them.
What Paul says of God and us holds true of all created things: ‘God’s the one in whom we live and move and have our being.’
Or, as my teacher taught me:
‘God is the infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.’
In all things: fire, wind, dewdrops, silence, cells. Everything = THEOPHANY.
So if God is in all things, necessarily, including where Elijah’s narrator repeatedly stresses God ain’t, then what are we to make of the silence about which the narrator makes so much?
Despite committing rather elementary mistakes in the doctrine of God, what does the narrator of Elijah’s story want us to see by stressing that God is in that still small voice?
Humor me. See if you can wrap your head around this-
Richard Taylor, a philosopher, once invited readers to imagine a man (or a boy) hiking in the woods where he came upon, out of the blue, a translucent sphere. Obviously, Taylor points out, the man would be shocked by the strangeness of the object and he’d wonder just how it should happen to be there floating in the middle of the forest.
More to the point, the hiker would never be able to swallow the notion that it just happened to be there, without cause or any possibility of further explanation. Such a suggestion would strike him as silly. But, Taylor argues- and this is money- what the hiker has failed to notice is how he might ask that same question, just as well, to any other object in the woods, say a rock or a tree or a spiderweb or a little boy as much as this strange sphere.
He fails to do so:
‘Only because it rarely occurs to us to interrogate the ontological pedigrees of the things to which we are accustomed. We’d be curious about a sphere suddenly floating in the forest; but, as far as existence is concerned, everything is in a sense out of place.’
Taylor says you can imagine that sphere stretched out to the size of the universe or shrunken to a grain of sand, as everlasting or fleeting. and it doesn’t change the wonder:
‘It’s the sheer unexpected thereness of the thing, devoid of any transparent rational for the fact, that prompts our desire to understand it in terms not simply of its nature but of its very existence.’
What’s all that mean, Gabriel?
It means every little detail and moment of our lives is a marvel no less than that sphere in the forest. It means every part of our lives together is a wonder of which we could ask ‘Why this instead of nothing?’ It means everything around us is not necessary at all, not ‘natural’ unto itself and, as such, it’s charged, all of it, with the immediacy of God. It’s all graced. Back to that word again: its all THEOPHANY.
We just seldom stop to think/notice/marvel/wonder/praise that everything from the boom and bolt to your morning breath against my neck is as odd, and so a gift, as that philosopher’s sphere.
Looking at this picture, Gabriel, what’s so obvious to me now was missed by just as wide a mark back then, double-true for all the other moments we could have snapshots of but don’t. Funny how we take more pictures these days but give less praise, but that starts to sound like preaching and I’m on medical leave.
Here’s what I can say, G.
Only after the fright and upheaval, the pain and the uncertainty…of cancer do I see what was so clearly there. Is here.
I see it clearly enough it makes me wonder if Elijah ever had sons of his own.
My guess is he’d have had a hard time getting a date, but here’s what I think I missed about Elijah’s story all those other times. Or, at least here’s what I wonder. I wonder if Elijah would’ve heard God in the silence- in the still, small voice- had it not been for all the tumult that preceded it.
Maybe it’s not the case that God’s not in the fire and the boom but in the silent moments, as I’ve always preached.
Maybe the boom and the bust, the fire and the fear, calibrates our eyes to what’s there all around us. All the time.
Christian Wiman writes that
‘Love is the living heart of dread.’
He’s got cancer too so he understands what others who just countenance optimism and perseverance miss. When love’s concerned, hope and dread aren’t that far removed from one another.
Dread is exactly what I feel sometimes and even when I look at this picture too, thinking of all the percentages and odds you can Google late at night.
Except thinking of that philosopher’s sphere and remembering that word, theophany, makes me realize that whatever we have to come- you, your brother, your Mom and I- are more marvels than we can count.
But that shouldn’t keep us from trying.