Surely, the Lord Is in this Place

Psalm 139
Len Scales
July 23, 2017

A couple times a week, I make a detour through Prospect Garden. It’s my favorite spot on the University campus. I eagerly await the tulip blooms in the spring, and enjoy seeing the colors and textures change as the summer plantings grow.

My love for gardens, in part, comes from my great Aunt Nora. When she and my great uncle, Dr. John, lived in their Spartanburg home, they held garden parties in July at dusk every year. They would have 20 people over one evening, 12 another. Probably 100 people in total every season would arrive with folding chairs in tow to wait for darkness to fall. Always frugal, Dr. John would hand-pack ice cream parfaits in plastic cups that he would reuse for the entire season (maybe longer?).

It was always fun to visit them in July. The occasion for the gatherings were very simple—it is the season Evening Primroses bloom in South Carolina. Tall shoots of green carry delicate yellow flowers that open not for the light, but for the darkness. The blooms unfold before your eyes as night settles in.

Eagerly anticipating darkness is largely foreign to our experience in the modern, western world. Artificial light dispels darkness not only inside our homes, but also outside our apartments and along our streets. If an area is not well-lit at night, we are encouraged to avoid it, we peer around a dark corner apprehensively, walk a little quicker, call a friend, and lock the door as soon as we are inside.

Darkness has largely become synonymous with something we avoid, fear, or fight against.

This close association of darkness with evil, or at least lack of good, supports institutional racism and white supremacy. Even, if only, in our unexamined language and subconscious reactions.

What if we, like the Psalmist, knew God to be in both the light and the dark?

We might be surprised that “Surely, the Lord is [even] in [that] place.”[1]

“Because the sun had set,”[2] Jacob rests from his travels, lays down his head, and dreams. Jacob dreams of God telling him that he and his family will be blessed in order to be a blessing. When Jacob awakes, he takes his stone pillow and sets up a memorial, saying, “Surely, the Lord is in this place.” Surely, the Lord was with Jacob in the darkness.

God shows up, even when Jacob does not expect it, in the middle of the night, on his way to claim an inheritance that was originally meant for his brother.

Throughout Psalm 139, God shows up as well, in the places the Psalmist would go looking for God and in the places the Psalmist tried to flee from God.

Surely, the Lord is with the Psalmist. Surely, the Lord is in the sitting place, the standing place. Surely, the Lord is from the east to the west. Surely, the Lord is from mountain top to valley. Surely, the Lord is with the Psalmist and with us.

Even so, we do not always have the same assurance of God’s presence as Jacob did or as the Psalmist.

Throughout the first half of Psalm 139, we hear again and again how the Psalmist directly addresses God as “you.” It is a description of the Psalmist experience with God to God. The deeply personal interaction poetically relays God will accompany the Psalmist absolutely everywhere.

The Lord is familiar with all the Psalmist’s ways. God shapes the Psalmist behind and before. The Lord will travel with the Psalmist throughout time and location. The light and the darkness are God’s dwelling place, there is no difference to the Lord between the two.

What happens though when we encounter what feels like the absence of God?

We do not need to deny our experience or others, an empty wilderness feeling often occurs in the midst of deep suffering—at times of loss, betrayal, and confusion.

After acknowledging our experience, it is important to hear again though the stories of God’s faithfulness. These stories can be brought to us by objects that are catalysts to remembering. It is also important to remember these stories and make meaning of our experiences in trusted community.

Jacob understood the power of remembering—he setup a stone to mark the spot of his encounter with God and God’s promises.

Stones are used as memorials elsewhere in Scripture. Joshua has twelve stones taken from the dry riverbed of the Jordan. These rocks are set on end, like Jacob’s stone pillow, to mark God’s faithfulness. The stones serve as a witness to their children, to their community.[3]

The Psalmist words are remembered, eventually written down, and read again and again as a witness of God’s presence that is as close to us as our very breath.

In this way the community has a reminder of how God has accompanied them.

This was not only helpful for the people of God then, but it is helpful for us now—to have symbols we return to again and again—the table, the font, a sung hallelujah.

We also need to hear the stories retold along with the objects, to have a trusted community that helps us make meaning of our experiences.[4]

That is part of what Andrew and I are trying to create with Princeton Presbyterians. It has been especially evident during the evening worship service, Breaking Bread. We gather in Niles chapel weekly during the academic year to hold one another in prayer, to listen to Scripture, and to be welcomed to Jesus’ Table.

It is in that place that students are able to reconnect with faith when they’ve experienced rejection by religious communities after they came out as LGBTQ; others try on the language of Christian faith for the first time, being able to share prayer requests and consider Scripture. We gather in times of joy and times of stress. It is there we are able to honestly name the tragedies of life, and remember that God too knows the deepest of suffering.

Surely, the Lord is present in that community.

Surely, the Lord is present in this community too.

It is not only God that meets us in the hardships of mental illness, divorce, grief, and failure; community may meet us there too. And through this companionship of God and community, we are sustained to carry on, to be transformed, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.

We practice remembering together in the light and in the darkness.

One of several contemporary voices seeking to recover positive associations with darkness is Barbara Brown Taylor, author, professor, priest. In her latest book Learning to Walk in the Dark, she encounters the dark in a variety of ways. At one point in her research process for the book, she goes caving. It is there that she contemplates the existence of the dark tomb in the resurrection story anew. You see, Jesus rose from the dead while in a dark cave.

Taylor writes,

As many years as I had been listening to Easter sermons, I have never heard anyone talk about that part. Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way. If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air.

Sitting deep in the heart of [a] Cave, I let this sink in: new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.[5]

Reading Taylor’s account made me pause and consider too the darkness that was not only present at the cross but the darkness that was present at the resurrection.

Resurrection occurs in the dark. God meets the Psalmist in the dark. It is in the dark trusted community reminds us, “Surely, the Lord is in this place,” even, especially when we don’t feel it. It is in the dark Evening Primroses bloom.

[1] Genesis 28:16

[2] Genesis 28:11

[3] Joshua 4

[4] Nishioka, Rodger. “New Ways of Knowing for the NEXT Church” keynote delivered at the NEXT Church 2017 National Gathering (https://youtu.be/JlSV6BTurV4)

[5] Brown Taylor, Barbara Learning to Walk in the Dark (Harper One, 2014) p.129

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