Last Spring quarter, almost exactly one year ago, I dropped out of school. I was struggling to focus on any of my assignments, and I had multiple midterms coming up in week five. I was crying more than usual. My mom’s cancer was back in her brain, and this time it was everywhere and inoperable. There were not many options left. I have not written in a long time because the pain of recollection is still too much to bear. But tonight, with three midterms in the next four days, I write again. My mind is back to that fearful moment: “Do I stay and keep studying, or do I drop it all, 5 weeks in and go home to be with my mother?” She called me over the phone and told me not to dare leave UCLA just for her. She never wanted her health to inconvenience me… She was the best of mothers: she even encouraged me to study and work hard while she was in the hospital. She had her toenails painted Bruin Blue and Gold while immobile in a hospital bed. She sent me a photo to show she still supported me and was still my cheerleader, even if she couldn’t stand on her own. Memories are hard… My mind is back to that decision: I am sitting in front of an Episcopalian Church looking for somewhere to sit after a long walk in the dark. They have a rendition of Michelangelo’s Pietà, Mary holding the crucified Christ. It isn’t much, but it is the closest thing to Sanctuary I have at 2 am on a Monday night in Los Angeles. I journal my prayers to keep my worried and fleeting mind from losing focus as I speak to God. I decide to leave for home. I realize it is really the only choice. I realize I am going home to spend the final days of my mother’s life with her. Withholding some miracle, I am going home to bury her in the ground. I left in May, I buried her in August. Memories are hard.
There were many tears leaving; friends took me to rooftops at night to talk and eat Oreo’s while looking out onto the LA skyline. They made a photo collage for me and my whole dorm floor signed it. Dear friends helped me pack, helped me get home, encouraged me to stay strong, and told me I was making the right choice. I appreciate all of them. People made sure I felt loved and cherished as I left.
As I returned home, I decided I wanted to read and study Ezra and Nehemiah during my time off from school. I had been away in a far country, and like Israel, I was now returning to the place of my origins. I figured God could speak to me through these words of his. Honestly, most of my readings did not seem very applicable. It sounded very romantic, and profound and all to read about God’s people returning home and repairing their city, while I returned home too. Perhaps you as my reader can relate: opening up the Scriptures, mind ready and eager, soul thirsty and in a desperate place, and coming away with something I guess, but perhaps not as much as expected. Well, that was me. My dearest friend at UCLA prayed with me over the phone, every single night before bed. It was often a more noticeable blessing to my soul than that day’s Bible readings; God uses many tools to comfort his children. However, my second time through Ezra, I came upon something rather striking:
Ezra 5:11 “… ‘We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and we are rebuilding the house that was built many years ago, which a great king of Israel built and finished.'”
… “The God of heaven and earth” …
Why did this strike me? God is referred to by the Persian Kings who had authority over Israel as “The God of Heaven” eight separate times in the book of Ezra. This is the only time in Ezra God is referred to as the God of heaven and earth. In fact, it is the only place in the entire English translation of the Bible this exact phrase is used. Do not misunderstand me; all throughout the Old and New Testaments, it is made abundantly clear that God is the creator/maker of heaven and earth, and he is the Possessor, Owner, and Sustainer of heaven and earth. But here the People of God intentionally call the Most High, the God of heaven and earth, for a very specific reason:
Take a look at how Ezra opens: (Ezra 1:2) “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.” [bold added for emphasis]
God is the ruler of one place, Cyrus is the ruler of the other place.
With this in mind, look at the verse before 5:11. Israel’s enemies, who hold great legal authority and power, are asking them,
“‘Who gave you a decree to build this house [the temple] and to finish this structure?’…” (Ezra 5:10)
Israel’s reply: the God of heaven and earth! This statement is a verbal punch in the face. “God is the one in charge of everything that happens in heaven AND on the earth. He is present, He is with us, and He is for us. He alone is the authority we need to build, not you.” Their enemies’ rulers speak of God as “the God of heaven” or “the God of Israel” throughout the entire book of Ezra, implying that the king of Persia is the God of earth – the one “actually” in charge.
I ask myself, “How often do I have faith like the Persians?” How often do you? Ideas of God may end as him being some great guy in the sky. Some being looking down upon what we are all doing. Some life-force of love floating in an eternal dimension. A mystical experience we must transcend or mediate to find. Perhaps even the all-powerful, creator of the cosmos, greater than, above and beyond all of reality. The Persians, it seems, would agree with such opinions of God.
Is the God I am praying to while my mother dies this distant being who sends warm wishes and spiritual “thinking-of-you” cards down to my heart, or else a cold, powerful initial Force to the cosmos, but who isn’t doing shit about the situation I am in, while cancer, time, and fear are the real rulers of the earth, of the day to day reality I live in? Is cancer the actual authority? Sure, sure God is real and up there and belief can be comforting in these hard times, but it is time to face the facts, of what’s really happening right now, my own Persians tell me again and again. “If God is comfortable for you in this time of trial, delightful.” God becomes an escape from the situation I am in. The God of heaven alone is a way out of reality, of pain and suffering, a way to closing my eyes and forgetting what’s happening inside my mother’s brain. It is quite easy to make God – the God of heaven alone. Depending on your view of heaven, He becomes too big and fluffy, or too vast and powerful to be truly present and meaningful.
The other error I, and it seems everyone, have a tendency to make is worshiping the God of earth alone. Now God is close and personal and carrying, but shallow, and void. “He spoke to me in a dream.” “I saw a heart scratched into the sidewalk and I just now it was from Him to me.” God is sentimental, He is loving and everywhere. But now “everywhere” means every sweet verse, every frame-able quote, every rainbow, every emotionally charged song. God exists in Tic-Tac form in every situation. “God is with you and your mother, because Mylar heart-shaped balloons are with you and your mother.” The God of earth alone is present with me, but he exists as shimmers, glimpses, happy sun rays of hope in desperate times. He still isn’t really in charge…
There are many fancy theological descriptions for what I am getting at; it is often described in culture, like in Batman vs. Superman, Dawn of Justice: as either God is all good and not all powerful, or he is all powerful and not all good. This is much more than a philosophical argument though. People, despite what they may say or think, actually tend to fall into worshiping usually one or the other. It takes a constant course correction to worship the Triune God of heaven and earth. We split up the Trinity in our hearts, focus on the Christ being fully God or fully man, then give Him one realm or the other. It is too profound for our minds that God, THE creator of reality, who spoke and it was, the maker of beauty, male armadillos and their abnormally large genitalia (up to two-thirds their total body length), a continual hurricane on Jupiter, electroneutral particles that can pass straight through walls or your hand without being disrupted, more stars than grains of sand in all the Earth’s deserts and beaches, each star with roughly 8 planets orbiting it, most planets with their own moons orbiting them; male seahorses as incubators (they get “pregnant”), female marsupials having a pouch for their young, birds sensing temperature with the precision of a few degrees Fahrenheit, male platypus having a poisonous spur on only one of their hind legs, female anacondas strangling their partners to death after sex, and narwhals having one giant tooth shoot out of their face like a horn – that this God is also somehow the God who suffers alongside us. This God took on human flesh, suffered and died and rose again. That the Christ prays to the Father on my behalf, that his Spirit lives in me now. That the Father actually loves me as if I were his very own son.
…”The God of Heaven and Earth.” … He does not dwell in Temples made by human hands (Acts 17:24).
Even if I can’t experience this as true at all times, even if cancer bogs me down, this is the only truly hopeful idea the universe. The Creator is also the person who weeps when I weep, who mourns with me, whose heart breaks alongside me, who hears me when I cry out in agony in the fetal position in the shower. The Creator died for this. He is willing to give himself up so that the reality I wake up to will not stay my reality. The Author holds me tight in his arms, even when I feel most wayward. He runs to embrace me after I have been covered in mud and shit, eating garbage with pigs.
One year later, this verse still strikes me. I have learned that I am not a functioning, practicing monotheist. I find idols daily, I look to many things beside the LORD for meaning, purpose, and peace. I still put God in one realm or the other. I like to keep my “Things I Worship” portfolio very diverse. Even though I return home, like Jerusalem my heart is usually made of rubble. Like God’s people, I must work daily to rebuild, to prepare a place for Him in me. One day soon, “home” will be with Him in eternity. True home is there. So, today “home” means to rest and dwell with Him as he dwells in me. Just as Israel rebuilt the Temple so that God would be with them, so I must make a daily practice, a daily course correction to worship the True, Ultimate, Triune God of both heaven and earth. There are enemies all around me, asking me why, asking me who’s authority I am operating under, asking me to remember “who the real king of the earth is,” whether that be grades, success, money, meaningful relationships, sex, entertainment, or alcohol. I face depression, anxiety, fear. I am often sleep deprived. My major is one of the most difficult and competitive in the entire country. I worry about my self-image, my self-worth, I am self-deprecating. I doubt whether or not people actually like me or if they are just using me. I constantly fear the people I love the most will just abandon me out of the blue. I battle monsters and demons at night.
Yet when I feel I cannot cling to God, He still clings to me. Because only the God of both heaven and earth could possible be enough to carry and sustain me, only this God can make cancer “right” someday. Only this God can wipe away every tear and make all things new. The Triune God, He alone is worthy of worship. Rejoice and worship, fall on your face before his splendor and majesty. The God of supernovas and the God of dew on flower petals. Remember that this God is with you and he is for you. Worship the Almighty, omnipotent and omnipresent. The God of all peace, love and endurance. The God of Heaven and Earth and all that lies within them!