“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
God gives gifts in expected ways and times. They come from unexpected people too. He delights in using the least likely individuals to accomplish the most powerful kingdom good. The world was recently treated to an example of this that I suspect will reverberate far and wide before its impact begins to abate. If you haven’t already heard the name, this morning I’d like to set before you the story of Jane Marczewski, also known as Nightbirde.
America’s Got Talent has become a cultural movement in its own right. In its 16th season, the series doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Much to the contrary, it is still picking up steam. I think a big part of the reason for this is that it taps into a desire all of us have to see our talents recognized and applauded by the world. Now, the talent is not uniformly great. The judges over the years have occasionally given a great deal more spotlight time to some than it would seem they deserved, like the German drag queen from last season who was as ridiculous as he was untalented. But time and time again, the truly talented acts have a way of rising to the top.
Along the way, there have been a few acts whose stories captured the heart of the country and the world. One of these came in the second episode of this summer’s season. When any one act comes on to the stage, you don’t know how it will go until they get started. Some come out showing all the signs of incredible potential only to be truly awful. Others look like they won’t be much, and then they leave you breathless in awe and wonder.
When a young woman walked out on stage and introduced herself as Nightbirde, it really looked like things could go either way. Usually, when someone announces a stage name they aren’t very good. Then she started telling her story. She is 30 and eaten up with cancer. A bit more digging revealed this is her third round of it and her odds of survival are exceptionally low. She’s beaten the odds twice before, but with cancer, beating the odds once – or even twice – doesn’t guarantee anything about the next round.
Then she sang.
The song was raw and honest and emotional and wonderful. It rightly brought all the judges and the entire audience to their feet in a raucous round of applause. The judges were all visibly moved by her story. Simon Cowell in particular – normally the most stoic of the judges – had to work hard to regain his composure he was so impacted by her story and song. Ultimately, he reached over and hit the Golden Buzzer to send her straight on through to the live, audience-vote rounds.
Personally, her story and song were indeed powerful. But something she said afterwards is what truly caught my attention. It was a tip off for me that there was more to her strength than immediately met the eye. She has something – or should I say, Someone – who is giving her the foundation she needs to choose the joy she very obviously is choosing in spite of the desperate nature of her present circumstances. She said this: “You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore to decide to be happy.”
I had to know more. So I dug deeper. Jane is a follower of Jesus. She’s not an in-word-only follower. And she’s not someone who is there because it’s easy or fun or looks good. She’s been through a whole world of emotion with her heavenly Father over the course of her journey of the past five years. It has been a journey of one world-breaking season of suffering after another. The physical suffering of the cancer is only part of the pain. She’s dealt with emotional pain and loneliness and anger. Her husband of five years couldn’t handle the journey and left her. And all the while, she just keeps going back to the God she loves.
In her own words: “I am God’s downstairs neighbor, banging on the ceiling with a broomstick. I show up at His door every day. Sometimes with songs, sometimes with curses. Sometimes apologies, gifts, questions, demands. Sometimes I use my key under the mat to let myself in. Other times, I sulk outside until He opens the door to me Himself.”
And again: “If an explanation would help, He would write me one—I know it. But maybe an explanation would only start an argument between us—and I don’t want to argue with God. I want to lay in a hammock with Him and trace the veins in His arms.”
There is a deeper strength here than the world understands. It longs for it, but it can’t fathom it. The world which can only see with its eyes and hear with its ears is limited. But there is more, far more, than we could ever imagine. We can’t get there on our own, though. We need help. We need the help of the one from whom this strength comes. His strength is strong enough that it overcame death and rose from the grave. This is not the strength of anger or fear or hatred, though. It is the strength of love. A love that covers over everything and simply refuses to quit no matter how hard or far we may run from it. It does not take the pain away, but rather enters into with us, loving us through, and bringing us out stronger – and whole – on the other side. That wholeness may not come in this life, but it will come. The resurrection itself guarantees it.
This is all why Paul – who was sitting in rather dire straits himself – wrote to the Philippian believers to rejoice in the Lord always. He told them to not worry about anything – including a third round of cancer – but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, to present their requests before God. Just keep seeking Him. Even when things get hard, just keep seeking. Keep running in His direction. Beat on the ceiling with a broomstick if you have to. Rage and scream and yell and cry and sob and sit there numb, but keep on seeking. He will be found. He wants to be found. And when you do, you may not get any answers, but you’ll get love and presence. You’ll be in the arms of one who won’t let you go and has promised to bring you everlasting life. He will overwhelm your sadness with joy. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
It won’t make sense. Nightbirde should not be joyful. She should be sad and angry. She should be bitter and vindictive in her anger at God for allowing something – several somethings – so terrible to happen to her. But as she stood on that stage, she couldn’t help but to smile. She’s chosen to be happy and she isn’t waiting on her circumstances to reflect this happiness before she chooses it. And if she can do that, you can too. Your hard may be really hard. It may be infinitely harder than hers. But if you will seek Him, the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your heart and mind just as it is doing for her; just as it has always done for all of those who have sought it…sought Him.
Now then, after talking about all of this, I couldn’t possibly leave you without the chance to watch her original performance. Here it is. Enjoy.