The name Jane Marczewski may not ring a bell, but her stage name, Nightbirde, has become famous overnight. The 30-year-old from Zanesville, Ohio, appeared on the 16th season of America’s Got Talent in June, performing her original song “It’s OK.” The seemingly-impossible-to-impress Simon Cowell, with tears in his eyes, hit the coveted Golden Buzzer, leaping her forward to the live episodes. Two days later, “It’s OK” was the top song on iTunes.
The irony, though, is Nightbirde’s life seems anything but OK.
In 2017, Nightbirde first received the diagnosis we all dread: cancer. She learned she likely had six months to live as she began her battle with stage-three breast cancer. In 2018 she was declared cancer-free, but her celebration was short-lived. Just a few months later she began a second battle with cancer, facing single-digit chances of survival. If fate didn’t already seem to be against her, the battle became all the more lonely when her husband of five years left her. She went on alone—winning this second battle in July 2020.
On June 8, Nightbirde auditioned for America’s Got Talent—captivating the audience and judges. After the song, she revealed her cancer was back and now in her liver, spine, and lungs. Host Terry Crews simply said, “You are the voice we all need to hear this year.”
Singing in the Darkness
Why is this unlikely voice the one we need to hear right now? In her words, Nightbirde gives the answer: “I am so much more than the bad things that happen to me.” What is her hope despite her circumstances? How can she declare “It’s OK” when it clearly isn’t?
America is captivated because hope and joy are not natural responses when life falls apart. So, where does Nightbirde’s hope originate? From a mysterious place that an NBC talent show is unlikely to explore: God. In an interview, Nightbirde said:
I believe that God can heal in one instant. I also believe that “no good thing does he withhold,” so there was something God was growing in the field that is me, and if God had pulled up all of this hardship too soon, it would have also pulled up all these miracles he did in my spirit.
As she wrote in a May 3 blog post, “Maybe we missed it—what God showed us when he first introduced himself: that he will crawl into the dirt to be near us, and he will fill our lungs with air when we don’t know how to breathe.”
Even her stage name communicates hope. She chose it because she dreamed about birds singing in darkness for three straight nights.
“I want to be that way, even when I am in the middle of a dark time and there are no signs that it will end,” she said. “I want to be the bird that sings in anticipation of the good things that I trust are coming.”
No Sugarcoated Suffering
Nightbirde does not sugarcoat her suffering. In one blog post, “God Is On the Bathroom Floor,” she poetically details how she has wrestled with God through this trial:
I remind myself that I’m praying to the God who let the Israelites stay lost for decades. They begged to arrive in the Promised Land, but instead he let them wander, answering prayers they didn’t pray. For 40 years, their shoes didn’t wear out. Fire lit their path each night. Every morning, he sent them mercy bread from heaven. I look hard for the answers to the prayers that I didn’t pray.
In another post, she wrote:
When it comes to pain, God isn’t often in the business of taking it away. Instead, he adds to it. He is more of a giver than a taker. He doesn’t take away my darkness, he adds light. He doesn’t spare me of thirst, he brings water. He doesn’t cure my loneliness, he comes near. So why do we believe that when we are in pain, it must mean that God is far?
In her pain, Nightbirde has hope. Why? Because that’s where God is nearest:
I am still reeling, drenched in sorrow. I am still begging, bargaining, demanding, disappearing. And I guess that means I have all the more reason to say thank you because God is drawing near to me. Again. Again. Again. No matter how many times he is sent away.
I can identify with Nightbirde in both her pain and her hope. I too received a life-changing cancer diagnosis before age 30. Four weeks after the birth of my first child, the joy of motherhood was capsized by the waves of fear and doubt as my battle with cancer began. Nausea and vomiting became close companions. I argued with God much the way Nightbirde does. I too knew God on the bathroom floor. He drew near to me in my lowest moments and gave me the hope of his presence. He was not repulsed by my anger, illness, or tears.
He drew near and I realized: hope is often clearest when we have nothing left to cling to.
Humanity’s Bathroom Floor
Is there a more humble place for God to draw near to us? Yes. On the cross.
God the Son took on flesh and entered into this sin-ravaged, cancer-stricken world to deliver us from it. Jesus went willingly to the cross and experienced the suffering our sin deserves, in order to give us all he merited with his perfect life. You might call the cross humanity’s bathroom floor. God met us there.
You might call the cross humanity’s bathroom floor. God met us there.
That is the hope Nightbirde communicates to the world. It’s a hope that the world, though captivated, is unable to attain by itself. It’s the hope of the gospel that allows us not just to endure but to rejoice in the midst of suffering.
America is fascinated with Nightbirde not simply because her story is compelling, but because she seems to possess something elusive we all want. Or rather, someone: the God who knows our pain, meets us in our pain, and redeems our pain. With this God, we too can have a hope that allows us to sing, along with Nightbirde, the unlikeliest of refrains in a world of sickness and death: “It’s OK.”