Five Incredible Words

In John 16:33, just hours before his crucifixion, Jesus tells his bewildered apostles, "In this world, you will have tribulation. But take courage, for I have overcome the world." As I consider the kinds of tribulations this world swarms with, like a petri dish full of deadly bacteria, I find those few words of Jesus, "I have overcome the world," utterly mind blowing. They are either one of the most arrogant and self-deceived statements ever made, or they are the declaration that a miracle of cosmic proportions has occurred: that a way has been made through everything this present world could ever throw at Jesus—and at us who belong to him. For 1 John tells us that in him, we share in his victory: "Everyone who is born of God overcomes the world (1 John 5:4)." That victory cost Jesus his all, so we can expect that we too will have to fight for it. But it is guaranteed to those who persevere.

So much to say on this topic, and I don't wish to minimize the reality of the struggle in a way that turns a stunning promise into glib, pie-in-the-sky theology. It is no pie in the sky; the promise is as real as every tear you've ever cried and every spear that has pierced your heart, and far more powerful, and lasting. There is wholeness beyond the pain; there is glory beyond the battle; there is redemption—yes, and transformation—beyond the tribulation.

Be of good courage—for all that the world is, and all that is in the world, he has overcome. And so, therefore, shall you and I.


El Roi, The God Who Sees

According to the world population clock, on November 15, 2016, there were  7,359,444,900 people inhabiting our planet. More than twice as many had been born (117,572,614) than had died (49,606,841) during the year by then. Those numbers include the  315,873 babies born on that date alone, and the 133,275 people who died in hospitals, in back alleys, in third-world hovels, in military firefights, in car crashes, by lethal injection, and at the hands of terrorists, and who breathed their last breath surrounded by loving families or alone, disregarded and unmourned.
We live in a staggering sea of humanity. Yet each of us lives our life as an individual. When we laugh, grieve, hope, hunger, create, destroy, suffer, make love, and engage in all the experiences and emotions of being human, we do so as an I, not as an amorphous droplet subsumed by a vast conceptual ocean called the human race. Concepts don't feel; individuals do.
You do. I do.
When we love, it's one on one. It's on the individual level, not the global, that significance and love play out. The survival of our species is not a value for me. Faces, names, and personal relationships—those are a value. My beloved Lisa's well-being is a value to me. When I think of her, it's not as "a member of the human race" but as a person I care about deeply, someone very important to me whose value is beyond calculation. I think of my mother and sister and brothers and friends the same way, each in their own right. And that's how it is with you too with the people you love. You know each one by name, uniquely.
How small we are, and how utterly unknown and unimportant, on the grand scale of humanity. Yet how big each of us is, and how known and beloved, as an individual in the lives of other individuals whom we ourselves know and love.
That is how God views us: individually.
In the midst of a brutally pragmatic, humanistic Roman culture, Jesus revealed a God who knows and cares for every person as someone special and intrinsically precious. Here are some of the things Jesus said:
"If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep!" (Matt. 12:11–12).
"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows" (Matt. 10:29).
In his book Who Is This Man?, John Ortberg writes, "When a baby is born, what do parents do when they look at [its] fingers and toes for the first time? They count
them. . . . Jesus was saying, 'God doesn't just number your fingers and toes. God loves you so much that he numbers the hairs on your head."*
How is that possible? you may wonder. God has an incomprehensibly vast universe to manage. How can he possibly keep track of every life on our planet, let alone care about me?
By being God—a being who far transcends anything our intellect can grasp. God views size, scale, quantity, distance, and even time from a perspective we know nothing of. He stands outside the universe and holds it in the palm of his hand, viewing it as if it were a handcrafted model. Yet God also permeates that same universe, inhabiting the tiniest space within spaces, where electrons loom like planets, and in the infinite smallness he declares, with complete identity and authority, "I AM!" Every point of view in time and space, from the interior of the remotest sun to the intimate chain of our thoughts from birth to death, is at God's command simultaneously. Words like big and small, fast and slow, far and near are irrelevant to God except as tools for communicating with us, locked as we are in a physical frame of reference to which he himself is not bound.
It is no big deal for a being like that to attend to you and me individually, no problem at all for the very Source of personhood to care for us personally.
Number and track the hairs on every one of 7.4 billion heads? No sweat. Number the hairs on your head, call you by name, know you thoroughly, and care for you beyond what you can grasp? Child's play for your heavenly Father, motivated by his unfathomable love not just for anyone but, very particularly, for you.
Our problem in trusting in God's care for us doesn't lie with his limitations but with our own. We simply cannot grasp how utterly GOD he is.
This is the One to whom you and I belong. I need to know this; I need to believe this. Amid the overwhelming problems facing our country and our world, amid the mass of humanity and the events sweeping across our planet, I need to know in my heart that here in our little apartment, Lisa and I are not alone. Our heavenly Father knows us, sees us, loves us, cares for us, guides us, and provides for us. How desperately I need him to do these things for us—and how faithfully and lovingly he has done so and continues to do so.
For he is El Roi, the God who sees (Gen. 16:13). In the far, lost reaches of the desert, he saw the runaway Hagar. And in the back corner of this world, where most of us live our unremarkable lives in obscurity, he sees you and me.
Because God is GOD.
And God is love.

* John Ortberg, Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 35.  

Reflections on . . . Oh, Never Mind. Just Read It and You’ll See.

It's here at last: election day 2016. I voted, as I'm sure you did too, and so, as we sit here awaiting the results this election eve, naturally my thoughts turn to vomit.
By this I don't mean they are becoming said substance; I mean they are focusing on it as a matter of contemplation. I suppose it's only fitting that they should, given the particularly nauseating nature of this election cycle, but in fact, the election has nothing to do with the matter. So forget about it. Forget I said anything about the election. No election—we never had that conversation. Just remember the vomit part. That's very important, very germane to the following discussion. And to set the stage, I offer the following highly relevant lead-in:
I need to get a new sax case. Badly. My present case is more than thirty years old and is falling apart. So last night I searched for one online, and now suddenly I'm getting inundated with ads for saxophone cases. They're everywhere—my sidebars are crawling with the bloody things.
This business of information scraping has gotten me to thinking. You know how you do a Google search, and, with the constancy of an atomic clock, an ad appears that promises the "best source for [whatever it is you're looking for]"? (Just say you know what I'm talking about, okay?) What you're looking for could be anything. Anything. As a nature lover with a penchant for wetlands, I've frequently encountered ads promising optimal deals on bogs, which leads me to wonder how the supplier manages shipping and handling. I mean, two hundred acres of dripping peat replete with tamarack trees has got to be a challenge. It's rich food for speculation, but we'll let it pass. Because the point I want to make is, I seem to have hit the limit for what such ads will offer.
I just conducted a search on vomit. I wanted to see whether I'd be met with the promise of a best supplier. I felt sure I'd find a topnotch vendor who could provide buckets of barf—the best, freshest chunky gunk at rock-bottom prices. Imagine my disappointment when no such supplier stepped in. To whom now shall I turn?
Not that ads involving the word vomit don't abound. My search results are still in front of me, and first in order is the Genuine Joe Vomit Absorber. You can buy a 24-pack of 16-ounce bottles for $58.74. That should last you a while, I'd think. Plus, with Christmas just around the corner, one quick purchase solves the question of what to buy for stocking stuffers.
Next in line, and sure to enhance the ambience at any party, is the Loftus Giant Vomit. The ad promises that "each vomitous mat is specially crafted so no two are alike." Just think: your very own custom-designed rubber puke sheet. "It's big," the ad enthuses. "It's real big. Sprinkle a few drops of water on it for the wet look." By all means, do. Win your date's undying admiration with your wacky sense of humor.
But let us not dwell on fake barf overlong, for awaiting us is an offer for the literary minded: Vomit, a novel that taps into the full potential of the word visceral. In the words of the descriptive copy, "Der Romantitel 'Vomit' ist lateinischer Herkunft, kommt aber auch in englischer Sprache vor und assoziiert an Bulimie unter der die Hauptprotagonistin Victoria leidet. Die junge Romanschriftstellerin Marlene Holzer ist ein Meisterwerk gelungen!"
One can only hope it's true. We are left to guess, for the Medical Action Industries Vomit and Urine Bag entices us to investigate its wonders. Perhaps "entices" is the wrong word, but let it stand; it cannot be too far off in describing this product, whose "wide opening is fully supported by a rigid plastic ring to help ensure unobstructed access to the containment bag while providing a circular grasping surface for secure grip." We can agree that a wide opening, unobstructed access, and a secure grip are all very good things to have in such an item.
My search has turned up plenty of other equally compelling commodities: the Smelleze Eco Vomit Absorbent. The Mastodon Vomit Sweatshirt. The 25th Anniversary Psychedelic Vomit Guitar. Oh, and so much more, gobs upon gobs more—truly a never-ending supply of vomit.
Which, come to think of it on this election eve, sounds a lot like the presidential campaign we're emerging from.