When I was thirteen years old, my fellow eighth-grade band member Steve Afendoulis asked me to join a band he was forming. I had been playing the alto saxophone a year, and in that time, thanks to an arcane formula for success called "practicing consistently," I had ascended to the rank of first chair. Now here was an opportunity to take the music to the next level, and it held the added enticement of lifting me up the social ladder from "weird kid" to "cool kid." With visions of rock star glory in my head, I accepted Steve's invitation. I knew it wouldn't be long before Eric Clapton would be giving me a call. There would be tours, concerts at the Fillmore East . . . Steve's band turned out not to be exactly a horn version of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Its name was the Formal Aires, and "Purple Haze" was not in our library. "In the Mood" was, and so was "One O'Clock Jump," and "String of Pearls," and "Mood Indigo," and lots of other corny old tunes written by corny, passe composers like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Strayhorn, Cole Porter, Carlos Jobim, and Miles Davis. Well, maybe not Miles. Good-bye, Fillmore East. Visions of beautiful hippie girls falling at my feet dissolved into inebriated granddads twirling their sport coats lasciviously on country club dance floors as my band mates and I honked out "The Stripper." It was not what I had pictured. Yet I liked it. And as weeks of practice turned into months, and the months paid off in prestigious gigs, and the band's library grew along with our sound and our reputation, I came to love it. The Formal Aires was my introduction to big band jazz, the American songbook, and supercool, genius composers like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Strayhorn, Cole Porter, and Carlos Jobim. Miles Davis was still a little ways down the pike, but regardless, here was a musical foundation on which to build a huge part of my life. It was God's grace delivered to me on a silver platter, though I was too callow at the time to realize what a remarkable gift I was being given. That's the nature of grace: the value and the force of it often don't become apparent to us until long after the fact. All I knew was, I sure was having fun. Steve's dad, Gus, managed the band. Gus was wonderful! He doted on us kids, loved our music, and supported us any way he could. As the owner of a tuxedo shop, he saw to it that we were all properly attired for our ongoing calendar of gigs at topnotch country clubs throughout Kent County and elsewhere in Michigan. And Gus did something else as well, something critical to the success of our fledgling seventeen-piece ensemble: he got Ted Carino to provide musical directorship. Every week, when we gathered for rehearsal in the Afendoulis basement, there was Ted. An alto saxophonist steeped in the big band tradition, he helped us interpret those stiff black hieroglyphs on our charts into the language of swing, where eighth notes become loose and greasy and feelingful. Ted raised our appreciation for dynamics. Ted drilled us till the awkward parts fit together into a tight musical gestalt. The concept of "sectionals"—breaking up into sax, trumpet, trombone, and rhythm sections to practice a tune separately—first came to me from Ted Carino. So too did the impact the right mouthpiece could have on my playing. I had been using the stock mouthpiece that came with my Conn 6M alto. It never occurred to me that there might be other possibilities. Then one night Ted pulled me aside. "Try this," he said, handing me a little box. In it was a new Brilhart Ebolin mouthpiece. It looked cool with the white bite plate. I put it on my horn and was surprised at how much louder it sounded and how much freer it blew. It was authoritative. "You need something like this for playing lead," Ted told me. Who knew? Certainly not me or my folks. But Ted did, and he spent his cash to give me a mouthpiece that kicked my sound and my playing up a notch to where they needed to be for a section leader. I played with the Formal Aires through my high school years, up to the time when the band disbanded and its members scattered to pursue college, careers, marriage, and raising familes. A few of them remained in music, one of them being me. As for Ted, I eventually lost track of him. He retired from Lear and moved to Florida, where he remained musically active; you can read about that and lots more in his writeup at the top of this post. I clipped it from the Grand Rapids Press obituaries section in 2012, and having recently rediscovered it, I got to thinking about Theodore Carino and who he was to me. Ted was a generous man with his time, talent, and knowledge. He invested himself freely and wholeheartedly in a bunch of young players way back when, and today I think there's not a one of us who wouldn't remember him with gratitude—given a little prompting, of course. It has, after all, been a few years. But a good person's impact has staying power, and it can perpetuate itself over time. Ted was one of a few special, key encouragers who made me think, "I can do this. I can play this crazy instrument. And I love doing so." I hope there'll be a few younger souls who, in different ways, can look back forty years from now and say something similar about me—not necessarily about music (though that would be great), but about how I encouraged them to become who they are and affirm the talents God gave them as good and worthy of cultivation. That, even more than the music, would be a great legacy for Ted Carino to have passed on through one young teen to generations still to come.
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.
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.