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Billions and billions

Even in black holes, God finds His people by name

Issue: "High stakes at the Court," Jan. 29, 2000

There are frightening black holes that appear, not just in space, but in unexpected places where they lie in wait for us. My son sometimes fell into them when we visited the supermarket. When he was four, breakfast cereal was his passion. He would stop in the cereal aisle, intently examining the boxes, while-sometimes carelessly-I moved on. Suddenly he would look up and think he was lost. Next thing I'd hear was his cry from the next aisle, like a siren coming to full strength and then fading in the distance, as he ran to the end and turned the corner heading my way. I would wait for him (there was no catching up to him in this phase) and as he passed, reach out to grab him, pulling him to myself. "You are not lost," I would say. "You are here, with me." Gradually he would come to himself.

Sometimes I need help coming to myself. I think I am lost among the billions of people who exist. Who have existed. They trail down the crowded black holes of thousands of years. People like Mary Whitherspoon. I found her gravestone in Booth Bay, Maine. It was darkened and stained by years of salt air and pollution, the words barely discernable: "Here lies beloved wife and mother. B.1756 D.1799. Fading in body, though we fought to keep her, God's angels took her." Known and beloved. Now forgotten. Lost, a mere 200 years ago. Or 2,000. A zero hardly makes a difference.

I try to think small and manageable, but I fall into what Denise Levertov describes: "the dizzying multiplication of all language can name or fail to name, unutterable swarming of molecules. All Pascal imagined, all he could not stretch his mind to imagine is known to exceed his dread." Small turns into too many and frightens my understanding. I want security. I want my collection of molecules to be known by someone. I want to be remembered, not lost two thousand years from now.

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Is that why God gave us the book of Numbers? A record of the children of Israel? Their names roll past by tribe, by clan, by family. Page after page of recorded numbers. So utterly boring. Until we recognize what is before our eyes. These were God's own, called by name.

Then there's Ebed-Melech, the Cushite from the book of Jeremiah. He wasn't even an Israelite, just a lost foreigner working in the palace of the rotten King of Judah. Ebed-Melech dared to call it wicked when Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern. He tenderly rescued Jeremiah, carefully pulling him up on rag-padded ropes in order to spare his suffering and broken body. Ebed was a nobody, at a time when destruction fell like bombs. But God said through Jeremiah: Go tell Ebed; "I will rescue you, I will save you, because you trust in me" (Jeremiah 39).

We have Jesus who calls his own sheep by name and patiently leads the entire bleating bunch out to pasture, making certain they drink and rest.

God does not change. I received help on this idea from a cliff the other day-a good, although imperfect, metaphor for God. I sat before it, like a desert father, but only long enough to grow chilled as the westering sun dropped into the hills behind me. I received no entrancing insight. No spiritual experience. Just numb fingers. The wisdom of the desert fathers from 18 centuries ago will have to suffice.

Gregory of Nyssa contemplated a canyon cliff and discovered the majesty, fear, and even the love of God. Beldon Lane points out that you can look at a canyon cliff, think about how long it has been there, and ask yourself, how did that canyon cliff change on the day my personal world fell apart? Or on the day you discovered you were in a black hole? Or was a nobody among millions? The answer is not at all. It sits there the same as it always has.

Just so God.

Mary Whitherspoon, did God's angels come to get you? Then you are not lost. How could I have thought such a thing? God is still here, still finding us by name, calling us out one by one, counting our hair, and loving us in the midst of uncertainty, darkness, and death.

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