When I was a little girl, a beloved Sunday school teacher gave me a small ivory cross with the words “John 3:16” etched on one side and the entirety of the verse—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only beloved Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”—etched on the other.

I treasured that cross for years and years, wearing it at my confirmation and again when I graduated from high school.

And for a long time, I never thought much about the verse beyond those first few words: “God so loved … .” Somehow, that was enough—those three words said it all.

It didn’t take a lot of life to go by, however, before I picked up that little cross and wondered about God’s love.

I wondered when a family member took a deep dive into mental illness.

I wondered when our youngest daughter was born with a life-threatening birth defect.

I wondered when my husband suffered a stroke at a young age and then again suffered through cancer.

I wondered when our oldest daughter’s life fell apart for a long three years.

I wondered as I watched and grieved with friends as loved ones died, unexpectedly, prematurely.

I wondered as I saw the church hurting people, experienced hurt from the church myself and, worst of all, found myself a cause of hurt.

I wondered.

There’s the promise: “God so loved, that he gave … .” But where, sometimes, is the experience of that promise—the ability to somehow know it and see it in the midst of daily life?

I don’t know that I have the answer. But I do know this, not long ago, one of my daughters gave me a little stone with these words on it: “God always shows up.”

John 3:16 isn’t an empty word, a slogan from a passing commercial whose only concern is to make God look marketable. John 3:16 is as real as it gets. God’s will is not to condemn the world but to save. God’s being is love. God’s verb is give.

In and around and under and through every struggle I have experienced—or witnessed others experiencing—God has always shown up.

God showed up through the surgeon who took care of our beloved, tiny, infant daughter, telling me to do what I did best—pray—and that God would do what he did best—heal.

And heal he did.

God showed up in the gathering of family around our hurting family member; in the returning of hope to a prodigal daughter; in the rich gift of forgiveness in midst of the hurt; in the continuing gift of the faith of my friends, whom I grieved with as loved ones, including children, died.

God showed up in this way: Just before my husband’s cancer surgery, he, my oldest daughter, and myself were gathered around my youngest daughter, who had just had her own bout with surgery. My husband is a faithful servant of God but doesn’t speak much about his belief. He is a mathematician and a scientist and usually limits himself to speaking about that with which he is most comfortable—math and science.

My oldest put the question to him: “Dad, if you die, what’s going to happen to you?”

I was stunned.

Kevin took a breath. “Well, sweetie,” he said, “I believe that because God loves me, I’ll live again. I’ll see Grandma and Grandpa and even your Uncle Doyle again.”

“How do you know?”

Kevin took a deep breath again. “I know this much: I don’t choose to believe or will to believe. I’ve been loved into my trust, I suppose—like Mom says, it’s all a gift.”

God shows up. God always shows up in many ways, not least of all by “loving us into trust.”

Karen Bates Olson
Karen Bates Olson is pastor of Resurrection Lutheran Church, Tacoma, Wash.

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