The Nearness of God

Judge Olivera & Joe Serna

Judge Lou Olivera had a man, Joe Serna, appear before him in his court in North Carolina. Joe had previously been arrested for drunk driving. Part of the requirement of his probation was that he stay away from alcohol. He had violated his parole by lying about a urine test. Judge Olivera had little choice but to sentence him to a night in jail.

The judge knew that Joe had served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and earned two purple hearts for his bravery. He also was aware that while riding with three other soldiers their vehicle slid into a ditch filled with water. Unable to escape from the vehicle Joe felt the water rise to his waist, his chest, and then to his chin before it stopped. Joe was able to escape but has suffered from PTSD, Post-traumatic stress disorder, including claustrophobia. Judge Olivera had also served in the military and empathized with what Joe was dealing with.

When the jail cell door closed on Joe he immediately felt the walls starting to close in on him. Within minutes, the jail cell door opened again and in walked Judge Olivera with blanket, pillow, and food to spend the night with Joe. Joe later said they ate and talked well into the night. He said the jail cell walls seemed to disappear.

Judge Olivera had presided over Joe’s sentencing earlier that day from the transcendent position of his judge’s bench, but now the judge was very much present with Joe in the cell! This is how God is. He is transcendent, infinitely above and beyond us in all ways, but God is also immanent, very much present with us!

What has us confined, like a jail cell? What’s limiting what we feel life should be like? It could be health issues, hurting relationships, financial difficulties, employment issues, some kind of a deep and personal struggle, or something else. We may feel others don’t understand or can’t or won’t do anything to help. We can feel really alone as the walls of our world seem to be closing in.

The story of Judge Olivera joining Joe Serna in his cell can be our story of how the transcendent God who is way above and beyond us is also immanent and right here with us! Jesus’ parting words as He left earth to ascend to heaven were, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) We can personalize those words, letting Him speak to us, emphasizing a different word each time, reflecting on the nuanced difference…

I am with you…

I AM with you…

I am WITH you…

I am with YOU



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