Mention the word “lost” to me and I immediately register a sinking feeling. You might be talking about an umbrella, a wallet, a piece of jewelry that slid from your neck or your finger. Or you might be talking about somebody’s dying, or a relationship that crashed and burned, or a valuable address you mislaid, or a job that is no more. They’re not all the same, those losses. But even the little ones leave you a little bit lost, I suspect, and I feel your loss and your being lost because I know what it’s like.
When I push myself to know whence comes my sadness around being lost or losing something, I go back to a morning in the summer of my fifth year. Those were days when parents didn’t think twice about letting a kid toddle off by himself, provided he’d learned to stop, look, and listen at intersections and railroads. On a fine Sunday morning my parents agreed to let me go to Sunday school at the nearby church. The place was somewhat new to me, as we were staying all that summer not at home but in the beach house. But cousins of mine attended there and I had on one or more occasions gone with them. In fact, I was to meet some of them there that day. And so I did. I had a great time, as much as one might in unfamiliar surroundings. Afterwards, I said goodbye, disappointed that I couldn’t go with them to big church, but obedient to my parents’ instruction to meet them at a designated corner when Sunday school was dismissed.
I went to that corner expecting to see the black Chevrolet waiting for me. It was nowhere in sight. I must have waited all of a minute before it hit me that I had been forgotten. I was alone in a strange place. And suddenly everything turned from glorious to frightening. I might as well have been plopped down in the middle of Manhattan or Tokyo, so alone and scared and lost I felt. And I did what most five-year-olds know to do. I started crying. Something must have told me I should be ashamed as well as frightened, so I hid behind a big bush. Just then a kind man was passing by and heard my whimpering, turned to see me, knelt down and asked me what was the matter. At that very moment my mother and father drove up. I was all at once grateful for the kind man who stopped, vastly relieved to see my parents, and a little sorry about my tears. I got in the car. My parents professed shock at my being upset, as they couldn’t quite grasp that in my child’s life, two minutes can seem like a day when suddenly you feel abandoned, lost, maybe forgotten forever. None of it is rational, and rationalizing doesn’t really work to reassure a kid. I guess I learned to be a bit more patient and not to imagine myself lost so quickly. But the scar was there. And I think my soul feels the wound beneath the old scab every time I’m standing on some corner in my life wondering where I am and whether I’ll be found or forgotten. And, silly as it might be, when I hear your tales of losing and being lost, some chime in me emits a little sound of recognition and empathy.
These people [Luke 15:1] in Jesus’ audience, these people who grumbled that the undesirables were polluting the place, who were irritated that Jesus welcomed all manner of outcasts and even shared table fellowship with them: were they never stranded, lost, scared that they’d be forgotten? Oh, you’d better believe that they had been. There is hardly a way to be human and not have that experience once or twice in your life. But you learn to swallow your fear, to buck up, to ignore or deny your hurt. And if you are a boy, you hear multiple voices telling you all over the place that you’d better be brave, that you’d better show no hurt, that if you let down your guard and snivel you’re a cry-baby, that if you let on that you are scared you’re a sissy. Girls have it easier in that department, though rougher in some others. And all of us, all of us learn to plaster over our hurts. It is now common parlance to tell somebody, “Get over it.” Maybe we should. But maybe we can’t. Not rapidly or easily at least. Not all the time. But the fastest (if not the best) antidote for fear or powerlessness is to make a nest right in the middle of the people who you can trust never to desert you (if there are any such people). And the next best thing is to rank on somebody who is less lucky than you. That is what birds and mammals and some other species do. And we are right there among the mammals, very close to our primate cousins. Ranking on the helpless is the name of the game.
Oh, nobody talks about it much. It is even considered bad taste and even inflammatory in this country to talk about class distinctions and differences. We’re not supposed to do that sort of thing. You tell me. Is there no such thing? And the scribes and the Pharisees were grumbling, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Strike him off the list. Not socially acceptable. Radical. Probably subversive. May even be a socialist. Who knows, a communist? Certainly he isn’t one of us, good rabbinical education though he might have.
I’ve been hanging out with progressives and liberals for years now. Many of them, including many of you, are members of my tribe. We like to believe that we accept everyone, we are open and affirming, we are the people and the churches with a welcome mat for all. Well, that is true. To an extent. But we find it hard to love the ones who are different from us, as much as if they were on Jesus’ guest list and we were the etiquette police. Conservatives? Evangelical Christians? Holy rollers? I don’t know who the out-group is for you, but I can promise you that you probably have one. If you’re like me it doesn’t take you ten seconds to come up with a group of people that get on your nerves, that you’d just as soon never see again, people that when only your closest friends are listening you’ll actually call disparaging names. Redneck comes to mind, but you know of others as bad or worse.
And that is where Luke Chapter 15 comes in, with its parables. “There were ninety and nine that safely lay in the shelter of the fold, but one was out on the hills away, far off from the gates of gold.” So runs an old hymn, never included, so far as I know, in an Episcopal hymnal. What is it all about? A single lost sheep? No. It is about a shepherd who actually cares about the lost. It is about a loving Presence, whom Jesus regularly called “Abba,” who is all about seeking and saving every single piece of his entire creation, not stopping to evaluate the monetary importance of a single dung-covered sheep that wandered off from the flock. And the woman with ten silver coins: quite a collection for a first-century Palestinian. Maybe she was counting them out when one slipped away and rolled into a dark corner. Tell her all you want that she has nine, so what’s all the fuss about? And she’ll look you in the eye and tell you that there were ten and her collection is broken and it came she’ll have you know from her great-aunt on her mother’s side and whether or not you understand it or her, she will sweep the entire house inch by inch until she finds it again. And by the way, would you happen to have a match on you to light her candle? That, says our Lord and Master, is a snapshot of what God is like when one of the children is missing. And the story does not stop with the discovery and recovery of the lost. Celebration follows. Heaven breaks into singing and dancing, for the lost is found, the sick is healed, the estranged welcomed, the dead come to life again, and the family together once more.
It could be that you have a place somewhere down in you that is not so covered up with layers of denial and shame that you can still feel what it is like to be lost, or to have lost something precious. Maybe you can even come to tears, it is so real. Or it could be that such a feeling lies buried far beneath your carefully coiffed and groomed exterior, tucked in the dark and labeled, “Danger. Do not touch.” Most of us have a little of both.
God knows what it's like. The immortal, invisible, God only-wise knows what it feels like to watch a son tortured right before his Father’s eyes. Knows what betrayal and denial and rebellion in the family are like, has lived through it all, and still, still throws a dinner party every week at which the blind, the halt, the deaf, the sinner, the self-righteous prig, the bombastic know-it-all, the no-count lurker are all invited. Can be seen roaming the mountainsides looking for a lost animal, can be seen combing through beaches and forests and jails and hospitals looking for the lost and wounded.
The love that will not let you go only asks that you love the same way. No one ever said that it was easy.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016.