Of course Neal hadn’t intended to become lost. He had simply tired, and his pace had slackened. He had fallen behind by degrees until gradually he had lost contact with everyone altogether. His story demonstrates the first form of lostness that Jesus illustrates through his three parables. Sometimes, we lose things we value, including the presence of God, gradually. The lost sheep in Jesus’ story was perhaps a little weaker, a little more curious, a little more foolish than the others, and he had fallen back as the rest had progressed forward, a gradual loss that the shepherd did not notice initially. That happens in our lives, too. We can gradually lose plenty of things we treasure. Sometimes marriages are lost gradually. No great trauma breaks many couples apart, two people simply evolve gradually in different directions, so that one day a person wakes up in bed with a stranger to whom he or she is married. No big blowup has destroyed their relationship, but over time their pursuit of different agendas has gradually caused them to lose each other’s love. Friendships can be lost that way. Health can be lost that way. A relationship with God can be lost that way, not through any great crisis of faith, but through a series of decisions and subtle changes of habit that are destructive and undisciplined, until suddenly we realize we are estranged from the divine. Nothing we treasure can be maintained without the vigilance of sustained commitment! When the shepherd takes stock of his flock and finds the loss of even one sheep, he knows that the flock is incomplete. He leaves the ninety-nine and searches for that one lost sheep, for searching is a response to the privilege of having. Searching is a form of grace. He searches the wilderness until he finds the one lost sheep. Then he says to his friends, “Rejoice with me! For I have found my sheep that was lost!” Jesus says, that is what the Kingdom of God is like.
Some losses come gradually, others abruptly. My family still talks of a July 4th weekend years ago when we were out of town attending a family reunion, leaving our beloved golden retriever Suzie with a trusted friend, a true dog person. But a sudden explosion of firecrackers had spooked Suzie, and she bolted through the woods in an unfamiliar neighborhood far from her home. I returned home to find that I had a lost dog and a good friend who I thought we would have to put on suicide watch. But my mom, my children, and a host of their friends sprang into action: they plastered posters, banged on doors, trolled through streets and school yards, talked to shopkeepers and neighbors, creating in the process a vast network on the lookout for a wayward four-legged hairball. Jesus says that this is what God’s Kingdom is like. A community of God is supposed to create a vast network on the lookout for each other, a vast network that feels keenly the loss of anyone, a vast network on the lookout for anyone outside the community of grace, always seeking to draw people in, a community that knows it is incomplete as long as there are those outside the banquet table of grace. If you want to know what the Kingdom of God is like, says Jesus, feel the lostness of outsiders as keenly as you feel the loss of something or someone you treasure, then extend yourself to search and seek and network and invite and invest and integrate those lives outside the circle and bring them into God’s fellowship. We are to search for a lost soul with the same fervor that my mother, children and friends searched for that lost dog. And know this: when someone outside the circle is brought into the circle and knit into the fellowship, is integrated into the community of faith, there is more joy in heaven over such a finding and retrieving such a lost sheep than there is over the safety and comfort of ninety-nine believers who need no special searching.
Some things we value we lose gradually. Some things we value we lose abruptly. The woman in Jesus’ parable inadvertently knocked her coin off the table and it rolled into some dark crevice. She didn’t know when or how she lost the coin, but she knew it had gone missing abruptly, and she felt keenly its loss. She may even have wondered if maybe a thief had come in and stolen her coin, so that searching for it might do no good. But she scoured her house anyway, cleaning, searching, hoping. Truly, some abrupt and devastating losses leave a hole within us, leave us empty, hurting, searching for what has left us. Some of these losses that abruptly devastate our lives are not our fault. Some of these losses are not our fault, yet we think they are. Some of these losses are our fault, yet we never accept responsibility for them. Some of our losses leave us realizing how much we treasured what was lost. Some losses impress upon us how deeply we have been blessed.
The woman searches, but she is not sure that she will find her coin. Searching is not finding. This woman searched her house, not knowing if the coin was there. Likewise, when my mother, children and friends searched for that lost dog, they did so with the gnawing fear that what they were looking for might never be found. They learned the Biblical truth that searching is one form of grace, but finding something you’ve lost is another grace altogether. Finding something you’ve lost is a rich expression of divine grace. The more you search, the more you know that finding something you’ve lost takes the form of a gift. When that woman found her lost coin, she went to her neighbors and said excitedly, “Rejoice with me!” When that four-legged hairball had sense enough to find a golf course and lie down on the first tee, figuring that somebody would take pity on her and restore her to her family, her finding touched off a celebration in our household. Searching is one form of grace. But finding something you’ve lost is a greater grace — a very rich form of grace.
Some treasures we lose gradually, some treasures we lose abruptly, and some treasures we lose willfully. The prodigal son willfully leaves his father’s home. He leaves his father’s house because he doesn’t think he can find himself under the shadow of his father, so he willfully goes into the far country to live in a fatherless world. There he believes he will find himself, and he does — but not in the way he expects. First, he loses himself in frivolous and superficial living, losing in the process his property, his dignity, his identity, his community and his sense of family. Only then, says Jesus, does he “come to himself.” This good Jewish boy is reduced to slopping hogs, the depth of profanation. Then he realizes that his true identity is as his father’s son. But by then he knows he has squandered his inheritance, has made so many foolish choices, that justice demands that he go back to his father’s household only as a slave. But when he returns, he sees his father running down the road to him, embracing him as a son and saying to him what I said to young Neal, “Son, we are going to walk the remainder of this pilgrimage together.” Then he sees his father and himself as if for the first time. Searching is grace. Finding is grace. But being found is the greatest grace of all.
Whenever I ponder the fifteenth chapter of Luke, with its many forms of “lost and found,” I think back to a pivotal parable in my own life. Years ago, I was a Baptist RA camp counselor in the Talladega National Forest, responsible for teaching wilderness skills to boys. One way I would do this was by getting these 5th and 6th grade boys lost. Every week I’d get a new batch of kids, and every week I’d get them lost by taking a new hiking trail, then miraculously trailblazing a new one back home. One week I went too far. I had a particularly exceptional group of kids and showed them a far peak. I told them we would be at that peak by 4 pm. I didn’t have a map, a compass, or even a watch, but we reached that peak at exactly 4 pm. I could hear the kids whispering, “This guy’s unbelievable. He can take us anywhere!” Little did they know how true that statement was about to become.
I was so confident in my navigating skills that I didn’t watch where I was going as I led the kids back to camp. I took a wrong turn. Only when we reached the bottom of a big trail did I realize that I had taken them down the wrong side of the mountain. No problem, I thought, it won’t take more than a few minutes to find the right trail. But after an hour of “adjustments” I had to admit to my kids that we were lost, news that didn’t surprise them. Then I did a really stupid thing – a really stupid thing. I was so desperate to find the right path that I told the kids to stay together right where they were, and I would go find the trail alone. My search for the right trail took me a little ways away – then a little farther away – then a little farther away, but finally, after thirty minutes of looking I found what I was sure was the right trail. By then I only had one problem: I had found the trail — but I had lost my kids. Even after more than forty years, I can still feel the electric current of fear that coursed through my body. I was a college student at the time, undergoing an intense period of doubt about whether God was real or not, struggling to know whether my faith involved a true relationship or was just a childhood habit. But when I realized that I had lost those kids in the wilderness, I felt keenly my weakness, my foolishness — and my neediness. I felt the need for God’s help, and I fell on my knees in prayer, imploring: “Lord, I beg you, please help me find my kids. Bless me with the gift of finding them.” Then I rose and took off running, running like a wild man through and over briars, rocks, trees, and bushes, slicing my hands, tearing my legs — I didn’t care. Every so often I stopped and screamed, “Hello!!!” What I heard in return was dead silence. Do you know what it is like to scream with every fiber of your being and hear nothing but silence in return? Devastating! I interpreted that silence as the silence of God. I was angry at God for His silence. I ran more and screamed again, “Hello!!!” Silence. Silence. I was angry at God for His indifference – yet it had been my willful bad choices that had caused me to lose those kids. Finally, I screamed again, and this time I thought I heard a child’s voice. I yelled again, and I heard a faint yelling in return, and I kept yelling and they kept yelling, and we kept yelling and running until we could see each other, and those kids fell upon my neck in tears of joy. Searching is grace! Finding is grace! But being found is the greatest gift of grace! I said, “Boys, we’re headed home.”
But we weren’t. I led the boys to what I thought was the trail, only to realize quickly that it was not really the one I was looking for. In truth, I had no idea where I was. Dusk was falling, and a light rain had begun to fall. The boys were exhausted and famished, and I knew I had pushed these children to their physical and emotional limits, so I bedded them down in pallets of pine straw. But before we lay down to rest, I gathered them together for one last prayer. I said, “Lord, we have come as far as our own strength can take us. If we are going to reach home, You’ll have to get us there. We have no more strength.” Now I know, that some preachers are like Charlie Jay; they have been known to exaggerate. But I swear before the Almighty this is true: no sooner had I said “Amen,” than we heard the sound of a trumpet. Not a heavenly trumpet – though it sounded heavenly to us — but the recording of a trumpet the camp played over the loud speaker to call folks to evening devotionals at base camp. We leaped up and ran in the direction of the trumpet and hadn’t gone more than an hundred yards when I saw a light. I saw the light! It was the street light that marked the outskirts of camp. Somehow, someway, we had marched all the way around the wrong side of the mountain to come to the edge of camp from a direction no one deemed possible. But we were home. Searching is grace. Finding is grace. But being found is the greatest grace of all! If only we will accept it.
That’s the parable of our lives, my friends. God calls us to seek, God calls us to search, God calls us to strive for the holy city of Zion, but we cannot reach it by our own strength. God must bring us the rest of the way home. But it is only as we search, only as we seek, only as we ache for the Kingdom that we can appreciate the grace of being found. Only in being found by God after we have searched for his deliverance can we appreciate the gift God offers us. Only a man who was a slave trader, who found himself shanghaied by pirates and sold as a slave himself, who escaped his slavery and wandered through the jungles of Africa to collapse on a shore starving and penniless, to be improbably rescued and ferried back home to England — only such a man with such an experience could pen the words, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost, but now I’m found. I was blind, but now I see.”
We can lose God’s Presence gradually. We can lose God’s Presence abruptly. We can lose God’s Presence willfully. But God intends for us to search for the divine Kingdom and to make our way back toward God’s company, drawn back by God’s light. Only when we truly search for God’s Kingdom, and only when we place ourselves in a position to allow God to take us the rest of the way home, that’s when we have truly fathomed the depth of God’s saving grace. Only then, do we know who we really are. For being found by God is the greatest grace of all.