I was tasked this past week to find hand sanitizer. Not to stockpile or to hoard, but to obtain 2 reasonably priced bottles. At last check, 2 bottles were going for about $49. on Amazon, and the three places that I checked locally had bare shelves. And if we didn’t already realize it, the store’s bare shelves, the coronavirus, and the drive to protect ourselves and our loved ones, as well as our colleagues, friends, and perfect strangers are evidence of just how intimately connected humanity is in this health crisis, as well as other matters.
My family did not succeed in buying hand sanitizer last week, but we did succeed in temporarily setting aside our fears of troubling viruses, large gatherings, and the news that, yet again in the year 2020, another woman would not assume leadership of the highest perceived office in the Nation. On Saturday, we went to a Tiger 500 rally. I almost politely excused us, but it was a Scout relay race and our pack would be down two runners if we were a “no-show.” So, I gathered our things and got us out the door and to another church’s fellowship hall. Praise God for collective, intentional distraction! For 2 hours, it was a blessed reprieve from the news, fear and disappointment of this past week. It was balm for the weary, to be sure.
Our scripture is about losing that one precious thing: leaving the 99 sheep to find the one who has nibbled itself into dangerous territory or the one coin that slips between the bed slats and quietly rolls into a dusty corner to be searched out of oblivion by a broom-wielding woman who likely couldn’t afford the loss.
But I find myself focusing less and less this week on the recovery of what has been deemed “lost” and all the subsequent rejoicing that ensues in our biblical stories. Instead, I wonder more about the people and things that do not want to be found—indeed, those that resist being found—those that, quite honestly, would rather remain lost in oblivion because the “finding” often brings unwanted reminders of unresolved pain.
There is pain in being “found” or having unresolved pain “found out.” Yes, the prodigal’s father rejoices at the return of the son, but deep pain resides in the older brother’s eyes and in his refusal to attend the party. And there is pain, I believe, for the prodigal son too. He is reminded of his failures and losses when he looks, each time, at the stability of his brother, parents, and the villagers. While he has been away squandering his inheritance, they’ve been slowly accumulating gain upon gain. There is real pain in comparing oneself on an invisible yardstick of success that would have been or could have been ours, had “we only done such and such,” or so we erroneously think and perceive. For some people, that pain is simply too much to bear. I have a friend whose brother hasn’t spoken or given even an address to his sister or parents in over 5 years. A rare postcard arrives without a return address. The sister alternates between being angry and being resigned. My friends would try to find him if they could do so, but he obviously wants to remain in hiding. How does one find what refuses to be found? One can only love at a distance and, even then, the love is like sending a message in a bottle on stormy seas with no assured destination.
There is pain in discovering that the ways in which we try to hide or conceal ourselves really aren’t such great hiding places at all. Recently, my boys and I watched the PG movie “Abominable” and Everest, the adorably large Yeti, tried to conceal himself under a shaggy pile of rope and pass himself off as just another shaggy rust colored steer gathering on the docks. Not surprisingly, the Yeti failed in the attempt when one of the steers accidentally pulled away the Yeti’s disguise with his horns. Yet, haven’t we all tried to hide our pain in ways that seemed to make perfect sense at the time? Maybe we haven’t tried to hide our selves in a tangled pile of rope, but we can try to hide our very real fears in our frantic rushing about, or in our stoicism, in our acquisitiveness, or in our drive to win the family argument or in some momentary control that we think we have.
So, we shouldn’t be surprised when we try to stockpile supplies even when we are urged to remain calm by the powers that be and to more regularly wash our hands. Some might say we are rebelling against our mortality and the sobering awareness that some things, despite all healthy and reasonable precaution and common sense, are simply beyond our control. Even in the face of contagion, we do not like to be reminded that we cannot actually “go it alone” when we are so used to taking matters into our own hands and under our own steam. I am reminded of those people who try, against all advice, to stay in their homes during an impending hurricane, wanting to go it alone, that is, until they pray for rescue workers to find them marooned in the attic.
What was it like for the coin, the sheep, or the brother to be found? The text tends to underline the perspective of the One who perceived the loss and set about searching high and low—shepherd, woman, and loving parent. We, too, know what it is like to lose something dear to us and to fear never regaining it again. Our health, for some of us. Our time, for others. For others, our dreams or our innocence or our money. And yet, what if what was actually lost was the pain of never measuring up, or the sense of impending doom, or the pain of a low-level anxiety that refuses to abate? Would those losses be grieved if they fell into dusty corners or simply failed to return? Would we tend to overly focus as much on the 1 day of pain when we’ve been given 99 pain-free moments?
I suppose it depends upon how consuming the loss is. But I do think that none of us can come to wholeness when we deny or perpetually ignore the forlorn parts of ourselves that feel and endure pain, suffering, and hardship. We might rather leave these things in the past, or in a closet, or buried among the kids’ outgrown toys and books, but we don’t function well we leave out those unresolved parts of our story, parts of our lives, scattered about as if they are fit only for the trash.
What do we learn to do with unresolved pain or loss, whether is emotional, spiritual, or some other kind? Do we put it away or throw it aside? Do we endure its presence like an unwanted but frequent guest? For many, there is fear of heaping pain upon pain. Those who are already fighting emphysema or lung issues have understandable fear in contracting yet another painful, potent virus. Likewise, those who are already coping with the pain of loss or who are only now finding stable footing in their lives or in the economy or in changed circumstances do not relish having yet another threat inching towards them on the horizon.
Still, our scripture helps us, in the most basic way, to explore our own unresolved issues and fears through timeless stories. We are encouraged to trust that the woman who seeks the lost coin, the parent who seeks the lost child, and the shepherd who leaves the 99 for the 1 who wandered away are in some ways like us. They, like us, must make the best choice they can with the information they have at the moment. They, too, yearn for what is precious to return, even when what is precious refuses to be found. They, too, must deal with the fear of risk, of living life under threats of all kinds, and still believing that a gathering of children can bring joy and distraction from the problems and pain of living, even if only for a few hours. They, too, try to trust the truth that a good excuse for a party is understanding the abundance you already have, whether having one more at your table, in your home, in your heart, or in your purse, whether a coin, a kid, a missing lamb, or another mouth to feed.
Part of my night-time routine is a kind of check. Eyes, teeth, kids, keys, cat, doors, car, phone, and next day’s weather all have to be accounted for. Perhaps you have your own list. I was going through the list and taking out my contacts—multitasking as I urged the kids to get in bed already and go to sleep. When I remove my contacts I need to remember which is which, right or left, if I want to be able to see clearly the next day. For weeks, I’ve been using a contact case that has a heart on one side and an “R” on the other side. And for the longest time, I did not understand WHY a heart was imprinted on the left side of the case—why would anyone do this– until I remembered that the heart is located on the left side of the body. Every time that I take my contacts out, I have to think intentionally, “Where is my heart?” to figure out which contact goes where.
It isn’t a bad way to end the day—figuring out where my heart is. Like many, like you—perhaps—I lost my heart somewhat regularly to lesser things. I lose my heart to worry, to fears, to problems that have no solution at 10 pm when I am tired and cranky. Jesus knew that his disciples would lose both lesser and greater things during their lives: coins, property, livestock, and all manner of family and relationships. Things that they wanted to lose and things that they did not. The woman who searches high and low for the coin, the shepherd who tramps in the mud to retrieve the sheep, and the parent who runs out to greet the grown child making his or her way home have all had to ask themselves, “Where is my heart?”
And by asking that question, fears and worries are set temporarily set aside, pain is endured—even the unresolved kind—in order to find their stumbling, searching way to an answer.
May it be so for us.