The most profound spiritual truths are often best described in the simplest terms —something Jesus was very good at. He has a way with words. Losing or being lost, finding or being found — these common experiences resonate and touch on the deep human hunger for connection.
In my chaplaincy days, I often encountered “Betty,” a patient in her late 50s who could best be described as a lost soul. She had been raised in immense privilege, surrounded by material comfort. But she struggled, even as a young child, feeling lost, unloved. The complexities of her family life combined with her own unmanageable deep-seated sorrow and anger led to her regular admissions to the hospital, where skilled clinicians would attempt to help her sort things out, learn to value her life, and find healthy ways to engage with others.
On our visits, she would pour out her soul: all the ways she had been abandoned, or wronged, or betrayed, or disappointed, or mistreated, or misunderstood. It was pretty grim. Usually I could find a way to listen empathetically, although it was challenging. But one time — perhaps it was the end of the day, perhaps I was tired — I had reached my limit on hearing her seemingly endless litany of misfortune. I had reached some internal tipping point and for whatever reason wasn’t able to detach myself from her pain in the way I needed to, to be an effective support to her. Something had to change.
“Betty,” I asked. “What’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you?”
Oh, she said. It’s when I was confirmed — and here she named the church where this took place (and this was probably at least four decades earlier), and the bishop who officiated. Even the few phrases she used to talk about the event seemed to brighten her eyes, and lift her voice from its usual sad monotone.
I don’t know exactly what response I was expecting when I asked the question, but her answer did surprise me.
What was it about being confirmed, I asked, that made it such a good experience?
She paused — then said, Well, I really felt that I was part of something larger than myself.
Betty had been trapped inside herself, unable to escape. But on that day, she not only saw but walked through an opening to something larger, brighter, more loving, more open, than she had ever experienced before. And just as her own heart was lifted, I suspect there was rejoicing in heaven.
St Augustine of Hippo understood and articulated the “deep-calling-to-deep” nature of the relationship between mortals and God, between God and mortals. “You made us for yourself,” he wrote, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
The timeless themes of being lost, being found, are tied together with another timeless theme: that of desire. Think of God’s question to Adam, early on in the Garden; “Where are you?” Now we can be pretty sure that God knew exactly where Adam and Eve were, and exactly what had gone down with the snake and the tree and the fruit — but God gave Adam the chance to answer for himself. God’s desire was for Adam to speak, to recognize where he was, who he was, and what he had done. It’s a fairly simple transaction, and one whose outcome we know well.
Then there’s Moses, engaging in complex negotiations with God on more than one occasion. “Turn from thy fierce wrath and repent of this evil against thy people.” Whoa. God should repent?! But in the end mercy prevails. And if God can repent, certainly each one of us can learn to repent.
Then there’s the shepherd and the lost sheep; the woman and the lost silver coin. Sheep (as far as we know) don’t repent, nor do coins. But it’s not about them, it’s about God. “God’s mercy breaks through all human restrictions of how God should act toward sinners. God’s mercy, indeed, is as foolish as a shepherd who abandons 99 sheep to save one, as a woman who turns her house upside down to retrieve a paltry sum.”
God searches for us abundantly, loves us abundantly, forgives us abundantly, without expectation. The forgiveness is already and only when we realize this, then we repent, then our hearts and lives change.
Scratch the surface of this divine desire, of deep-calling-to-deep, and what do you find? Love. To quote that esteemed theologian, Woody Guthrie: “The books of the holy bible never say but one time just exactly what God is, and in those three little words it pours out a hundred million college educations and says, God Is Love.”
Paul knows this when he confesses to Timothy, “I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
If you are lost, welcome! God’s been looking for you. If you are a sinner, welcome! Receive God’s mercy. If you labor and are heavy laden, welcome! God will refresh you. If your soul is hungry, welcome! God has prepared a meal for you. As Paul himself would later say to his fellow shipwrecked sailors, “I beg you to take some food, for this is the beginning of your rescue.”