Like many women, I have given a lot of my life to taking care of others. When I was growing up, my brothers got Tonka trucks to move dirt around and I got dolls to take care of. I look at the career choices I’ve made—by and large, they have to do with taking care of, nurturing, developing, teaching. And especially, as a clergy person, serving.
In late 2011 my mother was dead—the model of sacrificial service who had taught me well. Maria was spinning further and further out of my capacity to care for her. There was still plenty to do in ministry but having diabetes was simply too real to ignore. And so I began to walk.
My decision to walk was different than others I had made. Sure, I had whiled away hours reading or sewing or knitting or visiting with friends. This wasn’t to pass time away, this was to claim it in all its depth and breadth and meaning. This was a decision to reclaim my life. And then, for very practical reasons I chose to walk at night—that was when it least impacted my husband, my daughter, my work.
Some of the stretches of the sidewalk on Riverland Road are paved in blacktop and on moonless or overcast nights, I have been more than a little disoriented. There are unlit areas where I am always unsure. Recently, a pit bull came right at me out of the dark and it was by the grace of God and his human companion’s strength that he did not get to me because he was hell bent on attacking. I felt that awful sting of adrenaline zooming all the way out to my fingertips. I was reminded that there are monsters in the night. Walking in darkness has become for me a very powerful metaphor about my existence as I know it today.
You can call it the dark night of the soul, as the mystics do. Ignatius of Loyola, whose thought and spirituality has shaped my own, describes it as desolation. You can call it being blind and lame. Jesus calls it being a sinner and a tax collector. There are many ways to approximate this truth about ourselves, but in the end, it comes to the same. We know, we know only too well, what it means to be lost.
We know what it is like to go from oblivious to mildly concerned to anxious to agitated to frantic and desperate so our every movement entangles us more, till exhausted and powerless, we collapse.
Today’s gospel tells us that our Good Shepherd knows this about the human condition. Today’s Gospel insists that our Good Shepherd will not stop looking until the lost sheep is found. Today’s Gospel reminds us that finding even the least of the sheep, the runt, the one we all love to hate, the one no one has even noticed went missing, is worthy of celebration.
But we should not fool ourselves. This being found by Jesus is not all sparklers and confetti and victory parades. Don Schutte is a Jesuit musician who has composed a piece of music that is no great masterpiece. But it speaks powerfully to me. The song, Holy Darkness, says, “I have tried you in fires of affliction; I have taught your soul to grieve, I have showed you the cost of compassion”.
I have come to believe that the essence of our lostness is our unwillingness to face directly, and honestly, without artifice or pretension, into the hard, frightening, potentially destructive aspects of life. I didn’t want afflictions, especially the fires of my daughter’s afflictions. Who amongst us wants to learn the harsh and beautiful lessons of grief? Compassion costs? I want a volunteer job that I can do in five minutes and makes me feel good about myself, not one that costs.
Our culture does little to encourage us to accept the complexity of human existence, the tragedies that life brings with it. And when you cannot run any longer, when there is simply no more energy or light left, there is the searing loneliness that comes with being lost.
Holy Darkness makes one last claim, a claim that goes to the heart of God’s love for us. “In the barren soil of your loneliness, there I will plant my seeds.” God’s reign breaks in to the places of desolation and turns all that lost and brokenness into something new.
We are lost and the good shepherd won’t stop looking for us. We are lost and it is there that we find the light, the hope, and the life. We are lost and we we have already been found.