I am always misplacing things that are important, as anyone who has lived with me can tell you. I lose my wallet on a weekly basis, each time convinced that I am the victim of theft. I leave my glasses somewhere I can’t find them. I leave my contact lenses in strange places. I leave my car keys in a different place every single day, and in the morning, I rush around the house hunting for them, sometimes shouting to no one in particular, “Where are my keys?!” I’ve lost important phone numbers and contact information, most recently the name and number of the realtor who is looking for a church for us to purchase.
Regardless of what I’ve misplaced or lost, I always look for it frantically. I search the most likely places. I look in less likely places. I even look in places I know I wouldn’t put my stuff, knowing it won’t be there. Sometimes I’m methodical and I remove the drawers and reshuffle every pile of papers on my desk, chair, stool, cabinet, bookcase and file cabinet. Not to mention the piles of papers I keep on the floor in the office. But sometimes, I still can’t find it—whatever it is.
When I moved to Fort Wayne 13 years ago, I couldn’t find some family photos that were important to me. Some years later, I did find them in the same box in which I had packed them, buried under black leather pants and a zippered shirt from the 1980s that were too cool to dispose of.
We’ve all lost things before. Some were misplaced, some were accidentally set down, some were dropped unknowingly. Some end up in “lost and found” boxes in places we don’t even remember visiting and there are always those things that end up in our jacket pockets that we find weeks, months or even years later.
Because we have all lost things, we know all about the emotions described in the two short parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. We know all about frantic searching that doesn’t end until we have found what we lost. We can relate to the shepherd and the woman who search for the lost sheep and lost coin respectively. We can share vicariously in their joy when they do find what they lost because we ourselves have some experience with that joy, but also with the sorrow that comes from searching for something precious and not ever finding it again.
I threw my high school class ring into the depths of Lake Winnebago during a tumultuous period with my high school sweetheart. I have lost contact with friends with whom I promised to remain close, losing the relationship to time. I have lost opportunities to express my feelings to people I love, and then losing these people to death, with my feelings left unspoken. We all know what it means to search and search only to realize some things cannot be found.
This is partly what made the events of September 11, 2001, so unbearable at the beginning. The news reports from New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. made it clear that we lost a great many people, but in the beginning we were also hopeful about finding other survivors. The longer those searches continued, however, the less hope we held that they would be found alive. Over 3,000 people were lost in piles of rubble that are almost inconceivable.
But as we have each, in our own way, observed the anniversary of these events, I have come to realize that we are—all of us–still searching. We’re searching in Fort Wayne, we’re searching in Milwaukee and Chicago, and we’re still searching in New York. We’re searching as individuals and we’re searching as a nation. We search as Christians, Muslims, Jews and as members of other faith traditions.
We’re not looking for lost possessions or someone to blame, although the latter has certainly been part of our shared journey over the past 9 years. We’re really looking for explanations and for reasons to believe in a future that makes sense. On a fundamental level, we know that the illusory foundations on which we built our society were challenged and shaken, but we’re searching in a way that suggests something has been misplaced. It’s as if we know we had the answer at one point in time, and only now are we realizing that we no longer have it.
When we lose something, we start by reflecting on when and where we last had it in our possession. When I lose my car keys, for instance, I start by asking myself what else I was doing when I came in from the car. The groceries sometimes lead me to find the keys in the fridge, right where I left them. We always find what is missing in the last place we look…isn’t this true?
It might be argued that we as a nation never experienced anything so traumatic as 9/11. So what has changed? Some will say we lived in more innocent times and they point to CNN and the continual live reporting on the event. Others will say it was the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism and can be traced back to the Iranian hostage crisis in the 1970s. Still others will say it began when Americans became drunk on power and on their ability to manipulate world events. Still others will suggest it began when we stopped allowing prayer in public schools. Some will say we never really had it in the first place, but I disagree. We had it when we were children. We had it before puberty, when the outside world made it clear that we had better conform or pay some pretty stiff penalties.
I believe the essential reality we are missing is faith in the abiding presence of God. There is, to use an image from Karl Rahner, a “God shaped space” within each of us. Sometimes we have come close to experiencing and embracing this mystery, but then we back away from the heat of the flame in fear. We let the opportunity slip away and we begin, again and again, in the frantic search for God, somehow convinced that if we push hard enough, we will find what we need on our own initiative.
But God is a mystery, and lies beyond our so-called knowledge, and God exists most powerfully, not in some heaven light years away, but within ourselves. You and I have come of age in an era that stresses intellectual accomplishment. We know the speed of light; we know that E=MC2. We know how to build magnificent structures, we know how to fight fires, we know how to identify people through their DNA. We know how to use technology as both healer and weapon.
But none of that really satisfies us in the here and now. We look for God outside ourselves, forgetting that God is within us, and that God is just as anxious to find us. We look for God, considering him as something else we have misplaced or left in some neglected place. But it’s not God who is lost, it’s us. That’s why God has been frantic to find us, to embrace us, to love us unconditionally, to bring us home. Jesus tells us repeatedly that he came to seek the lost. His parables are meant to help us understand the mystery of God’s love. Notice that he does not ever say that he came to seek God—because God was never lost. Only we were.
We have come again to the anniversary of enormous loss this week. That loss has taken its toll on our spiritual and emotional health, and the rage these events inspired have wreaked havoc on the innocent throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. Violence begets more violence, and we perhaps now we are closer than ever to grasping this simple concept. What I do know for certain is that God has been weeping with us, for God has not abandoned us anymore than he has abandoned the Iraqis or the Afghanis. I know from personal experience that God looks especially hard for us in the midst of our struggles and challenges and grieving.
Scripture tells us that all of heaven rejoices when God finds us. And no trauma, no disaster, no peril can separate us from God. God’s frantic search for us has ended the way it was meant to: we now belong wholly to God. St. Paul says it best: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38-39)