At the house where I specifically remembered as my grandmother’s, there was an old black man kneeling on the ground, tending his garden. I asked him, “Do you know where my grandmother is?” “I don’t know your grandmother,” was all he replied. I stepped back to look down the long lines of townhouses. They all looked alike. Somewhere I had made a mistake, but I could figure out what it was. What I did know was that I was lost. I ran back down the sidewalk to start again where I had ended to retrace my steps again, but I couldn’t find anything familiar. To make up for time, I started to cut between houses and across backyards. But the more I searched for home, the farther away I felt.
Somehow I had ended up at the edge of a narrow stream. And there I froze. And then I remembered what my father had told me again and again, “If you ever get lost, stop where you are, and I will find you.” And so I stopped. And a peace came over me. And I sat down and waited, picking up a nearby twig and aimlessly poked it into the ground, never not believing for a moment that my father wouldn’t find me. And after some time, I scanned a tall figure rounding the corner of a house in the distance. He saw me and made a straight line for me as I raced to him. My father scooped all three feet of me up into his six-foot-two frame and carried me back home where I belonged, where I was safe once again.
My father didn’t scold me, for he knew that I knew what I had done was wrong and dangerous, but instead he just kissed me and hugged me tight in an embrace that I knew as the safest place in the world. He was as happy as I was.
In Jesus’ parable of “The Lost and Found Sheep,” Jesus illustrates God’s attitude toward a repentant sinner with this question and action: "Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it? When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing.”
As God rejoices at our return, my father found me and rejoiced. He rejoiced that I had been found. And, he rejoiced in knowing that I would not be wandering off again anytime soon. This was, in fact, all that I needed, to be found and to feel loved. With my arms around his neck, I discovered how happy I was because I was missed. I thought I had left unnoticed. But soon after I disappeared my father began looking for me, as, unknown to me, I was never far from his thoughts, even in the melee of a crowded celebration. My absence palpable to him. And so he immediately searched for his lost son, with only one thought—to hold him close again.
It is those ready, outstretched arms in which he gathered me up that are now to what my thoughts often drift back.
In Corinthians, Love is defined by what it does and what it does not. In one of the simplest expressions, it is written, “Love never fails.” In other words, if the love is true, it will be constant, dependable, insurmountable, and without conditions. And of course, this is God’s love for us. And this was my father’s love for me.
I had begun taking French horn lessons in the third grade. I hated the French horn, but I wanted to be in the school band, and there were already far too many trumpeters. The band director talked me into the French horn; he really sold me on it. And so my dad bought one “on time” from a music dealer he knew. It was an expensive instrument in those days, at $239. But the case was this, what I imagined to be, solid wood, bulging affair. Three days a week I had to lug it to and from the school bus stop on the other side of the apartment complex. To this day I’m sure it’s why my left arm can easily drop out of socket.
When summer arrived, I propped the instrument in the corner of my bedroom and began covering it little by little with laundry. Sometime in August, as I neared the beginning of another new school year, my dad asked, “Did you practice at all this summer?”
“Really,” he followed, his big eyebrows raised.
“No, really.” I knew he’d be mad if I hadn’t, especially because the instrument was so costly. It was just my instinct to avoid a scolding. And, there was absolutely no way I could tell him how much I hated the French horn, in spite of the aptitude he felt I possessed. “I played a few times,” I added.
“I believe you.”
He believed me! What he was really saying was that he was going to go along with me, but he knew full well that I was lying. Lying to him was about unconscionable. Everyone knew my dad as a man who lived his life with Abe Lincoln honesty. I knew it, too. And there I was lying to this man. It didn’t take me long to crack. I decided to take my punishment, which I had made worse by lying.
As he was leaving the room, he spun around when I said, “Dad, I didn’t practice at all.” And my eyes began to well up. And then something quite unexpected happened. He didn’t yell at me or punish me. Instead, he reached out for me and again swallowed me up in his arms, lifting me high and pressing me close to him.
“It’s okay,” he said, and he repeated, “It’s okay.”
He wasn’t even mad. Again, he was rejoicing having me back where I belonged. He was receiving me as God receives us back into his arms, no matter how we’ve lost our way. He finds us, as my father always found me, ready to scoop me up and hold me close and tight again in safe, unfailing arms. Not to scold. Not to punish. But to love.