Sunday, May 10, 2009

In Search of the Lost

(Read Matthew 18:10-14 and Psalm 139:1-18 )

On April 27th, it was my niece, Soleil’s, birthday. When my sister asked her what she wanted for her 3rd birthday, Soleil said that she either wanted a Barbie car, which means one of those big Barbie cars that she could drive herself and retails at about $300, or she wanted a ribbon for her hair.

How sweet she is, and with no concept of money at all. As you can imagine, Aunt Mandy went with buying her a ribbon for her hair. Maybe Santa will bring her the Barbie car.

Children are a great joy.

One of my favorite memories of children’s time during Sunday morning service was on Pentecost of 2006. I created a worship table with red candles to signify the Holy Spirit. I scattered red rubles all over the table as well. As a centerpiece, I placed a statue of two doves.

When the children came forward, I asked them, “Do you know what today is? Jack Milhaven replied, “Saturday!” I told him that no, it was Sunday, and not just any Sunday, but Pentecost. I explained how this was the day that we honored the Holy Spirit, who is often symbolized by a dove and a flame. The children came over to look at the worship table, and I asked them, “What’s on this table that represents the Holy Spirit?” I was hoping that they would notice the doves and the color red and the flame of the candles. But Jack gave an even better answer. What’s on the table? “Diamonds and pigeons,” Jack said. I still laugh whenever I think of that encounter.

Children are a great joy. Sure they can be demanding and unreasonable, but their innocence and openness are like life itself. Children are curious and imaginative. They are honest and excited. They are also sensitive, delicate and vulnerable.

There is a great deal of literature about how children know the secrets of life. One book by Robert Fulghum is called, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It extols such wisdom as: share everything, play fair, don’t take things that aren’t yours, and so on.

Jesus himself praises the virtue of children. In the Gospel according to Matthew, right before the parable of the lost sheep which we heard this morning, the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus called a child among them and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18: 1-5).

John Bradshaw, a New York Times bestselling author, wrote several books in relation to children. In the book, Home Coming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child, published in 1990, Bradshaw outlines 9 wonderful qualities that children possess. They are: wonder, optimism, naivete, dependence, emotions, resilience, free play, uniqueness and love. I want to say a word about uniqueness and love.

Uniqueness is a distinct characteristic in children. Clearly, no two children are alike. When we say that children are precious, what we are actually saying is that children are rare and valuable. Every child is special, unique and wonderful in their own way. A part of a child’s uniqueness is his or her spirituality. Bradshaw says that “Spirituality involves what is deepest and most authentic in us-our true self. When we are spiritual, we are in contact with our uniqueness and specialness” (Bradshaw, John. Home Coming. NY: Bantam Books, 1992. pg. 38). Children exude who they are. They have a sense of their essential being, their I AMness, as Bradshaw calls it. Every person’s I AMness is instilled in them from the great I Am, or God.

Love is another distinct characteristic in children. “Children are naturally predisposed to love and affection” (Ibid, pg. 39). They coo and giggle with delight when we give them love, and they give their love without holding back. The heart of a child is an open heart, in which love freely flows in and out.

However, when a child is not acknowledged for his or her uniqueness and when a child is not loved and accepted unconditionally, he or she is inflicted with spiritual wounds. This is the beginning of how we lose ourselves or how we get lost in life.

In regards to uniqueness, Bradshaw writes, “The child’s natural sense of his value and dignity is very precarious, as it demands immediate mirroring and echoing from a nurturing caretaker. If the caretaker doesn’t accurately and lovingly reflect the child as he is, he will lose the sense of being special and unique” (Ibid, pg. 38). The child will fall out of touch with his or her I AMness. “The story of every man’s and every woman’s fall is how a wonderful, valuable, special, precious child lost its sense of ‘I am who I am’” (Ibid, pg. 39).

A child who is not loved for who he or she is and is not loved unconditionally suffers the deepest of all deprivations. He or she also loses the sense of I AMness. As the child grows up, the “need for love never leaves…The hunger remains and [now the wounded adult] tries to fill this void [with various attachments and addictions] (Ibid, pg. 40).

The spiritual wounds we receive as children come from many sources over many years. Psychologists say our first years of life are the most formative, and it is the people who primarily take care of us during this time that have the most influence over us. This is why mothers and fathers are so important and valued. They are the ones who look into our eyes and tell us how loved we are. They are the ones who encourage us and tell us how special we are. But no one, not even the best mother in the whole world, can perfectly ensure that her child won’t be wounded in some way. Because it’s not just parents who are responsible, it’s grandparents, siblings, teachers, classmates, friends, parents of friends, pastors, Sunday school teachers. The way that all of these people interact with a child influences the kind of adult the child will become.

John Bradshaw writes a bit of his own story in Home Coming, recalling how what happened in his childhood negatively affected the adult he turned into. He says:

I remember one Christmas Eve when I was about 11 years old, lying in my darkened room with the covers pulled up over my head and refusing to speak to my father. He had come home late, mildly drunk. I wanted to punish him for ruining our Christmas. I could not verbally express anger, since I had been taught that to do so was one of the deadly sins, and especially deadly in regard to a parent. Over the years my anger festered in the mildew of my soul. Like a hungry dog in the basement, it became ravenous and turned into rage. Most of the time I guarded it vigilantly. I was a nice guy. I was the nicest daddy you’ve ever seen—until I couldn’t take it anymore. Then I became Ivan the Terrible (Ibid, pg. 7).

Each of us here has been wounded by our childhood in some way. Perhaps you remember a time when you went up to one of your parents filled with excitement, ready to tell them something or give them a hug, and the parent responded by saying, “Not now. I’m in the middle of watching this program or paying the bills or doing the dishes.” And right then, your heart closed just a little bit more so that you never gave love quite so exuberantly again. Most parents or grandparents or teachers or whoever don’t intentionally try to hurt or wound the children in their life, but it happens all the time. Anyone who doesn’t treat you with love and kindness or reflect back to you the special person you understand yourself to be can inflict a spiritual wound, especially when we are little and vulnerable and looking for reassurance.

As adults, this sort of thing isn’t quite as hurtful because we can rationalize. We understand that people say or do thoughtless words and deeds all the time, and that it is not necessarily about us. But children, they think everything is about them, that everything reflects back to them.

And here’s the thing. Wounded children grow into wounded adults. And wounded adults get lost like a sheep that has wandered off. They develop problems in their lives as they try to cope with not feeling loved or not knowing “who they are.” In addition to their own problems, wounded adults also inflict wounds onto their innocent children. And so the cycle perpetuates itself. Then, we have generations of people who don’t know how worthy of love they are. We have generations of people who have lost the sense that they are a unique, precious child of God, “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as Psalm 139:14 proclaims.

But God wants us to know how beloved and precious we are. God wants us to live knowing these things are true. God wants you to be the child you were created and intended to be when he knit you together in your mother’s womb.

The traditional interpretation of the parable of the lost sheep is that the sheep wandered off and became lost because of sin. That’s one way of looking at it. Another way to look at it is that the sheep was wounded as a child or adolescent, creating a distorted version of the self. And then, that wounded “sheep” lost his or her way and strayed from God.

But Jesus, who is the Good Shepherd, comes in search of every one of his sheep. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, comes in search of every one of us. When we have veered from the path and wandered off, he comes to find us and restore our God-likeness. Jesus comes to give us the love that we so desperately need and completely deserve. He comes to teach us again that we are unique, special and valuable in God’s sight. He comes to remind us of our I AMness so that we can live in touch with our deepest and most authentic self.

Jesus seeks us out and the Bible tells us of God’s great love for us, but we play a part in reclaiming ourselves. The sheep has to follow the shepherd once it is found. What is required of us is to go back and to think of the times when we were wounded as children, as adolescents, even in early adulthood. And to acknowledge how that has affected us. Maybe we were abused by a family member, and so we put up a wall to protect ourselves, but now, the wall only serves to keep us alone. Maybe we were ridiculed because of the clothes we wore and so we made money very important because we never wanted to give anyone a reason to ridicule us again, but now, the money has taken priority even though we live an unhappy life. Maybe we were told we were stupid or fat or worthless, and we believed it, so now we don’t even bother trying. The list goes on.

But when we know our particular hurts and wounds, then we can invite Jesus in to heal them. And he will. He will leave the whole flock of sheep just to find, just to save you or me. As it is written: “It is not the will of [our] Father in heaven that one of [us] should be lost” (Matthew 18:14). Inside of every adult is a wounded child that God wants to heal. It’s time to break the cycle.