December 30, 2012
What goes around comes around. At least it seems in parenting. My mother didn’t like taking me shopping when I was a little girl. And it wasn’t necessarily because I acted up or threw temper tantrums. It was because I deliberately got lost. We would be in a department store, she would turn to look for whatever it was that she was there to buy, and I would slip away.
My mom learned not to panic too much because she knew what was coming next. I liked to get lost because I learned very early on that all I had to do was find a salesperson and say, “I’m lost from my mommy.” The salesperson would take me to customer service and announce my description and name over the PA system and in a few minutes, my mother would come and pick me up. I really liked hearing my name on the loudspeaker. Yet when I became a parent, I understood why my mother found that tiresome.
Although bad things certainly happened to little kids when I was that little kid, we didn’t seem to hear about it as much. Now I know full well what can happen to a little one when they get separated from a parent in a store, and there are no words to describe the panic and terror you feel when you realize your child isn’t with you.
Zach was my child who liked to wander away. I tell this story with his permission. He is the child who taught me how terrifying it is to lose your child. In 2005 we were planning our first trip to Greece to see my sister and her family. Phoebe was just six and Zach was three-and-a-half. It was February, President’s Day weekend, and we were leaving in March. We all had the day off of school and we went to the mall in Rochester, Minnesota to do some shopping for the trip. By the time we actually got to the mall, it was lunch time so we went to the food court first. Phoebe had to go to the bathroom so Matt took her while Zach and I stood in line for his lunch. I had just gotten the food when Zach started to walk away from me. I had my eye on him. I warned him to stay by me. But he would slide a little further away, grinning at this game we were playing. I was just about to follow him and end the game when I dropped my change. I bent down to pick it up, looked down for a millisecond, looked back up and he was gone. Because schools were out the mall was crowded. And he was one little boy in the midst of hundreds of people. I didn’t panic at first thinking I would see him in just a second, but seconds were going by fast and he was gone! Matt and Phoebe returned. I took Phoebe and Matt went over to the Disney store right across from the Food Court. We hoped that Zach would go there. No Zach. But the saleslady called security for us.
I’m sure I must have looked as panicked as I felt. It was obvious that we were looking for a child, and a crowd of people were gathering around listening to the description I gave to the security officer. Suddenly another mother said, “Is that him?” And here comes Zach zigzagging down the long hallway toward me.
I have never been so relieved and so angry all at the same time. I dropped to my knees, took him by the shoulders and started crying, all while I was saying, yelling, “Where have you been? You scared me half to death!” Then I hugged him and cried harder. I suspect that every parent who witnessed this knew exactly how I felt.
When we read this story about Jesus being lost, I can imagine pretty clearly how Mary and Joseph must have felt as well. Jesus was twelve, still a child according to Jewish custom, but old enough to know not to get lost. Mary and Joseph were devout Jews and they made the trip to Jerusalem to Passover as religious law required. It was probably about a three day trip on foot. And they would have traveled in a large company of extended family and fellow sojourners. So when they headed for home, it’s understandable that they wouldn’t have known exactly where Jesus was. I imagine that they assumed he was walking with other folks in their party. But when they went to look for him, he wasn’t there. He wasn’t anywhere. And I don’t care who you are or at what you time you lived, when your child is missing, you’re scared. You panic. Mary shared the same emotions that I felt and that every parent feels. Jesus was gone. So they turn around and head back the way they came. Indeed they go all the way back to Jerusalem. They search for three days. Three days! Finally they find him in the temple listening and learning from the teachers, the rabbis. In fact he was astounding and amazing the teachers at his wisdom and understanding.
Can you imagine the absolute relief Mary and Joseph felt when they saw him sitting there? Can you also imagine the anger they felt when they saw him sitting there? Mary says, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” Jesus responds, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” They didn’t understand the meaning of his words, but he goes back to Nazareth with them and obeys them from that point on.
Once when I was a teenager, I was preparing to head out the door. My mother asked me where I was going and I said, “Out.” Her response back was not something that I like to share. I cannot fathom how she would have responded had she and my dad been looking for me for three days and I had responded as Jesus did. “Why were you searching for me?”
My 21st century ears hear a snotty tone in Jesus’ voice. But I don’t think that Jesus was trying to be a smart alec. I think that he just responded honestly. Even at twelve, even as a child, Jesus knew that his identity and purpose in life was wrapped up in the teachings of God his father. When he says that he must be in his Father’s house, he was telling the truth. He must be in his Father’s house. That was his identity. He knew, instinctively, cognitively, emotionally that his identity was intimately tied to his Father’s identity. And his father in this sense was not Joseph, but God.
If this were any other twelve year old we might find it remarkable that someone so young would have such a keen grasp on his whole purpose for being. Let’s face it I’m a lot older than twelve, and I’m not there yet.
But what would it be like if I did?
In these last days of the year, I think we all look back at the last twelve months and reflect on what’s happened and what hasn’t. What have we accomplished? What did we miss? Where did we succeed? Where did we fail? Was this past year one that we’re just glad to survive? Or would we go back and relive it if we could? At the end of every year I find myself asking questions about identity and purpose. Have I come a little closer to understanding who I am and why I’m here, or am I still just as confused as ever?
Jesus knew that his identity and purpose and meaning and reason for being were wrapped up in God’s purposes. He didn’t need to spend years trying to find himself, or ponder his entire existence trying to sort it all out. He turned toward God and knew who he was. Of course he was the Son of God. What else could he do? But shouldn’t we all do that as well? Being lost isn’t just getting separated from your parents in a mall, it can also be a state of being. One way I think this happens is in the way we try to measure ourselves against an ideal of success that isn’t real; that’s based on criteria that is artificial. Success becomes something we can buy. It becomes what we own or how we look. I know that my identity isn’t found in the size of my home or the car that I drive or the jewelry I wear or the clothes that I purchase. But it feels like it sometimes, doesn’t it? And if I give into that too much, and try to find my identity in those things, I wind up disappointed and feeling more lost than ever before.
So what do we do? What do we do? We increase. After Jesus told his parents that they should have known to look for him in his Father’s house, he obediently returns to Nazareth with them, and there he increased in wisdom and in years.
Even though Jesus may have known this about himself at 12, he doesn’t start his public ministry until he’s 30. And while we don’t know the specific details of what he did in those years, we can surmise this. He increased. He increased in wisdom. He increased in understanding. He increased in prayer, in study. He increased.
I think that’s my hope for this new year. I won’t be making sweeping resolutions. I just plan on increasing, in prayer, in study, hopefully in wisdom, bit by bit, day by day. I know that I won’t figure out the deepest purpose of my existence in these next twelve months, but I also know that if I just keep living into the questions, maybe the answers will seem a little clearer this time next year.
But even more than wisdom, I hope that in the days and months ahead, I increase in love. I want to increase in my compassion and empathy and concern. I hope that my increase is enacted more fully in my words and in my deeds. Because I think, when it comes right down to it, as I increase in love, the rest will work itself out. So in this new year, in every new day, let us increase. Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”