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Lost and found.

Whether a sheep, a coin, a prodigal child--or us--God's heart longs for the lost.

IT'S NO ACCIDENT THAT Saint Anthony of Padua is one of the most popular saints on record. He s, the guy in charge of what s lost, and if there is any experience that defines our human condition more than loss, I don't know what it is.

We lose everything: keys, phone numbers, socks, jobs, money. We lose our way and often our temper. In the average lifetime, we lose heart, face, love, and our minds, on a more or less regular basis. We will also suffer the loss of those we cherish to separations, divorce, and death. Over the long haul, we'll misplace memories we thought we could never forget. Strength and ability will recede and disappear. As we lose our health, hope may fade, too. We lose our grip on the present, as the future shortens and the past disappears from view around the bend. In the final hour, we lose our lives.

Can it be that loss, in a peculiar perversion, wins?

Nothing gold can stay, Robert Frost once observed. Flesh is grass, Isaiah said. And all we can say--to everything we have and everything we hope to have--is goodbye. This mortality thing is badly designed. It's a leaky boat, and the shore to which we're headed is just a little farther off than our chances of attaining it alive.

Saint Anthony, pray for us, indeed! Or maybe this is the point where we switch allegiances to Saint Jude, the go-to guy when the cause itself is lost.

So what's the good news in all this? In a world full of loss--and a lifetime that can be measured in stages of defeat--our God is a God who saves. We Christians don't call our story salvation history for nothing. What is lost to us is never lost to God. God runs creation like a pawn shop. The precious things we are forced to surrender are out of our hands for a time, but God trails behind us and buys everything back, like a rich and beneficent friend.

That's what redemption literally means: to buy back. When our lives are lost to us finally in death, we are redeemed body and soul by the One whose plan all along was that nothing should be lost.

As a fail-safe demonstration of how it all works, we have the death and Resurrection of Jesus. Once a body was stripped and beaten, fastened to wood, pierced, and smothered. A life was stolen, a name defamed and discarded. What was left was laid in a tomb meant for somebody else. If anyone should have been lost to history as an utterly anonymous life, that person was Jesus. But God bought him back, replaced ignominy with glory and mortal life with eternity. Forget sorrow; what remains is seamless joy!

Jesus understood that what is lost will always be found, and then some. That's why he taught about a kingdom that works like a dragnet, dredging up everything long ago dropped or abandoned. He told stories about lost sheep, lost coins, and lost children. We can think of the lost sheep as ourselves; the lost coin as our abilities and dreams; the lost children as those whose fate continues to haunt us, left behind by decision or death. No matter who or what we fear is gone forever, we can be sure that the One who reigns over "forever" has other plans.

Certain gospel stories unpack the mystery for us. In the tale of the lost sheep, we are offered the somewhat silly notion that one wandering sheep is of more concern to the shepherd than 99 docile and obedient ones. Can it be that, the farther we turn away from grace, the more God's heart longs for us? If only we believed this, we would run toward forgiveness in the season when we feel most alien to it! But we find it hard to believe, for many reasons. Maybe because, in the past, important people in our lives did not respond to our guilty selves with acceptance and renewed faith in us. Maybe because the world "just isn't like that": We are used to the kind of justice that punishes and shuns and does not grant amnesty. Maybe we've simply lost confidence in our ability to be loved.

I remember a summer afternoon, half a lifetime ago, when I knocked down some bric-a-brac during a kick-fight with my sister. In a heartbeat, gone were all of my mother's little statues of pixies and angels, reduced to a heap of smashed china. In that pile I imagined my mother's heartbreak, my father's anger, and my own culpability. In my teenage mind I saw relationships shattered beyond repair. When the sounds of wreckage brought my parents running into the room, I fainted on the carpet in terror of the consequences.

When I revived, I saw my father's face over me, and he was near tears--but not about the broken china. It was me he was in grief over. The china had already been swept away, and my sister was gluing the few salvageable pixies back together. The only thing still missing from the scene was me, and in my father's anxious face, I discovered that I was considered the most valuable bit in the ruins.

THE STORY OF THE LOST SHEEP TELLS US WE ARE INFINITELY valuable to God, no matter what we've done or where we've been. The woman searching for her lost coin tells us that what is valuable to us is likewise important to God. Think of our marvelous planet, with all of its grandeur, beauty, and life. Consider your own goals and plans: to care for your family, to further the good of the community through the work your of hands and mind, to create something of lasting worth. Are these worldly things of no significance? Are they of no account in the vast reaches of eternity?

In the story, the woman cannot find the coin and turns the place upside down to recover it. Unlike the parable of the sheep, it is unclear whose fault it is that the coin has been lost. But assessing blame is not the point. What is critical is that her treasure is recovered. And this in itself gives rise to a party. God takes our world to heart, with its tangible delights and urgent needs--after all, the Creator knows better than we do the value of creation. And God celebrates with us when we restore and preserve what has been given to us for our good.

I know a woman whose personal history reads like a horror story. Her mother was a victim of domestic violence and had to flee a rabid husband for years. My friend grew up in hiding, in one city after another, knowing firsthand the panic of holding your breath behind a closet door for fear of discovery. By some miracle, she managed to escape the violence of her past and the terror of living a nightmare. But penalties are exacted on the innocent, and the woman, now grown, has not outgrown the scars of a dysfunctional heritage.

But the lost coin of her youth is not lost to the power of grace. I've watched this woman learn to exhale. She has regained her voice, her capacity to trust, and the courage to be visible in a yet-dangerous world. Her smile is the most surprising thing of all. It radiates forgiveness for the crazy father, tormented mother, and lost childhood. The grace to forgive, in fact, is the power that redeemed a neurotic existence and makes it now a blessed and favored one. The coin, seemingly irretrievable, has been restored, and all that's left is the party.

EVERY ONE OF US KNOWS THE STORY OF THE LOST SON. NOT just the parable that Jesus tells, but all the stories of all the sons and daughters and loved ones we fear are gone for good. You can separate those who are missing into categories: The ones who have stopped going to church and who seem to be lost to the way that leads to life. Those who have walked away, run away, or set up barriers to love that seem impenetrable. Those who communicate rarely and superficially. Those lost to drugs, alcohol, gambling, or other addictions. Those who have cut themselves off through divorce or deceit. Those who have slipped into illnesses that transform their bodies and minds to the point of unrecognizability. Those who chose suicide. Those who, through no fault of their own, have simply died to this world and to us.

The human tragedy implicit in the story of the lost son was not lost on Jesus. The father invests his love, hopes, and worldly wealth in his son, who swallows it all up and disappears. Was the father angry? Worried? Disappointed? We don't hear of it, because the story line focuses on the exploits of the son. But we probably don't have to see the father's side of the waiting game; we live that story whenever those we love vanish from view.

What's more important for us is to see the restoration of the son, because that part of the story is the summation of our hopes. The one who is lost, no matter how lost, will be restored in time, no matter how much time it takes. We can spend the season of waiting in bitterness or anxiety. We can despair and doubt the outcome. Or we can embrace the promise of God and possess our souls in patience, as the gospel elsewhere urges. Only then can we open our arms to embrace those we love when they are restored to us, an outcome that is never in question.

We can see what happens when we make the opposite choice. The older son has no room in his heart for the returning brother. He's spent the time of the younger one's absence nursing his grievance against him. The squandered money. The unbridled freedom. The drain on his father's attention. The extra share of work that fell to him. The older brother had no room in his heart for the departed one, because that space was crowded with his own righteousness in the face of the other's failures. When the younger brother finally shows up, the elder not only cannot celebrate, he cannot even bring himself to enter the house. And it is then that we see the truth: There are two children in this story who were lost, and only one has been found so far.

Are we disappointed by those we love? Often. They disappoint us in their lapses and absences, sometimes in their choices and always in their deaths. But our hearts, made for love, will be distorted by the attempt to contain anything else. A man tells me about his son who is lost under the spell of drug addiction. The son has lied to his parents, stolen from them, broken into their house on several occasions, and threatened all sorts of violence to himself. He has been in and out of treatment for addiction and is now found to be HIV-positive as well. At the moment, he is trying to get clean again, to make amends for all the hurt he's caused. He is eight weeks clear of heartache, but he's been here before--and so have they all, together. How can a parent love such a child? How can a parent dare compassion and tender feeling?

I watch this father and mother reach out to their grown child, who's possessed by a pain neither can really understand, and I wonder at their strength. I see the father in the gospel story standing at the brink of a hill, watching for the lost son who has traveled so far from his protection and love. And I imagine that first moment when, from a long way off, he sees the child who has broken his heart. All he can see is the form of the one he loves. He cannot see contrition, he does not know if more trouble is coming his way. But he does not need to see into the future to know what to do. Love tells him. Love compels him. And so he runs. By God! He runs forward with a kiss.

ALICE CAMILLE, author of Invitation to Catholicism (new this fall from ACTA) and a collaborator on the homily series "This Sunday's Scripture," available through Twenty-Third Publications.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Claretian Publications
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:God's love
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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Next Article:Memory loss.

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