The Thing That Matters Most
Last summer, on a sticky, oppressively hot Wednesday afternoon in New York City, I lost my fourteen year-old son. My son isn’t easy to lose—he’s 6’5 and nearly 200 pounds—so this will probably require a bit of a story.
Our family had tacked on a mini-holiday in NYC after a conference in Pennsylvania, and had spent a good chunk of that Wednesday wandering the streets of Manhattan. My wife and daughter were snooping around the shops of Little Italy and my son and I were, predictably, growing weary of shopping. So, we decided to hop on the subway and head down to Battery Park to see if we could get a first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. We had been riding the subways for two days prior and figured we had the hang of things. So, we agreed to meet my wife and daughter later for dinner and off we went.
We found the nearest subway station and hopped on one of the southbound trains. Once inside, I began to peer curiously at the labyrinthine subway map on the wall of the train. I soon discovered that we were, in fact, on the wrong train. So, we hopped off.
Or, at least I hopped off.
No sooner was I through the train doors when they closed behind me, my son’s face pressed up against the glass on the other side. And no matter how hard I pounded on the doors, they wouldn’t reopen. I was left alone on the platform, helplessly beating on the train while it took my son away. I spent the last few seconds before the train receded from view frantically trying to motion at him to get off at the next stop, but I had no idea if he understood what I was trying to say. I probably looked like a crazed lunatic to those who had the misfortune of observing this sad scene.
I have never felt as sick in my life as I did as that train disappeared into the dark NYC underground tunnel. I spent the next 7 minutes stalking the platform, praying, sweating, berating myself, praying some more… You’ve lost your son in Manhattan! You idiot! How could you do such a thing? I had visions of my son stumbling confusedly up from a random subway station, wandering alone around some far off corner of Manhattan. All manner of terrifying scenarios began to unfold in my panicked and suddenly quite irrational brain.
I began to imagine what I would tell my wife. I shuddered.
Finally, the next train arrived to dislodge me from my feverish reverie, and I leapt on. After what seemed like an hour (about seven minutes, in truth), I got off at the next stop and raced around the platform like a mad man, hoping and praying with a desperation that I cannot recall feeling before or since, that my son had gotten off.
All of a sudden, I saw the top of his head, peering anxiously (although he will dispute the “anxiously” part) above all the others. I have rarely been happier to see him. I grabbed on to him and clutched him for dear life. He seemed a bit bemused by his father’s hyperactive anxiety (“What else would I do, dad? Of course I’d get off at the next stop!”), but I think he was pretty happy to see me, too. We walked back out on to the street a profoundly relieved pair. For my part, it took about half an hour before I stopped feeling physically sick.
I’m not sure why this story didn’t occur to me as I was preparing for last Sunday’s sermon based on the gospel text of Mary and Joseph losing their adolescent boy in the big city of Jerusalem. I wish it would have. It’s one of those natural illustrations that preachers are often desperate to seize upon. It probably would have made for a more entertaining sermon, if nothing else.
It would have captured the experience of what it feels like to think you’ve lost one of the most important things in your life.
It doesn’t feel good. It is a disorienting and destabilizing and unnerving feeling like few others. The ground feels like it is shifting beneath your feet. Your heart sinks down to the soles of your feet. You are suddenly overwhelmed by a frantic confusion that no light of reason seems capable of penetrating. This is, I imagine, what Mary and Joseph would have felt like when they lost the boy Jesus in Jerusalem.
And Mary and Joseph would not be the last to know the terror of believing that they had lost Jesus. Many of us who have come to Jesus since have also had times where we are convinced we have lost him. For a few days. Or a few weeks. Or a few years. We thought he was there, right beside us, but when we looked up, he was gone. Or at least we couldn’t see him any more.
I’ve known these times—times when Jesus seems far away, indifferent, useless. Times when what I thought were my surest convictions about Jesus as the clearest picture of who God is and how God works seem to crumble all around me. Times when the idea of a love that stands at the center of all that is, that holds all things together, preserving and protecting the world from descending into unreachable darkness, seems a laughable fiction. Times when the most economical explanation for observable reality seems to be that there is no one and nothing out there that is even remotely interested in our plight as human beings. Times when I think I’ve lost Jesus—lost the one that I have given my life to, the one in whom I have anchored the hopes and fears of all my years, at the very least, to say nothing of the world’s.
But I have known other times, too. Times when I have been stumbling around the platform in a manic fog, searching for the thing that matters most, and I see a face that stands out amidst all the others. Times when I see a love and a beauty and a pure goodness that I am convinced is the one, true source of all that is and could ever be, the fulfillment of every hope that finds laboured and incomplete expression. I have known times when I have felt such a deep and profound relief that there should be such a person as Jesus of Nazareth, that such a love could have made its way into our world of fear and hate and death, that this love could summon and surround us, setting our feet on the path that leads home.
It is a terrible thing to think that you have lost the thing that matters most. But it is a well and truly glorious thing to (re)discover that the thing that matters most is the very thing that is looking for you. That has always been looking for you.