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Fifteen Faces of God: A Quest to Know God Through the Parables of Jesusby Michael Manning
"What is your opinion? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray? And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine thatdid not stray. In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost."
God Seeks and We Resist
This parable surprises me. How many of us have spent most of our lives seeking God? I have. I'm sure many of you have too in one way or another. But what do we see here? We have God seeking us with abandon! To our human eyes and ears, this shepherd seemsto do a foolish thing. He has a hundred sheep. When one of them is missing, he leaves the ninety-nine and goes in search of the lost one. And what does he do when he finds it? He puts it on his shoulders, and, rejoicing, he brings the sheep home.
Strange? Disarming? What would happen if we stopped the intensity of our searching every once in a while and looked over our shoulder? What would we see? Would we be surprised to see God searching for us with more intensity than we could ever muster inour search for him? Ah, but how many of us truly want God to find us? God is in constant pursuit of our hearts, but we are afraid of God finding us. At times, we feel his breath on our necks, and even though we know we can't escape, we still flee. As Saint Ignatius has said, God is everywhere and if we listen closely wecan hear his call the way that lost sheep must have heard the call of his shepherd. God is in all things, in nature, in paintings, in motion pictures. He's also in people. Not just those whom we know in our lives--our family, our friends, the people we workwith in the office--but in the strangers we read about in newspaper accounts when we're eating our breakfast. He's also present in the CNN Headline News we catch in the evening. He's in the eyes of billions of people around the world.
Why are many of us reluctant to be found, to be known and loved by this pervasive and searching God? Maybe we don't want to lose our freedom to God, the "tremendous lover." Maybe we think God will be angry at us for having left the flock. Maybe it's amatter of being afraid of responsibilities. Another reason for our wanting to flee God may be feelings of unworthiness. How many of us spend countless hours trying to impress people with our virtue without realizing that our so-called acts of niceness are waysof covering up the reality of our brokenness, our failures, our weakness? We don't want to surrender to God because we're afraid of being exposed for who we are. We build a castle around our inner, sinful, vulnerable self. We make a fort of walls and turrets.Our moats, arrows, and hot oil are ready for anyone who wants to get inside! At the center of the castle is a specially fortified room to which we will not grant access--not even to a most trusted lover. We're even reluctant to give access to God.
Some or all of these things may be true for us, but there is a depth of love that God the Father is hungering for us to enter into. A love that transcends the frailties of human love. In order to jump in, we need to surrender our fears. God is always seekingus, and we must turn and let him embrace us. We must acknowledge his love. Only when we stop, admit that the Father loves us, and then accept his love will we ever be free from the plight of having to prove our worthiness. Only when we turn and acknowledgeour pursuer will we know God. Only then will we truly know ourselves.
The poet Francis Thompson (1859-1907) focused on this aspect of God the searcher in his poem "The Hound of Heaven." Thompson aspired to be a priest, but it was not to be. After a few months in the seminary he was asked to leave, and he went on to studyto become a doctor. He failed three final examinations in medical school. Struggling with depression, he turned to morphine and was soon living in the crowded dirty back alleys of Victorian London. During one of his many failed attempts to rid himself of hisaddiction, he wrote "The Hound of Heaven." The poem tells of how he fled from God, of all the ways he tried to escape his Maker.
I fled Him down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurried chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat--and a Voice beat
More constant than the Feet--
"All things betray thee who betrayest Me."
Feeling tired and knowing there is no escape, Thompson surrenders to the chasing hound:
Now of that long pursuit
Comes at hand the bruit;
That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:
"And is thy earth so marred,
Shattered in shard on shard?
Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!
Strange, piteous, futile thing!
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught." (He said),
"And human love needs human meriting:
How hast thou merited--
Of all man's clotted clay the dingiest clot?
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom will thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?"
All attempts to run away failed him. God was relentlessly, steadily, seeking him out, like a hound dog pursuing its prey. Through divine grace, coming out of deep depression and even despair, he admitted that God loved him. He surrendered himself, mind,body, and spirit. The poem's message to us is that by allowing ourselves to be captured, we gain the freedom of salvation.
Why Does God Seek Us?
These words are all fine and well, but many of us may not understand: Why exactly does God seek us like the shepherd seeks the lost sheep in the parable? What is it about us that God finds so attractive? Why risk abandoning the ninety-nine to find theone? When we're honest with ourselves--when we look at the wars around us, at our weaknesses, our repeated sins, our addictions, our fears, our failures, and our pride, our selfishness--why would God want to search for us?
But not so mysterious if we think of God as an artist. Unlike earthly artists who use paints and clay and music and dance to create their masterpieces, God's work is ongoing creations: the galaxy, a planet, a mountain, the wind, a lake, a flower. You andme. All are evolving, all are ever changing. And what is an artist looking for in his creation? Beauty. God as well is searching for the beauty in his creation. Certainly we are always evolving. Beauty seems to fade outwardly. Our body's cells are constantlychanging, our skin and muscles move from firm to flabby, our hair changes color or falls out. But God sees past the surface of his paintings and sculptures; he sees the inner life of the creation. It's like going to a museum and looking at a painting. Thereis the surface experience. You see the colors and the shape of the subject, but there is an inner life to the picture in front of you, the life of the artist, the love of the artist that is bubbling below the surface. In many ways God's search for us is God'ssearch for himself.
The Power of Freedom
Freedom is a significant part of what God has given us. It's the freedom of the lamb to wander off and get lost. God could have created us without this power. We could have lived lives that were forever unchanging, lives in which straying from the flockwas never an option. Our freedom makes us exciting to God. He doesn't want his sheep to get lost. But if they do stray, he goes looking. The problem arises when we forget that God is ever seeking us! Oh, this forgetting that gets us into so much trouble.
God has given us freedom, and freedom by its very nature can bring unpredictable results. Will Adam and Eve eat the apple? Will the apostles ever leave the upper room? Will you and I turn and face God or will we turn away? Sure, God has a plan, a dreamof what we should do, but he has surrendered the outcome to us. It's akin, in some ways, to listening to jazz musicians jamming in a nightclub. Freedom, like jazz, is unpredictable. A trumpet player may play a familiar riff in a song that everyone has heardcountless times and then jump off into the unknown, leading the listener to uncharted territory. Good jazz, like real freedom, allows for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Nothing is ever repeated in the same way twice.
The same unpredictability happens with writers too. Author Stephen King speaks of moments in the development of characters in his novels when the character takes over. All King does is follow the lead of his creation, allowing a fictional character tointeract with other people, and from those interactions the formation of a plot evolves. The character the author created says and does things that Stephen King had never anticipated.
Our Drive for Happiness
Freedom, or the gift of free will, allows us to journey to self-realization. Think about it. The choices we make in many ways reveal what is important to us and sculpt who we become. We may not know at the time exactly what is motivating our choices, butit is our quest for happiness that prods us to do the things we do. Our hunger for joy is God's creative way of calling us to the dream he has for us, and God hopes that we will always be in his loving embrace. When we think of our quest for happiness, we mightimmediately think of comfort or riches or power. Those things can undeniably bring happiness, but on a deeper level our greatest moments of happiness come when we share God's gift of creation. When you think of times when you were truly happy, wasn't that happinessrelated to the joy of creating? Think of the happiness that is created when a couple conceives a child, a cook prepares a delicious dinner, a ballplayer hits a home run that wins the World Series, an author writes a book, a parent sees a child grow througha crisis, a comedian makes us laugh, or a doctor develops a medicine to help those with brain cancer. Happiness is intricately linked to creativity.
I know for me, happiness comes when I write a sermon or paint a picture. It also comes when I reconcile myself with an enemy, or develop a friendship, or make unbelievable moves while dancing at a wedding (I'm really light on my feet if I do say so myself).As we seek happiness through creation, God our Creator is seeking us right back and meeting us at every juncture. Yes, sometimes we find ourselves lost when our craving for happiness leads to selfishness, but the joy we derive from this parable, the true happinesswe can find in these words of Jesus, is that God is never that far away. We may be lost, but if we look closely we can see the staff of our Father as the shepherd walks closer and closer to us and, reaching down, rescues us.
Prayer for Reflection
God, thank you for searching for me. Forgive me for running away from you. Help me to slow down and accept your love and realize the fullness of the dream you have for me now and forever in heaven.
Questions for Discussion
1. How do we run away from God?
2. What will happen if we surrender to God?
3. How would we describe God's dream for us?
4. What brings us the most happiness?
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