What is God Up To?
For parents out there, or, even for owners of beloved pets, today’s passage from Luke’s gospel is liable to stir some emotion. Listening to the story of Mary and Joseph’s frantic search for their lost boy is enough to make anyone’s heart rate jump and palms begin sweat. We all have a story or two like this, the painful details of which are seared on our minds. The “It’s a Small World” tune from the Disneyland ride will forever be the unsettling soundtrack for my memory of temporarily losing a child.
We had just gotten off the Small World ride and were making our way to our next adventure at “the happiest place on earth,” when Kate and I realized our six-year-old son was no longer by our side. It was like a punch in the gut. One minute we were relaxed, enjoying churro-scented Disney magic, and the next our bodies flooded with cortisol, the stress hormone, and we were primed to jump into an icy river, or lift a car–whatever it takes to protect our child. The entire experience lasted no more than five minutes, thank God, though it felt like an eternity. Nate’s aunt, who was with us, found him aimlessly wandering towards the Matterhorn. He didn’t seem panicked at all, she said, just transfixed by all the sights. After a prolonged hug at our reunion, Mary’s words could have been our own: “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”
I think we often hear today’s passage from Luke as the culmination of Jesus’s coming-of-age story. Jesus is born, named, presented at the temple, and takes his place among family and friends for traditional annual trips to Jerusalem for Passover. The Gospel describes him as having “become strong, [and] filled with wisdom.” He is growing up to be a faithful, observant Jew. It is a story about Jesus’s coming-of-age, but it is also a story about his parent’s reaction to these changes.
You can imagine Mary and Joseph relaxing a bit after the holy hubbub surrounding Jesus’s birth, enjoying some normalcy for once. They’re so relaxed, in fact, that on their trip home from the Passover event in Jerusalem they don’t even notice Jesus is missing until a day of travel has passed. Their carefree evening abruptly ends and they rush back to Jerusalem and spend three, no doubt, gut wrenching days searching for him.
The thing about cortisol, the stress hormone I mentioned earlier–that was surely coursing through Mary and Joseph’s bodies–is that it is not really compatible with our higher brain function, where we do sensible things like calmly consider options in a crisis. It’s an ancient hormone released from the primitive part of our brain that elicits a “fight or flight” reaction. This reaction can protect us when we are in danger. It’s quite useful. But, also lurking in that primitive part of the brain are our most basic emotions, including anger and aggression. Cortisol puts us “on edge.” Many different events can trigger this hormone release, and it’s often a matter of degree. Temporarily misplacing a child will certainly do it, but so can spending multiple days in a stressful work environment, or feeling the persistent worry of being out of work altogether. Overlay that with the political polarization our country is experiencing, and–oh yeah–a global pandemic, and we are all practically swimming in cortisol.
Another trying event that may hit a little closer home is saying goodbye to a priest who has been with you for thirty years. Someone who has seen you at your best, and maybe not at your best but stood by you all the same. Someone who preached the homily at your wedding, and also at the funeral of a parent. Someone who taught you what it means to be a Christian, to love, to hope, and to forgive. This person leaves and suddenly you find yourself short on patience and a little quicker to anger. Once again, Mary’s refrain seems apt: “Child, why have you treated us like this?”
One of the central themes in the Gospels that I think we see exemplified in today’s passage from Luke is conversion, or, in Greek, metanoia. It’s a kind of change, or a turning from one way of being, or one perspective, to another. Positive spiritual growth is implied in the process of conversion (Sheldrake 214). We witness this conversation take place for Mary after she finds Jesus in the temple–his father’s house, about his father’s business–conversing with the teachers. Once her frustration subsides she is able to see that Jesus was not simply being irresponsible or disobedient. There was more to the story. Emmanuel, the name we know Jesus by in the Christmas narrative, means “God with us.” At the heart of Mary’s conversion at the temple that day was the difficult realization that “God with us” doesn’t necessary mean we always know what God is up to, and yet God is with us all the same.
There is nothing easy about a clergy transition. Our bodies naturally draw upon that “fight or flight” stress hormone and we can thrash about and bump into one another in counterproductive ways as we deal with the loss. As Christians, though, we believe the promise of the Christmas story–that God is with us. The conversion that Mary experienced is ours to experience as well: “God with us” doesn’t necessary mean we always know what God is up to. Practically speaking, this means letting go of having all the answers. It means being forgiving of one another’s expressions of fear, pain, or frustration. It means intentionally seeking out God’s hand in the details of our lives, even if God’s presence may sometimes seem obscure.
To put it succinctly, the conversion here is to become more spiritually generous. That’s a term I like to use particularly in times of clergy transition, but also in stressful situations in general. It is an attitude that allows possibility and creativity into our lives. It’s an attitude that enables us to more easily witness God at work. That means turning from a perspective of fear and scarcity to openness and observation. It means giving our friends and neighbors the benefit of the doubt. God is with us. I believe it. Now, together, let’s go figure out what Jesus is up to. Surely he is about his father’s business.
Second Sunday After Christmas
Sheldrake, Philip. The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. Louisville: WJK = Westminster John Knox Press, 2013.