A mom’s reminder: You’re never lost

Outstretched arms

One of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories involves getting separated from my mom in a department store. She was looking at items, and I got bored and wandered down to a display at the end of the aisle that caught my attention.

After a little while, I looked back and didn’t recognize my mom in the crowd of people. I thought she’d left without me.

I got frantic. I remember suddenly feeling so alone and frightened in this big place with all these strangers. What will I do?

I started to cry.

In a flash, my mom heard me and came toward me with arms outstretched. Don’t be afraid, she said, wrapping me in a hug. I’m right here. Everything’s OK.

There have been many throughout my life that I’ve had that same feeling of being alone or lost in a big, scary world. It’s like being in the department store all over again.

At this time of year, many religious faiths reassure us that we’re never alone. They remind us to listen for that voice saying: I’m right here. Always.

It’s all OK

For example, Advent is a time of remembering that God is with us. Our attention is focused on incarnation – God living through us, with us and in us at this very moment to bring love, justice and healing to each other and our world.

God is right here. Everything is going to be OK.

For me, that’s perhaps the most challenging part of faith, trusting that our Parent is with us and caring for us in every moment.

It’s easy to feel that presence at some times: when you feel loved deeply by someone; when things in your life seem to be turning around; when you’re standing on a beach or looking up at the moon and stars and you feel so wonderfully small and yet so deeply grateful to be part of something so amazing.

Those transcendent moments remind us we’re not alone.

It’s the many difficult moments that distract us and sidetrack us. Life is full of challenging and often painful transitions. We lose a loved one. A job or a relationship ends. We wake up with a lump somewhere in our body. Someone whom we love deeply is struggling with some great challenge.

How often does it feel like you’ve been plunged into a whole new universe and you don’t know what to do? Nothing has prepared you for this. Everything has been turned upside-down and inside-out.

Those worrisome moments can swallow us up. Advent – the time of Emanuel, which means God with us – reminds us that we have loving company, outstretched arms that will get us through everything.

Never loses sight of us

We’re never lost or alone, even when we’re struggling to make sense of the latest unexpected twist in our lives. As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it: “We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.”

The Creator of love and life is present in every tear of joy, and in every tear of pain. In every breath of relief, and in every breath of fear. In every moment of clarity, and in every moment of confusion.

We’ve been done a great disservice by those who portray God as an aloof and distant being who will seek us out only if we accept some somebody’s theological terms-and-conditions, including all the fine print regulating what you can and can’t do.

That’s definitely not the message.

The message is that we have a parent who reminds us we’re never really lost, but always found. A parent who wants nothing more than to wrap us in a divine hug and throw a wild party in celebration, no matter how prodigal or self-righteous we get.

Whenever we wander down the aisle and get frightened, God opens those divine arms and says: Don’t be afraid. I’m right here with you. Always.

Even when you lose sight of me, I never lose sight of you.

A chameleon’s journey

Chameleon

Once upon a time, a young chameleon lived in a lush, green forest. The chameleon was amazed by how its skin could change colors, a way of adapting to the temperature or displaying its mood.

Also, the changing colors had a secondary benefit, helping it blend in with its surroundings.

The chameleon loved to climb high into the trees and look out at the rest of the world. It could see a blue river, a brown field, an outcropping of red-tinged rocks. The chameleon longed to leave the forest and visit those places, to experience more of the world.

But the chameleon’s elders warned: “Don’t even think it! You must live your entire life here in these trees. Your skin cannot change enough to help you adapt to those other environments. If you leave the forest, your color will give you away. Bad things will happen. It’s too dangerous! Stay where it’s green.”

The chameleon listened to their wisdom, but longed for something more – it wanted a life bigger than a tree branch. One day, it found the courage to take the risk.

So, it set off. As it left the forest’s greenery, the chameleon felt afraid. It wondered how much its skin would be able to change and adapt to the new landscapes and environments. It wondered if those warnings were accurate.

All very good

An amazing and unexpected thing happened. The chameleon found that its skin was able to change in unexpected ways, adapting to all sorts of new surroundings. Nobody had told the chameleon that would happen!

The chameleon realized that it had been taught things that simply weren’t true. Green isn’t the only good color for chameleons. Forests aren’t the only safe places. They can change into many colors and prosper in many different hues.

And it’s all very good.

The chameleon went on a long journey and experienced the world’s incredible diversity. Along the way, it encountered other chameleons that could change into yet different colors from its own.

But these others believed that their colors were the only ones possible or desirable. The chameleon would respond by describing its experience of how color is almost infinitely changeable and chameleons are incredibly adaptable.

The others refused to believe it.

“That’s not how we are made,” the other chameleons would say.

No matter how much the chameleon tried to convince them, they were set in their ways and in their beliefs. They would stay where they were and experience none of the greater world. They would not meet any other chameleons.

Missing the miracle

In fact, some argued that if other chameleons could change into colors other than their own, they wouldn’t be proper chameleons. They would be considered unnatural and should be shunned.

This made the chameleon very sad. It realized the others would spend their precious lives missing out on all the beauty and diversity around them.

Also, they would never understand what makes chameleons so unique and amazing. They would never fully realize how chameleons can come in all sorts of colors.

They would never know the miracle of how much they can change.

Losing our leaves

tree

Autumn got sidetracked on its way to southwest Ohio. In the last few weeks, we’ve topped 80 degrees regularly and enjoyed delicious summer breezes coming through open windows from the moment we awaken.

Until the last few days, the trees have held stubbornly to their greenness, with only an occasional brushstroke of color dabbed about. Few leaves have taken leave from their limbs, although that will soon change.

It’s a gorgeous time of year in the Midwest, one of my favorites. And I feel a bit sad over what’s coming next.

Soon, the tree limbs will be bare, left naked in the winter winds. The cracks in the bark will show like scars on skin. The gravity-defying nests of squirrels and birds will be totally exposed to the elements.

Seeing a stripped-down tree gives me a chill.

Dark, sacred nights

In the summertime, there are few things more glorious than standing beneath a big tree on a warm night and listening to the soothing, rustling sound as the southern wind blows through it. Fireflies rise from the ground and blink their way toward the treetops like flashing holiday lights.

In those moments, life is so warm and so magical and so good. As Louis Armstrong called it, dark sacred nights.

Then along comes autumn. First, a gush of luminescent color. Then, the wind starts tugging and pulling, and all of the beautiful pieces get pulled off.

We all know that feeling, right?

A relationship ends, and a part of you seems to fly away with it. A medical test comes back positive, and all of the color drains out of your life. A parent falls and breaks a hip and needs to move into a nursing home, and you feel cold and exposed. A loved one dies. A child struggles. Another act of brutality jolts the world and tears at your heart.

Or maybe it’s just the normality of living that gets to you a bit. You see another wrinkle, get another ache, lose a little more hair, feel a little more forgetful as you look for the car keys you’re holding in your hand.

What’s happening?

There are times when you feel like you’re losing yourself, bit by bit. Life is tugging at you and disassembling you. You feel vulnerable. Naked. Exposed. Shaken right down to your roots.

You start to wonder who you are.

Losing yourself, piece by piece

You try to hold onto those parts of your life that are getting plucked away, but it does no good. The wind won’t relent. Another piece flies away, floats to the ground, turns brown and gets trampled.

Instead of rustling in the breeze, all you can do creak.

In those moments, people will try to be helpful by telling you that things will get better – spring and summer will return soon enough – but that doesn’t help. You know it’s true, but it’s not what you need.

What you need is an equally dissembled person to keep you company in the wind. To just stand with you for a while, until everything subsides and your twiggy limbs calm down.

Then the resurrection can begin.

And after a while, you start to notice something in your stripped-down state. You see the squirrels and birds still living in the nests that you support, keeping life going within you. They climb and flap and move about as if nothing’s changed.

Instinct tell them it will soon be time to start the circle of life over again.

In that moment, you also remember that the next generation of fireflies is right there with you, too, deposited safely in the shelter of the crevices in your bark and your roots. You’re serving as a womb for their blinky wonder.

The resurrection begins

Eventually, you take a close look at yourself and notice little bumps protruding from the spots where those leaves once attached. New buds are growing imperceptibly but steadily. And, truthfully, you recognize that you’re bigger and stronger entering this next cycle of rebirth.

For now, the only thing to do is open your arms wide and embrace the cold. Look for those signs of unabated life all around you and within you. Think of the fireflies’ blinks and the crickets’ melodies about to return.

Be patient. Embrace the nakedness and get ready to blossom yet again, more beautiful than ever. It won’t be long now.

In fact, if you listen closely, you can practically hear the crickets warming up.