My maternal grandparents Joseph and Marie were joined at the hip. My mother and I spent a segment of my childhood and all of my teen years under their roof. They continued to speak German to each other and to my mother. They used broken English with me. Nevertheless, I generally understood what everybody was saying in German.
Sometimes my grandfather would fall into a dark humor. He didn’t precisely fly into a rage. But he would be visibly angry. Usually about money or wastefulness or slovenliness. Most of the time with my mother. He would storm around the house grumbling and complaining about what a disappointment or an irritant or a misfit my mother was.
My grandmother would continue silently cutting vegetables or ironing clothes or cleaning kitchen counters. Eventually, he would turn an emotional corner. Begin to simmer down a bit. Then she would say, quietly, gently, almost melodically, “Du! Sep!”
“Du” is the familiar form of “you” in German. “Sep” was the nickname that only she called her husband. I can’t really meaningfully translate that little phrase for you. But I can tell you what Grandma was doing. She was calling my grandfather back to himself.
She wasn’t telling him to calm down or lecturing him about his temper or placating him. With the voice of love, she was reminding him who he truly was. And encouraging him to let his words and actions flow from his true self instead of letting his circumstances make him into something he didn’t really want to be.
My wife Joy and a few of my friends love me enough to do a similar kindness for me sometimes. Life’s changes and chances can rattle my cage, raise my blood pressure, or leave me despondent. It’s a gift to have people who will call me back to my true self and away from merely reacting to shifting circumstances.
I suspect that most of us need to be reminded from time to time who we really are. But you know, I don’t believe that God ever needs this reminder. Part of what makes God, well, God, is that God is always true to the divine self. “I am who I am.” That’s what God told Moses at the burning bush. (Exodus 3:14)
Elsewhere, we read that God is love. (1 John 4:8) So, when God is being God—which is like always—God is loving. God loves because it is in God’s very nature to love. Loving is God’s true self.
God created human beings to be the image of God. (Genesis 1:27) To love because that’s just who we are. Not as a reaction to someone’s good looks or to their social status. Not as a payment for their behavior or a reward for their achievements. Love is a gift. Not a transaction. Love never asks, “What’s in it for me.”
We forget who we are from time to time. We distort love whenever we offer it as a carrot or threaten to withhold it like a stick. We debase love when we use it like a currency to be earned for right thinking or for right acting.
Jesus came into this world as our friend. To remind us who we truly are—the image of God—by showing us who God really is: love. He did this with his life. He was born in a slum, became a refugee from a cruel king as a toddler, and died at the hands of a ruthless Empire. His resurrection revealed that love’s power comes from God, not any set of earthly circumstances.
Jesus taught the same lesson with his parables. Take, for instance, the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus had been hanging out with the usual disreputable crowd. Roman collaborators, winos, tweakers, street walkers, middle school teachers. Some hyper-pious types were indignant. “Can you believe who this guy associates with? Well, if you lie down with the dogs, you’ll rise with the fleas.”
Jesus never explains himself or defends his actions to self-righteous critics and judgmental jerks. So, I ask you to put aside what might be your customary take on this parable. You know the one I mean. Where Jesus justifies himself by basically saying that he came to save sinners and that everybody—even his critics—are sinners.
I mean, yeah, that’s true enough. But the real punch of the parable comes with the spiritual Jiu Jitsu he does with the opening question:
Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? (Luke 15:4)
Don’t just blow by this question. Let it flip you upside down. Instead of rushing to hear that Jesus forgives you and will pursue you when you’re lost, listen to the question. And then get real with your answer.
Which of us would leave our whole herd of sheep in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wolves and thieves, just on the off chance that we might find one that has gone missing? Well, none of us.
Every one of us would do a cost-benefit analysis. What’s in it for me? Find the one, maybe, if it’s not already wolf bait or in somebody else’s stewpot. In the meantime, risk losing 99 to predators of either the four- or two-legged variety. It’s a no-brainer. Cut your losses.
News flash. Jesus isn’t talking about shepherding practices. He’s talking about love. The question Jesus poses is this: What does your love look like?
God never cuts losses. Never asks, “What’s in it for me?” God loves. Period. Jesus asks, “What about you?”
Jesus isn’t blaming us for our frailty and imperfection. He gets it. It can be hard to be the true you. So, he’s challenging us and inviting us to grow in how we love. Calling us back to our true selves. Back to people who love because that’s just who we are.
This essay is an excerpt from my latest book Looking for God in Messy Places. To learn more about it and to grab a copy click here.