Lost Sheep

(Matt. 18.10-14)

I used to see her sitting crosslegged on the sidewalk outside the parking garage near my office: a sturdy woman in her mid-thirties, dressed in jeans, workboots, and a man's blue cotton shirt. She wore her sandy hair cropped short above a broad, handsome, outdoorsy sort of face, with a good nose and bright blue eyes. She had a dufflebag with her, and a neatly rolled blanket and a backpack, clearly all her worldly goods. She had a cap out on the sidewalk for spare change, but she didn't beg. She ignored the passersby, concentrating instead on her writing. She had a spiral-bound notebook braced on her knee, and she wrote in it apparently endlessly, page after page of God-knows-what in a bold black pencilled script.

I liked what I saw of her, especially her independent refusal to make spaniel-eyes for spare change, and I always dropped something in her cap. Once it was a $1 coin and she looked up and muttered "thanks". It got so that she'd raise a hand to me as I walked by, dropping a quarter or two into the cap. And then she started waving to me when she noticed my car turning into the parking garage. We started saying "hi!" back and forth, or I'd make some fatuous comment about the weather and she'd grunt in response. We didn't "do" names, though. She was clearly too private a person for that.

And then one day, in mid-fall, she was sitting there rocking back and forth and muttering to herself. I stopped and crouched down beside her and asked "Are you sick? Do you need help?" She muttered, "I don't need help. Go away." "Are you sure? Could I take you to the hospital?" That made her flare up: her voice rose, a squeaky constricted little-girl voice, and she began to rant about how the doctors had screwed her up, a long paranoid ramble, rising toward hysteria. Then she collapsed back into stone-silence and turned her back on me. I didn't know what to do. I stood up, feeling helpless, and dug a $5 bill out of my purse and laid it in her hat. "You use that to take a taxi if you need one, okay?"

I never saw her after that day. Did I drive her away from her spot with my well-meaning incompetence? Did somebody else intervene and get her the help she needed? Is she still alive? Is she off the streets and safe?

Although I haven't seen her for a couple of years, she's part of my internal landscape now. I thought of her when I was in Toronto, watching the sleek dapper businessthingies, cell phones clapped to ears, sweep past a barefoot beggar without a glance. I think of her when I see the people with Downs Syndrome from our local sheltered workshop. I think of her when I see the obvious losers hanging around the video store down by the old hotel. I think of her whenever I encounter someone who's clearly among the walking wounded. After all, sometimes I feel like one of 'em myself.

We tend to think of the lost sheep in the parable as being a wrongdoer brought back to the fold of the righteously well-behaved. But I wonder if its meaning is wider and wilder than that. Maybe God has a particular affection for people like my lost sick street sister. Maybe God tenderly cradles those who most need it: the broken, the desolate, the depressed, those who are damaged in mind or body, the addicts and the poor, even the disreputable ones who don't follow our precepts for Proper Poverty Management.

Maybe God has a particular soft spot for the those who've lost beauty and strength and health, for all who have been abused, for all who have gone unloved. Not that God doesn't love the rest of us. But these are the special ones, the ones for whom God goes out looking with a sharp, particular deep longing.

Truly, the sleek and prosperous ones of this earth may not have a clue. They may look at people like my street sister with fear or condemnation, or more likely they try to pretend she isn't there at all. They're apt to resent the walking wounded, who bring into life an element of discordance and discomfort that they don't feel they should have to cope with. If you really do grasp the fact that one-fifth of this province's children live in poverty, it makes it a little harder to enjoy your latest well-deserved tax break... Some may be so wilfully ignorant or self-deluded as to believe that people could stop being like this if they really wanted. But theirs isn't the final judgment, because they really know so little of what this world does to people: God knows better.

And maybe those who are wounded or broken--those whose inborn or acquired screwups are upfront and obvious--are especially precious in God's sight, in their lonely struggles and desperation. Certainly these are the people Jesus spent time with, in his incarnation. If that's the case, maybe broken people could stop judging themselves without mercy or justice and try for some of the self-love that's the first essential step in healing.

It behooves us all to take off this world's glasses and turn around to stand beside God, looking at the lost sheep with something of God's understanding and appreciation. At least they have few illusions and no pretensions, and their souls are sometimes very close to the surface. They at least know that they are sinners and broken people. We all are, after all; but only some of us seem to be able to admit it.

God will seek out those whom this world has no use for. Think of him cradling them, lightly touching their wounded places and stroking them back to wholeness and beauty. The more we despise and ignore them, the more we write them off as so much human garbage, the more he treasures them, holding them gently like lambs in his arms, turning on them his warm and steady Light.

And so the broken should be precious to us too--or we who know ourselves to be broken should be precious to ourselves, instead of sharing the world's judgment of us. For if God loves the poor and dispossessed so much, shouldn't we love them too?

Copyright © 1999 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 11 Dec 1999
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