I want to say a word today about tenderness.
You know what that is, because you need it. You need it and you long for it, because this week someone rubbed salt in one of your wounds, or found a vulnerable place in your heart and hurt you there, belittling you or berating you, or making you feel guilty. A conflict in your family injured you with hot arguments or cold silences, or an injustice at work undermined your sense of self, or some mistake you made a long time ago came back to haunt you, or some weakness or sense of failure or inadequacy that you thought you had dealt with tripped you up out of the blue, and you had to renew the old struggle. Your kids did something dumb at school and you got a call from the vice-principal, or they ran a little crazy on the street and you got a call from a neighbor, or you discovered that they have big secrets and bad friends and you are starting to worry that when a phone call comes, it will be too late. And the last thing you need to hear this week is that you have only yourself to blame, that you should have been stronger, that you should have been smarter, that you should have known better, that you don’t measure up, that you fell down on the job, that you should be ashamed.
And so I want to say a word about tenderness.
You know what that is. You need it and you long for it, because lately you’ve come to see that things just aren’t working the way you planned, that the road you thought you would travel is not the road you are on, and the road you are on is unmarked, or a dead end, or a treadmill, but you’re on it now, and you can’t see how to get off. And it’s just dawned on you that the world is not going to cooperate with your dreams and will never be the bright stage for all the great roles you believe you were meant to play, and you can barely contain your inner rage and disappointment about how unfair life is. And the last thing you need to hear now is that you should just suck it up and make do, or that since you got yourself into this mess, you’ll just have to get yourself out of it; or that you always were too big for your britches, too dreamy, too ambitious, too impractical and unrealistic, and that you haven’t planned right, lived right, done right, and that you should be ashamed.
Because on top of everything else, a reckless driver cut you off on the way to church, and you slammed on your brakes and honked your horn, and when you did, he gave you the finger; and you, innocent and still trembling from how close you came to buying the farm, felt a primeval urge course through your veins, and you wanted to punch that SOB’s lights out and make him see the error of his ways, and you may even have trailed him for a mile or two, riding his tail, but then you thought about tire irons, baseball bats, and Saturday night specials under passenger seats, and you cut it out. And you realized as you came in and found your pew and finally sat down that you are tired of how hard it is just to go from point A to point B in this life, you are indignant that nobody obeys the rules, and you are sick of the gratuitous violence that lies beneath the surface of even the most comfortable lives. And the last thing you need to hear from anyone right now is how foolish you were to do what you did, or how maybe you need an anger management course so that you can learn to just chill, or you need more exercise, and oh, by the way, you should be ashamed.
And so I am going to say a word today about tenderness.
You know what that is because you need it. You long for it, and so do I, because we get lost from time to time the way a sheep goes missing from a flock – not willfully, as another preacher wrote, but more by degrees, by keeping its head down, by focusing on the tuft of green grass it has found among the rocks, and then on the next, and then on the next, never looking up, just nibbling and inching farther from the flock, inching and nibbling until it has munched itself into serious trouble. And when we get lost like that, the last thing we need is someone to rub our noses in it, to tell us that it’s our own dumb fault, and that if we had just been paying attention this would never have happened, and so now we can just freeze to death out there, or die of loneliness, because there are other, better, more docile, less stupid sheep back in the flock that deserve more attention than we do. No, what we need when we go missing like that is to be found. What we need is someone like a shepherd to look for us until he finds us and drapes us over his shoulders and takes us back to where we belong, to safety, to be with the rest. What we need is someone so glad to see us still alive and bleating, no matter how dirty or broken or pathetic we look, that his shouts of triumph fill the deep valley and echo back from the sky.
I’m talking about tenderness today because we get lost from time to time the way a coin goes missing – dropping to the sidewalk through a hole in a purse, slipping out of a snoozer’s pocket and falling between the cushions of the couch, or rolling off a smooth countertop onto the floor; lost not like socks in the dryer that lose themselves on purpose, but like casualties of another person’s distracted carelessness, one more unattended and forgotten thing. And the last thing we need at such a time is someone informing us that it’s God’s will to have been so neglected and mislaid, that it’s our lot or role or even our glory in life to be so haphazardly wasted, that there’s a reason and plan for everything and that we just need to be patient until it all becomes clear.
No, what we need when we go missing like that is to be found. We need someone like a woman with a lamp and a broom who will not rest until every last inch of the floor has been illumined and swept, until she finds us and puts us back in the olive wood box with the leather hinge where she keeps all her treasures. What we need is someone who cannot believe her good fortune at having found us even if we are not as bright as we were before we fell among the dust bunnies, and even if it has exhausted her to locate us. What we need is someone who is still not too tired after all that effort to throw open the doors of her house and let the neighbors know that now all is right with the world because she has us back again, and whose joy at finding us fills the village and echoes back from the sky.
I am speaking of tenderness today because we get lost from time to time, like a self-centered boy who disappears trying to find himself, trying to become his own person, and who, when he’s sated with self-indulgence and comes to himself, finds that he doesn’t have a self, but has turned into someone he doesn’t know, a pig person who eats what pigs eat, and who thinks that now even his own father will not know him as a son, but who may be willing to accept him as a servant, a hired hand, which is all he will beg for. Lost like a boy so lost that he is willing to stay lost, even when he’s finally home. And the last thing we need when we are trudging up the lane, shaky and mortified, smelling like a sty and rehearsing our lines, is for some righteous person full of moral clarity to point out the obvious – that we have been naïve and willful, self-indulgent, over-confident, ungrateful and dissolute jerks, and that if we are allowed back into the house even as a servant we should consider ourselves damn lucky.
No, what we need when we come home still lost in our hearts, still far, far away, is to be found. What we need is someone like a parent who totally adores us and for whom we can do no wrong, who sees us before we see him, who cuts us off in mid-sentence and falls on our necks with kisses. What we need is someone who gives us ruby rings and ermine-collared robes, who sends the sound of pipes and drums throughout the house and strikes up all the laughing joy that cancels every debt, while the best meat on the farm turns roasting on the spit.
There is a time for judgment. A time for remorse. A time for what we usually mean by repentance, for coming face to face with our mistakes and regrets, for taking responsibility for our carelessness and indifference, our aimlessness and self-preoccupation, our greed and dishonesty, our insecure and narcissistic betrayals and all our secret vices. A time for getting help, for change and growth and forming new habits. There is a time to sort out what we did wrong and what was done wrong to us, to heal and be healed, to forgive and to be forgiven. But because so much of the time what we think of as sin is more a matter of haplessness than perversity; because choice is never as simple, free and obvious as we think; because motives are never uncomplicated or completely conscious; because pain is everywhere, relentless and cruel; because we are so hungry and thirsty for love and acceptance and worth that we are prepared to do almost anything to satisfy ourselves, and because more often than not people do not even know they are lost until they are found, the first thing has to be tenderness. The first thing has to be grace.
There is also a time for us to talk about the the church as the collection of the tender, the wounded, and the erstwhile missing, and a time when we must talk more deeply and more insistently about our calling to be a vessel of tenderness, to offer tender healing ministrations to the heart-aching, blood-soaked frictions of our families, our politics, our workplaces, our markets and our suffering beauty-of-a-world. There is a time to exhort each other energetically to embrace our calling to tend the sheep and to be the earthly expression of the loud angelic joy that overcomes heaven when the lost are found and the wounded made whole. But for now, for right now, tenderness is what we need. Tenderness is enough. The tenderness of Christ who knows how we are made, who know that we are dust, who has compassion on our mortal frames.