It never fails to amaze me when I encounter people who seem to regard religious belief – particularly the Christian faith – as a kind of celestial insurance policy, designed to protect you from bad things happening.
The reason why I find it so surprising is because you don’t have to read much of the New Testament to find copious evidence that, if anything, the exact opposite is the case. Just to clarify what I mean here: yes, there is most certainly profound and lasting comfort and consolation to be found in a life lived in tune with the God whom we worship – that is most certainly and demonstrably the case. But far from keeping us apart from difficult and stressful – sometimes even dangerous situations, the call of discipleship can draw us into their very heart.
Today’s New Testament reading exemplifies this perfectly: The disciples are sent out as sheep in the midst of wolves, facing all manner of challenges that otherwise they would simply not have to confront. The strange paradox of faith is that it is sometimes precisely within those dark places that we find the very thing that we most fervently need and desire.
There is a poem by George MacDonald called simply ‘Lost and Found’ which, when I first read it I assumed was simply describing the experience of bereavement – the loss of a friend, because that is what the poet tells us explicitly that he is writing about. Taken at face value, that is its subject matter.
What made me begin to realise that there was another dimension to this poem was, oddly enough, a place where I subsequently came across it, in a Christian poetry collection. It had not occurred to me until that point to think about it as a specifically religious poem. But I then realised that you can indeed read it as a poem about our quest for God, just as much as a search for a lost friend.
In this poem MacDonald describes his anguished search to recover the friend that he has lost. The poem begins in the evening, as the sun sets, when a profound sense of loss strikes the poet – a sense that deepens as the darkness falls. Tearfully he seeks his friend – up high mountains, where he calls his name but hears only echoes in reply; in the city; among the dead; in holy places, the grandeur of a cathedral. He seeks him endlessly in literature and art, yet finds him nowhere.
There really is something of the desperation of acute bereavement in all this anguished searching, all of which comes to nothing. And in the same way, of course, the human search for God can feel a fruitless quest, whether we seek him up high mountains, or in lofty cathedrals, or in art.
But then, just as he had given up all hope, he does indeed regain a sense of the presence of the ‘friend’ whom he seeks – just as we, too, can sometimes glimpse the presence of God when we least expect it. The imagery that the poet uses here is wonderful, likening it to hearing the singing of a lark, even when you can’t actually see, or pinpoint the whereabouts, of the bird that is actually singing.
But above all, and this is why I find this poem so significant, it is sometimes in the deepest darkness of a life that feels, in the poet’s words, that it really is ‘in frost’ – sometimes it is there, in that most unpromising and unexpected place, that suddenly light dawns – the light that we seek – a light that is so close to us that it actually resides within our very heart. I love this poem.
‘Lost and Found’ by George MacDonald:
I missed him when the sun began to bend;
I found him not when I had lost his rim;
With many tears I went in search of him,
Climbing high mountains which did still ascend,
And gave me echoes when I called my friend.
Through cities vast and charnel-houses grim,
And high cathedrals where the light was dim,
Through books and arts and works without an end,
But found him not – the friend whom I had lost.
And yet I found him – as I found the lark,
A sound in fields I heard but could not mark;
I found him nearest when I missed him most;
I found him in my heart, a life in frost,
A light I knew not till my soul was dark.