Luke 15:4 What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?
This story begins with the pharisees and the scribes accusing Jesus of eating with undesirables and sinners. He responds with the parable of the lost sheep. If a shepherd loses just one of his sheep, he immediately leaves the ninety and nine and goes after that which is lost until the sheep is found.
This story is used often in religious settings in a boundary setting kind of way. Those who are found are those in the pews on Sunday, taking the sacrament, attending the meetings, doing home/visiting teaching, paying tithing. Those who are lost are not at church, or perhaps attending the wrong church. Especially so, if they were once attending church and have since stopped. Are those who have never part of the flock really lost?
But I’m not sure this makes sense to me. It proves alienating to those close to me who have left Mormonism, some who appear far more found than I often feel. And that gets to the heart of it for me. Can someone be lost who actually attends church every Sunday? Can someone be perfectly found who never does? I offer that the answer can be yes to both questions.
Given that, let me put forth an alternative interpretation that perhaps interprets these verses a bit more literally: perhaps we are found, when we are found. Perhaps we are lost when we are lost. In this sense, the act of finding the lost sheep is perhaps both more difficult but also more straight forward. If someone is not truly lost, but we assume they are, the act of trying to rescue that person can cause conflict, confusion, misunderstanding and damaged relationships. If someone is truly lost, the act of rescue will be lifesaving.
Some examples. I have loved ones who have left Mormonism. But I don’t see them as lost at all. I talk to them frequently. We have a close relationship. We visit each other. They aren’t lost. I know exactly where they are. More importantly, they are well connected. They have friends, safety nets, careers, they serve in their community, they are striving in various ways, they are filled with love in their hearts, and they have a relationship with God and with others.
When I think of a category of people who are lost, I think of the lonely and forgotten elderly who are in the last years of their lives, often homebound, not visited enough. Now, there is a phase of life at then end, where this is not a lost state at all. You can be alone and perfectly found. I worry about those who are alone and lonely, sad, and scared. They are among the lost sheep and some of them sit in the pews next to me at church.
I have a soft spot in my heart for Adam Miller. He’s easy to like, a Mormon celebrity of sorts. In his book, Future Mormon, he has a chapter on network theology, where truth and essence is found in processes emergent in networks that exist in our global existence. If we find God in our network, in our connections, than, it seems to be, we lose religion to the degree that we have become disconnected.
From Future Mormon
In network theology, an understanding of grace as an external, sovereign intervention is out of place. The model of a transcendent, sovereign power would be apt only if God were a king perched at the top of a cosmic hierarchy rather than a servant whose power resides in his solidarity with the poor and the outcast. What, then, might be an immanent notion of grace appropriate to a flat network cosmology?
Here grace can be understood as a systemic excess produced by the complexity of a network’s ongoing, local interactions. In other words, grace in an emergent property of a self-organizing system. Or, again: it is the unintended remainder of an unbalanced equation. This kind of ‘free,’ emergent excess – an excess that cannot be wholly accounted for by any individual relations or locally intended consequences – is essential to the success of any truth. Truths over-write banked knowledge by bringing into play the excess of a grace. By tracing novel pathways in light of a grace, truths open new network connections and new possibilities for productive interaction. It is the essentially productive aspect of any truth that ties truth to grace and grace to the promise of life (and renewed life) that is the heart of the Christian proclamation.
In this sense, then, what we should be striving for is not just individual development, but more importantly interdependent connections. Finding the lost sheep in this sense is to plug isolated individuals back into relationships and communities. Building up the gospel of Christ means connecting both religious (all religious) communities together in mutually beneficial relationships. It also means connecting secular communities into our networks as well. It means binding ourselves to each other both because of shared commitments but possibly more important because of our unique and individual differences and complementary gifts and perspectives.
Sin, in this sense is a move toward isolation. Think of any sin and consider that its effects are isolating. When I’ve been hurt I want to withdraw. Addictions usually happen in private or with strangers. A move to repentance is a move toward connection – we confess, forsake and seek restitution and where possible help others who similarly struggle.
But isolation just doesn’t happen individually. It can happen in our groups as well. Echo chambers happen within disconnected, closed networks of individuals in total agreement. Churches too happen worship in isolation, thankful that they have been separated from their brethren; believing that they have been elected God’s holy children.
For Christians, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Meaning, his life, his example is the way toward salvation. And Christ spent much of his ministry with the disconnected, the rejected. Christ’s mission was to build networks. I think this is the Christian mission as well.