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I’m the oldest of six kids, and the first five of us are all two years apart like stepping-stones. Seemingly undaunted by this squirmy and unwieldy passel of small humans, my parents would take us on road trips and camping trips each summer while my dad, an elementary school teacher, had time off from work. I have many memories of us as sweaty-headed tots on the vinyl bench seats of our car in the late ‘80s, windows rolled down, watching trees and small lakes zip by in a seemingly-endless procession.
On one particular road trip south into the United States, we took a washroom break at a truck stop. We all piled out of the car to stretch our legs, Dad filled up the gas tank, and after a few minutes we were back on the road and driving once again. “Wow, it’s really quiet,” my Mom said, likely with gratitude.
“Where’s Joanna?” another sister said.
If our family life had been a sitcom, this is where the record-scratch sound would have been added, and the camera-frame would freeze on my parents’ appalled faces breaking the “fourth wall”.
We whipped around and headed back down the Interstate. As our car squealed into the gas station parking lot, sure enough, there was Joanna, not afraid in the slightest, just looking mighty miffed that she had been left behind.
When I was a little older, I would think of this family memory every time I read the story in Luke 2 of little-kid Jesus being left behind in the temple after Passover. Admittedly, it wasn’t until I became a parent myself and would have my own panic-moments of “wait WHERE IS MY KID” that I really empathized with Mary and Joseph (or my own parents on the highway in a country not their own). But it’s through the lens of my experience as a worship leader/church member that I most often find my focus with this story.
This journey that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were taking was equal parts family road trip and massive worship service. The Psalms share with us some of the “Songs of Ascent” that travelers would have sung on their way to the Passover celebrations in the hill-city of Jerusalem.
I like to imagine that after Passover, at the point where Luke takes up the narrative, the worshiping travelers might also have sung “Songs of Descent” as they headed home. I picture them belting out songs of thanksgiving about the continued presence of God with them, a confirmation of what they had just celebrated as a community in the holy city.
Except, in a very tangible way, God hadn’t left the city with them. The Passover agenda had moved forward according to all the set timelines, all the points of order had been followed, the ceremonies properly observed, just like every year. But they traveled and talked and sang and discussed their upcoming to-do lists for a whole day before they realized that Jesus wasn’t among them after all.
Record-scratch; freeze camera.
It’s wild to me that even once Mary and Joseph were back in Jerusalem, it was still three whole days before they found Jesus. Clearly there were loads of other places where they looked for Jesus before they considered checking the Temple.
As a parent, I confess that it’s frustrating to read the interaction between Jesus and his parents when they finally found him hanging out with the teachers of the law at the Temple. Why have you treated us like this, Jesus? We’ve been searching for you! And Jesus responds, sounding miffed to me, though in a different way than my little sister was at that truck stop. “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” Or, as it says in other translations, “Didn’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business?”
From a family-dynamics standpoint, I’m #TeamMary on this one all the way. And yet from a church-community standpoint, to me Jesus’ response is like the second record-scratch in this story. If we really know the Father’s business, where and how that business is taking place, we’re going to find Jesus there.
It can be tempting to fall into the assumption that our church structures, our liturgies, our polity, our voting processes, etc., are where God’s presence naturally manifests itself. But it’s entirely possible for a group of people who consider themselves very faithful, very attuned to the presence of Jesus, to march forward with the certainty of having done all the things correctly – and totally miss out on the truth that as we plowed ahead with those processes, we left Jesus behind.
I see the face of Jesus in my LGBTQ+ friends and family. I see the good, sweet Fruit of the Spirit in the work of their lives. I believe wholeheartedly that “the Father’s business” includes them, and indeed suffers a great loss if they are absent. When we leave our LGBTQ+ siblings behind, we leave Jesus behind.
It’s time to make a U-turn on the Interstate. I wish that the whole traveling party in the Christian Reformed Church (as well as others!) would take that return journey together. That would make me overflow with songs of thanksgiving.