It might seem an odd question if you have never seen an elephant in its natural environment in Africa. One might wonder how you could lose an animal that stands anywhere from nine to thirteen feet tall at the shoulder and weighs up to seven tons. Yet the amazing reality is that an elephant can literally disappear merely by walking about ten feet into the African bush. Between the thickness of the undergrowth and foliage and the natural camouflage coloration of the elephant’s skin, that huge beast can simply vanish into the undergrowth (although one can hear the tromping, munching and rumbling quite a while afterwards!)
As in our previous visit to our daughter in South Africa, Jan and I and the SA family spent a day driving through Addo Elephant Park, which is the third largest national park in South Africa (and only an hour’s drive away from Port Elizabeth). As the name suggests, the park is most famous as a conservation refuge for elephants, though it is also home for lions, rhinos, leopards, buffalo, hyenas, jackals, kudo, springbok and other types of antelope. It is also home for the indigenous dung beetle (but that is another story).
The elephants are a most awesome creature to behold, and not only because of their vast size. Along with the massive power of the animal lies a profoundly social quality, for they are very much herd animals with their own social pecking order and obvious sense of care for the more vulnerable members of the family.
And marvelous is their ability to appear suddenly from out of the African bush, and then later, retreat and disappear just as quickly. How do you lose an elephant? Just let them walk ten feet into the bush. And until a person sees the disappearing act with their own eyes, it is hard to imagine.
But then lots of things can vanish with a swiftness we could never imagine. Our health or our economic security are but two examples. So too, sadly, can relationships seemingly evaporate in ways we never thought possible. One minute, so it seemed, the marriage was healthy and happy; then husband and wife wake one day and find themselves strangers to one another with gulfs of hurt or loneliness, betrayal or indifference separating them from each other. When, each asks themselves, when was it, or how was it, that my marriage just disappeared?
So too our relationship with God can slip from out our grasp in a seeming instant (though of course, it is always a much longer, slower process). I could ask the question, how do you lose God? The answer this time, though, is not that the Lord has travelled away from us – it is far more likely that the wandering has all been on our part (and, of course, sometimes our wandering has been at an all out gallop!).
The Hebrew scriptures regularly likened human beings to sheep, who, like elephants, have a propensity to disappear if not carefully shepherded all the time. I believe it was Philip Keller who, in his reflection on Psalm 23, suggested that a sheep never really plans to get lost – most of the time, they just wander over here to take a bit of grass, then wander over there to take a bit, and suddenly find that they have nibbled themselves into lostness.
I know in my own life, I’ve lost sight of God on countless occasions because I was too busy nibbling after the tempting lush distractions of some shiny trinket or activity that advertised itself as being of such value to my happiness. Other times, I’ve let God disappear behind the thickets of my self-important busy-ness with ministry and religious shop-keeping. Most of the time, however, I let my relationship with my God disappear simply through indifference to the simple reality that if I am not steadily and intentionally working at keeping the fire of my passion for God burning strong, it will burn low, burn down and burn out.
Three mercies, thankfully, exist. One is that God pursues. Never content to let us drift away in our folly and leave us to get utterly lost and separated from himself, God pursues us, seeks after us, calls to us and continually works to draw us back to his presence. The gospel message of the Son stepping down from heaven and leaving glory to be with us ought to drive home the relentless, extraordinary length to which God has already gone in his holy quest after his beloved, prodigal children.
The second mercy is that God welcomes back. When finally we come to our senses or life throws us into grace-desperate crisis, and we run crying to find afresh the strong, refuge-providing compassion of God, He is there with open arms. No jilted lover angrily or poutingly unwilling to receive us, is our God. The prophets of old called God’s people to “seek the Lord while He may be found,” knowing that it is his holy passion to be found by us as surely as it is to seek after us.
The third mercy is that God has told us through his Word how not to lose sight of himself. Through heartfelt prayer asking God to take up and keep residence in our souls, through regular, disciplined feasting upon the wisdom of scripture by which to recall both our wayward nature and God’s faithful character, and by staying deeply connected with the fellowship of God’s people in worship and study, are some of the grace-given means by which to nourish and deepen and keep our relationship with the Lord focused and strong. The age-old challenge has always been not only to give adequate and unrushed time to our spiritual walk with God but to take seriously the need to do so, lest we find ourselves suddenly looking around and wondering where God disappeared to. More tragic would be letting God get so lost to us that we forget there really is a good, holy and kind God worth seeking or come to believe that that same God has no interest in finding us.
The question for us is always whether we are walking with God, up close and personal, or have we inadvertently lost sight of the One who most truly loves us and whose love we most desperately need.