Before Peru became a country that was part of my life, it was a country my parents feared to send me to.
When I was a college student preparing for a year of study abroad, a terrorist group crashed a party at the Japanese embassy in Lima and held the VIPs hostage for four months. Peruvian commandos painstakingly planned and staged a rescue. Afterward, the media celebrated while the president crowed. Booyah! Wave the red and white flag. Footnote: None of the terrorists survived.
Only later, when I was well into my time as a student, did the grim truth begin to emerge: the captors hadn’t all died in combat. At least some of them had surrendered in the raid — and been executed on the spot, their bodies spirited away afterward.
I watched the mother of one of the young men weeping on TV. She asked the government for just one thing so that she could identify her son and properly grieve him. All she wanted was a snip of her son’s hair. She would know it was his.
When I saw this, I was callow and unmoved. The television storytellers had easily netted me with their tale: the dark side and the light, bad guys and good guys, guns blazing. I knew nothing of the ache of parenthood. I was long years away from having children of my own whose heads I would cradle in the crook of my arm, whose hair I would inhale and study and comb with my fingers.
I couldn’t empathize with the complex history that led to that moment, that ending, the ways trauma could infect nations and communities and lives, interpenetrating muscle, bone, brain fibers, gut, like some fiendish mycelium.
A mother longing for a snip of her son’s hair — what of it? Now, I grieve my youthful hard-heartedness.
“Even the hairs of your head are all counted,” Jesus said. “Do not be afraid” (Luke 12:7). Jesus said God’s eye is on the littlest sparrows. Five of them are sold for two pennies, “Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight” (12:6).
Jesus’ teaching comes in a section about persecution: “Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more” (verse 4). But Jesus’ message rests on something deeper, something we’ve no doubt heard to the point of seeming hackneyed: God loves us.
What’s the shape of God’s love?
There’s a little clue tucked in the word Jesus uses for “sparrow.” My commentaries tell me it’s not the word for what we might think of as sparrows — which people didn’t really eat in Judea — but rather simply: “little birds.”
The sparrows aren’t just sparrows. I like that. I imagine a ragtag flock — every sort of odd little bird — all perched on a wire together.
And that’s how God loves us: in our individuality.
Like hair too, of which a ride on any subway reveals that there is every kind, head-spinningly unique.
St. Augustine picked this up when he said to God: “You are good and all-powerful, caring for each one of us as though the only one in your care.”
Jesus’ teaching on God’s love is a word for who we are and what we’re becoming. We are born of God’s love. God meticulously knit together the minutiae of our bodies (Psalm 139:13). Whatever hands received us, it was God’s that touched us. It was he who studied the crowns of our heads, counting each snip of hair.
In the flash of Jesus’ gospel koan — Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? — we see ourselves, and we know our nature. Whatever else, we begin beloved.
And we become ourselves in God’s love. “God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished” (Philippians 1:6, New Living Translation).
It’s the work of a lifetime — and probably eternity. Even the brutalist lines of our most daring wrong turns get drawn in.
This is the part I find myself doubting, because I know my own life. I know my razor-wire words and missteps and alligator-eyed, half-sunk desires. I know just enough to know that I don’t entirely know the moments I’ve resisted rather than cooperated with God’s grace.
But here it is: many sparrows. Every hair. Behold God’s love for us!
Nothing, Paul would go on to write, “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). Not even ourselves.