By John Pierce

Recently, a college friend drew my attention to an interesting story found in The Toronto Sun back in 2012.

A tour group, traveling by bus across Iceland, made a Saturday afternoon stop near a volcanic canyon in the southern highlands. A woman in the group decided that was a good time to freshen up and change clothes.

Apparently, she did an exceptional job. When she rejoined the group the others did not recognize her.

The group had greater concerns, however. One member of the group had gone missing.

So the freshened-up woman joined the frantic search for the missing person. According to the news report, about 50 people combed the area on foot and by vehicles.

A Coast Guard helicopter was getting ready to join the effort when a big discovery was made: The woman who had joined the search party was looking for herself.

Fellow travelers did not recognize her after cleaning up a bit — and she did not recognize herself in the descriptions they gave of the missing person.

This story reminded me of a lecture series by the late John Claypool that I heard during my seminary days in the late ’70s. Those lectures, more than anything I’ve heard or read since, shaped my personal theology.

In one especially meaningful lecture, Claypool repeated the ancient Zen concept of a man “riding on an ox, looking for an ox.” He applied that idea to Jesus’ remarkable story known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Claypool said the younger son set out of a journey to find himself — not realizing that his value was already present. He was “riding on an ox, looking for an ox.”

Of course, Jesus’ parable is deep and rich with such climatic scenes as the father rushing to the roadside to embrace his returning son — before a word of confession and repentance was uttered.

The son, Claypool noted, had not realized that his value came not from something “out there” but from within. The loving embrace of his father reassured him of who (and whose) he was and had always been.

Many of us, it so often seems, look everywhere in the world for that which will give us meaning, purpose and value in life. Except within — and within the loving and graceful embrace of the one who created us and whose presence remains with us.

Riding on an ox while looking for an ox or joining a search party seeking oneself are good examples of looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place. Our true selves are not “out there,” but within.

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