It was one of those rare perfect Saturdays. Dan had no church duties and there were no emergencies at the children’s hospital where I was an on-call chaplain on the weekends. A fresh blanket of snow coated Kansas City with that winter-wonderland feeling. Our oldest son, Daniel, who was 3 at the time, had received his first sled for Christmas the month before, so it seemed like the ideal day to break it in and take him and Jacob, who was 16 months old, for their first day of sledding.
We headed off to the park and took pictures of their exuberant faces, full of pure joy, as they experienced the wonder of snow, sled, speed and sun that combined for a shining moment of glory as they slid down the hill. We built a snow family and sledded some more. When we were tired and cold, we headed home for lunch and naps. The boys shared a room, but for naps, we put Daniel in our bed so they would actually sleep, which they did quickly.
Dan and I took advantage of their nap time to work on our painting project in the playroom—we were stenciling a train full of circus animals at chair rail height around the room. It was right at the bottom of the stairs, so if Daniel got up and came downstairs, we would easily hear him.
Over an hour passed and we had not heard a peep from upstairs, so I went up to check on them. Jacob was still sound asleep, but when I went to check on Daniel, the covers were pushed back, and the bed was empty. I shouted down to Dan that Daniel was not in the bed and searched the rest of the upstairs—bathroom, closets, under the beds. Nothing. I could not imagine how he could have come downstairs without us hearing him. I had mom-hearing—I heard a cough, a footstep, a wimper, from a dead sleep. How could I not hear a 3-year old on the stairs in the middle of the day?
We looked downstairs and then in the kitchen, where we saw the back door ajar. I ran outside while Dan searched the basement. The gate was closed, but Daniel was not in our fenced-in yard, and we lived on a busy corner. I ran through the gate, looked up and down the side street calling his name, I rushed to the corner where cars were going up and down the city street at 35 miles/hour, shouting his name in every direction but saw and heard nothing, but traffic.
I went back inside to ask Dan if it was time to call 911. The only thing that was preventing me from having a complete meltdown, was that Jacob was still in the crib upstairs and would wake up any minute. Dan finished tying his shoes and said he would look for Daniel, and for me to wait before I called for help. As if on cue, Jacob started crying, and Dan went outside to search for our lost child.
"Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? ….Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?"
God is a shepherd searching for the one sheep who left the other ninety-nine. God is a woman searching for the one coin that is lost from the other nine. God is a parent searching for the one child who left without a sound.
Can you imagine the heart of God, the creator of the cosmos—whose image is imprinted on every human being, whose recycled stardust exists in every person ever made,whose Holy Spirit dwells inside every person you have ever met—can you imagine the immensity of God’s heart and God’s love?
I can hardly bear to re-tell this story about Daniel and it was twenty-two years ago, and I am just one mom—a sinful human being who lost one child.
Can you imagine the heart of God breaking when people are lost to faith, when others walk away, when still others choose evil, when others step away in silence, when still more refuse to even consider a relationship with the living God, and when even in our own hearts, we turn away and make so many other things more important than the ground of our being, the foundation of the universe, the source of our life, and the very heart of love?
Can you imagine the heart of God breaking when, like the Pharisees wondering why Jesus is hanging out with tax collectors and sinners, we judge others, and in so doing, reveal that we are more lost than those we judge?
Can you imagine the God that Jesus knows—the one who is always searching to find the lost, yearning for the hard-hearted to soften, and hoping for those who have walked away to return?
This is the God the Apostle Paul knew when he was found on the Damascus road with a blinding light and the voice of Jesus calling him to faith. Paul offers his testimony:
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord...because he appointed me to his service even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.
Paul was found by the God who sent Jesus to search for the lost, to search for us--a shepherd looking for a lost sheep, a woman searching for a lost coin, a parent in a panic for their lost child.
I still have an image of Dan sitting in the living room tying his tennis shoes with a fierce determination to find Daniel. Then he went out the door and I went upstairs to get Jacob up from his nap. It took all the presence of mind I could muster to talk myself through changing a diaper, so I would not scare this sweet boy by totally falling apart. The terror I felt was unlike anything I have ever felt before. I worked at a Children’s Hospital—I knew what happened to toddlers when they walked out of the house unawares.
As I came downstairs with Jacob in my arms, Dan walked in the front door with Daniel’s hand in his. I put Jacob down and I dropped to the floor in a puddle of tears and I hugged Daniel like my life depended on it. I have never known relief so sweet, so deep, so agonizing as I did in that moment. And gratitude. And joy.
A neighbor from three doors down, Gerald, whom we had never met, was walking Daniel up to the house when Dan had gone out looking for him. Our pediatrician concluded that Daniel went sleepwalking that afternoon, so he did not make any noise coming down the stairs. Something about the exhaustion of sledding and the deep sleep that came afterward combined for this isolated incident. He climbed over the gate and walked in his stocking feet down the side of the house and around the corner.
Gerald was a bass player and as he was loading his string bass into the car for work that night, he saw this little boy walking alone down the sidewalk, without a coat, crying, with his shoes in his hand. He seemed in a bit of a fog, but Gerald managed to engage him in conversation, during which Daniel woke up. Gerald asked him if he knew where he lived. Daniel said, “6101 Rockhill Road” and Gerald realized that was just a few houses up.
He took Daniel inside his house to help him put his shoes on. That was about the same time I ran to the corner and saw nothing. When Dan went out to look a second time, he met them on the sidewalk. “I’m so glad you’re not a child molester,” I said to Gerald through tears. It is still the strangest compliment I have ever given.
We have a God who sent Jesus to search for the lost, to search for us—a shepherd looking for a lost sheep, a woman searching for a lost coin, a parent in a panic for their lost child.
We have a Savior who calls the church to join him in searching for the lost—a church that ties its tennis shoes in fierce determination each week to find the lost—to let people know how much God loves them, to share that forgiveness is free and grace is unearned, to let them know they can come home because the table is set, the party is planned, and we are ready to celebrate—"for there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
There is joy, oh is there joy at the feast of forgiveness and the festival of being found. So, come to the table with joy. For today, you are found, and you are forgiven, and we will all rejoice with the angels.
Image: This is not my favorite picture from that fateful day--that one is in a frame in a box yet unpacked from our last move, but this is close! The other picture is on the sled with Daniel's arms protectively around Jacob.