Our town still has one of those old-fashioned markets with little stalls piled high with fruit and vegetables, and the vendors calling out their best deals, each one clamouring for our attention and our money. It is a busy, bustling, noisy sort of place to go, and there's always lots to see as barrow-loads of fresh stuff wind their way through the crowds to restock the colorful stalls.
Bernie went there with Bethany one Friday to buy our fresh food for the following week. My mother was staying with us, and she went to shop at the large supermarket across the street from the market. Bernie had almost finished when he noticed some particularly beautiful grapes. He stopped to choose a bunch, and then stood in line to pay for it. He handed over the coins, and reached out again for Bethany's hand. She was a tiny 2-1/2-year-old, not even as tall as the stall tables, and as Bernie reached out his hand hit empty air. His heart flipped. A sickening, body-crunching fear gripped at his chest: that heavy, desperate dread you feel when you realize your child is lost. He began to search among the crowds and stalls. It was truly like looking for a needle in a haystack. She was tiny. and pretty, and there were a thousand different places she could be. And worse still, it was the easiest place in the world to abduct a child.
My mother finished her shopping, loaded it into the car, and thought she'd try to find Bernie while she waited. She found him, still frantically looking, asking around if anyone had seen a little girl with pig-tails and pink shorts. No one had. He went back to the grape stall again, with the desperate hope that she might have gone back there. We'd always told her that if she got lost, she should go back to the place where she last remembered seeing us.
"Have you seen a little girl, so-high, pink shorts, hair in pig-tails?" Bernie's words were breathless and frantic. He was in a hurry. Only the day before he'd witnessed the birth of his little son, Nathan, and he was due, right then, to collect us from the hospital. But he couldn't go until he'd found Bethany. There is never a good time to lose a child, but this must have been one of the worst. My mother had visions of Bernie having to call the police, and then having to go to the maternity hospital to tell me that Bethany was lost. She worried about the effect the news would have on me. Appalling news at any time, made ten times worse by the fragile emotional state of a post-natal mother!
"Yer lost a kid?" someone asked. "Yer wanna check ol' Smithson's apple stall. He collects lost kids. Sits 'em up on his ol' barrow, gives 'em an apple. Anyone gets lost here, that's where you'll find 'em. Up there on the left. Can't miss it."
And there she sat, munching a bright red apple, calmly telling people that her father had gone and left her, and her mother was in the hospital getting a little brother. "Poor abandoned and unwanted child!" they must have thought. "Whatever is the world coming to!"
Only a parent can know the relief that comes when a lost child is found. Some may scold a bit; some may burst into tears, but inside there is just sheer happiness. Our little lost one has been found, the ache and the agony of separation is over, and we're all together again.
I love the picture of the father in the story of the prodigal son. His son is lost, terribly lost. Anything could have happened. He's been gone for months. But still the father is out there, looking up the road, every day, waiting and watching, longing and looking. And one day he spots his son, a tiny disheveled figure limping down the lane, in such a mess that he can be smelt a long way off, too. But that doesn't matter. His son is back. It doesn't matter where he's been, or what he's done. No blame, no punishment, no "I told you so's". Just love and compassion, happiness, and a welcome place at home again. The past is behind them. Tomorrow is another day, and a good place to start over, together, again.
Dear Father, thank You that whenever I may wander away from You, You are always waiting, hoping, and looking for me to come back home. Help me to realize that the most exciting, beautiful, happy and loving place I can be is at home with You. Help me to make my home and my church a welcoming place for others, where they can be touched by Your love. Amen.
Think about a time when you or your children were lost. How did you feel? What was it like to be reunited?
Think of something you can do today to make your home a more welcoming place for your children.
Think about something you can do to help someone at your church feel more welcome. Especially think about reaching out to another mother.