There were some strange things that happened along the way. We look back now and laugh, but at the time it really wasn't too amusing. For instance, someone had called and cancelled our reservation in Alabama earlier that same morning (and it wasn't us!). We had a flat tire needing repair about halfway through the trip as well. We stayed in a hotel room that emanated second-hand smoke from the carpet to the ceiling - all the while with "no smoking" cards placed everywhere in the room. These things make me smile as I am sitting here writing about them. This is the price we pay for getting away to some place new. Each vacation is its own mini adventure. Chevy Chase would have been proud (you may remember the National Lampoon's Vacation movie he made famous).
Overall we couldn't complain, of course. In a country that has yet to fully recover from the housing market crash in 2008, our family of five took a comfortable vacation to a white sand beach with an amazing view of the ocean. God's beauty is amazing at times: we were packing up to leave the beach for the hotel one evening and I snapped a picture of the sunset over the water. A surreal mixture of peace and satisfaction came over me. Life was good. In fact, we are still shaking beach sand out of our family car to this day (a week and a half later).
Not every day was full of bliss however. One day in particular comes to mind, while we were busy splashing in the waves and having a good time, my wife happened to look up and notice that our youngest son was nowhere to be found. We had rented some blue beach chairs with an umbrella so we could be comfortable while relaxing in the hot sun, and a moment earlier he had been playing in the sand with a small toy shovel and a plastic bucket right next to them. He was gone in the blink of an eye. It was a holiday weekend and the 32 mile long beach was lined with thousands of people. I am reminded of the scene from the remarkable Steven Spielberg film 'Minority Report', where Tom Cruise's character takes his young son to the public pool. After practicing how long he could hold his breath under water, Cruise surfaces to find that his son is gone. In the film, Cruise never finds his son again. I can't help drawing parallels to this experience with that scene. It was terrifying to watch on a movie screen, and it was terrifying to experience it firsthand. It really was like a scene from a movie.
Jesus tells three versions of a parable that are interrelated in the Gospel accounts of the Bible that I think we can use to help illustrate this feeling. The one I will focus on here is the parable of the lost sheep that appears in Matthew chapter 18, verse 12: "What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? 13“If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray. 14“So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish."
In terms of exegesis, there are different ways to unpack this Scripture. But I think the main thrust of the parable is obvious in this context. If God so loved the world that He sacrificed His one and only Son, then why wouldn't he take the extra trouble to go and retrieve someone who had wandered from the Faith and restore him or her? Why wouldn't He take any amount of trouble necessary to save you and I from a Christ-less existence? Why shouldn't we take trouble (as representatives of the Gospel message ourselves) to chase after the sheep?
Of course, while we were frantically looking for my son at the beach, I could muster none of this clarity of thought. My main concern was fighting back the feeling of dread that was beginning to set in as three minutes went by ... then five minutes ... then ten minutes without seeing him anywhere. My wife began to shed tears, and people around us were starting to take notice. If you have ever witnessed a scene like this, even if it involved people whom you have never met, you may note that it is impossible to ignore. Eventually, during my second or third trip back and forth around the beach, two strangers sitting behind us called out to me, "hey!" I turned, and heading my way was my youngest son, plastic bucket in tow. I thanked the couple who had said something to me in order to call my attention to him, and apologized for the verbal punishment that my son was about to receive.
What if those people hadn't taken the extra time to get involved? After all, we were strangers 1,000 miles from home. What if the Shepard in Jesus' parable hadn't taken the time to temporarily leave the 99 other sheep and go after the stray? What if you and I never take the time to tell anyone about the saving grace of God? Given the circumstances, shouldn't we feel the same level of urgency that I felt on the beach that day while frantically looking for my son? After all, the spiritual stakes are just as high. I think we need to go after the sheep.
Truth be told, I don't think that God typically requires us to share the Gospel message with complete strangers. More often than not, I have a feeling it need only occur after relationships have been established and life experiences shared. Less open air preaching to the man on the street, and more asking our friends if they want to come to church on Sunday. Because if Jesus is at the center of our lives, then talking about Him bubbles up from the overflow in our hearts. But our hearts are often scared to overflow I think. What will people think if we tell them about Christ? What will they whisper about us when we leave?
The image of finding my son again, holding that plastic bucket will be with me forever. When he is 30 years old I imagine I will still remember that day. Tears coming down his face, bleached blond hair from swimming all day, holding that bucket full of sand. I hope he will tell me that he was grateful my wife and I came looking for him, that we didn't give up ... that we couldn't give up. I hope some day after I am gone, God may pull me aside and show me other lives that were touched because I was bold enough to share His message with others, because I didn't give up. I hope the same for you.