Thursday, March 3, 2011

The 99 and the 1

I am embarrassed to admit that I cried when I found out I was pregnant with Mary Claire. I remember sitting on the rocker in my bedroom, and through sobs saying to Bryan, “Caroline hasn’t had enough time to be the only child.” Caroline was just 10 months old when we found out we were expecting again. In some ways I was still trying to play dolls with her. I was in love, and she was enough. I wasn’t mentally prepared for our family to grow. Surprise! Conflicting emotions popped up. What if I could not love another child as much as I loved Caroline? What if she felt ignored or jealous or squeezed by a new baby in the family?

Many a young parent has had similar feelings. My mother was one of them. When I was born, the “enlightened thinking of the day” suggested that you give your older child a gift from the new baby. This was supposed to help the older child accept the new baby. My grandmother tried to help my mom relax. “Don’t apologize for making Sarah a brother to love,” she said. Still, my parents, trying to be prepared, purchased a purse for me and had it ready upon their homecoming from the hospital. Family lore has it that when my mother tried to offer me the gift, I pushed it aside, pushed her aside, and made my way to my newborn brother. So much for the adult interpretation of three-year-old thought processes…

Now that I know what I know, I feel silly telling you how I fell into that same trap with my own children. None of my fears materialized. When Mary Claire was born, Caroline was 19 months old. She arrived at the hospital to meet her sister in her navy and white sailor dress, toting her own “baby” in a doll-sized carrier. She crawled up into the bed with me, and smiling all the time, she beheld her little sister. It was love at first sight. My daughter, barely walking herself, cradled her infant sister like a pro. Still the most nurturing child I know, Caroline was made to be a big sis.

When we discovered Audrey’s surprise conception, we were not gripped at all by the fear that she would rob our other two of their time in the spotlight. We knew they would love each other deeply and become best buddies. When Audrey was born, Caroline and Mary Claire were still so small (3 and 1 ½), but they were in awe of our amazing gift. As they sat in the hospital room and inspected our newest family member (umbilical cord stump, tiny feet and all), I knew in my heart that our love had been multiplied, not divided. Sure, our time and money would be divided once more, but not our love.

Having all three of them was like Heaven. Seriously. I’d like to share some pictures of my “best day ever” with you (that’s a shout-out to you, Mary Claire…Little Miss “This-is-the-BEST-DAY-EVER!”). I know there are more good days to come. But, the day we took Audrey home from the hospital will always be one of my fondest memories. It was a gorgeous spring day, not unlike today…sunny, breezy, and mild. All was right with my world. The peace and joy I felt were indescribable…a foretaste of Heaven. Caroline and Mary Claire came dressed in their “big sister” t-shirts to escort us home. We went out to lunch, and then we went to play at the park. As my mom and I sat on the park bench admiring Audrey in the afternoon sunlight filtered through the shade of giant oaks, Bryan and the girls chased each other through tunnels and sifted gravel with their hands. Why, in my rocking chair, in the privacy of my bedroom, had I ever wondered if I could love another child? My cup ran over. I had all my little chicks gathered in my arms.

In the few years that followed that moment in time (maybe in the hours that followed), I discovered that meeting the needs of three children that small was demanding. My hands were indeed full! But, my heart had plenty of room. My girls learned from the beginning to share and take turns. If I was busy, they had each other. If one cried, I comforted. If one was hungry, I fed her. If one needed a snuggle, I offered a lap. If one had a question, I answered. It was never even, but no one seemed slighted. It was challenging work, but I treasured each one of my children.

I had no reason to think that my “rocking chair question” would ever resurface. But, when I faced Audrey’s sudden death, I began to question again, “Do I have enough love to go around?” My grief required so much of me that I was afraid I would unwittingly harm Caroline and Mary Claire…somehow not give them enough of me.

Like the voices of the baby advice books rang in my mother’s ears, the voice of well-meaning neighbors and friends echoed in my ears for a long time after Audrey’s death. People, jaded by their own experiences or those they had “heard of”, advised me to “go on” for my living children. No less than four days after Audrey’s death, I remember wailing in grief, “She was just so perfect. She was beautiful and healthy and perfect.” This comment came out of my very gut. It was an expression of my confusion at the sudden death. How could my adorable little girl have been so alive one moment and gone the next? Instead of hearing my heart and offering me comfort, one loving family member, wanting to be helpful, warned me that calling Audrey “perfect” might make Caroline and Mary Claire think that they are somehow less than perfect. If I recall the situation correctly, there was a story behind the admonition. An adult friend she knew still had issues with feeling unloved because of her mother’s grief over the death of a sibling. It was heartbreaking for me to hear this story. I didn’t love Caroline and Mary Claire less because I wanted Audrey back! I didn’t think I needed to worry whether they would be harmed by my grief. Did I need to be? Was I going to miss something important? Would I be able to meet their needs and also meet my own? There was enough emotional space in our family for three children a few days ago. Wasn’t there still enough space for three now?

As the weeks and months rolled on, these questions nagged at me in the quiet moments. I could not seem to reconcile the need to continue loving Audrey with the fact that I had no tangible way to do it. I could no longer brush her hair or rock her to sleep. I could not make her a plate at the dinner table or read her a book. Though I appeared to have only two children to care for, in my heart, I still had three. How could I show my love for Audrey? And, would doing that make my other children feel less important?

Here is my journal entry from February 28, 2008, only three short months after Audrey died:

“I’ve thought of this before, but I’m not sure I wrote it down yet…So many days I find myself just checking out…longing for Audrey. Sometimes I think I’d do anything—anything—to go to her. I often feel guilty about this. After all, I do have a lot here to be grateful for…people and things I am responsible for and love. But, there is this overwhelming need to take care of the one I can’t get to. I can’t even count the number of well-meaning folks who’ve told me I’ve got to “go on” for my husband and kids. Not necessarily in so many words, but that’s the gist. And, still, I’m longing for the one who’s missing.”

In that same entry, I mentioned a Bible story that brought me great comfort. Today, three years later, it still makes my heart skip a beat. It is a story you probably know…one that, to me, reflects the essence of the Father’s heart for each of us, His immeasurable love for us. It is the parable of the lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-14).

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”

Let me set up the scene for you. Before Jesus tells the parable, His disciples have just asked him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?” (Matthew 18:1). Can you imagine what Jesus was thinking? (Oh, for goodness’ sake! When are these people going to get who I am? When are they going to get what I came to do?)

Jesus knew He was going to need a visual aid to get through to His disciples as He answered them, so He called over a child. I can just imagine Jesus, standing amongst the men, extending His arm out to that child and drawing her close. I can see Him putting His hands on her shoulders, pointing to her, and stating emphatically, “If you don’t become like this little child right here, you will not even enter the kingdom of Heaven!” (v. 3). Bet that’s not what the disciples expected to hear!

Jesus always taught in allegory. And, what He said almost invariably meant more than one thing at once. That was one of the reasons His followers’ heads were always spinning. In this case, Jesus wanted the disciples to see how important children are to Him, but more than that, He wanted them to see themselves as little children. Jesus wanted the disciples to see themselves in relationship to Him. He spoke as a loving father to His children.

As I read the parable of the lost sheep in my grief, I absorbed it on two levels. I identified with both the parent role and the child role in the story…both the role of the protector and the one who needed protecting. Perhaps you can, too. Notice that this man owns a hundred sheep. Only one of them has wandered away. Ninety-nine of his sheep are near, accounted for, and under his watch care. What is one little sheep? Apparently, that one little sheep is irreplaceable. For, the man leaves the 99 and goes out on the hill looking for the one that is lost. Think about it. Might that involve some risk to the 99 on the hill? Was there anyone there to watch over them while he left? I don’t know. But, I love what this desperate action communicates. It says that this shepherd did not just feel sad about the missing sheep. He didn’t just say, “Oh, well. That really stinks. I hope he is o.k. I sure hope he comes back safely.” No! On the contrary, that shepherd dropped everything to go out and look for the sheep! The shepherd’s response involved not just feelings, but action. He went in pursuit of the one that was lost.

I know sheep aren’t people, but if they could think and interact like we do, what do you suppose the 99 were thinking while the shepherd was out looking for the lost sheep? Let’s just assume this lost sheep was a brother of theirs. Do you think they were all grumbling? “Seriously? There he goes again chasing after our brother when he could be spending time with us!” Or, do you think they were expressing loving concern? “I sure hope the shepherd finds our brother. I am scared for him and don’t want him to be lost!” What do you think the shepherd’s actions toward the 1 communicate to the 99 about his love for each of them? Maybe they realize if any one of them was lost, he would look for them, too. Maybe they don’t feel jealous. Maybe, instead, they feel deeply loved.

This parable speaks volumes into my grief. I am reassured that within the bounds of a healthy, attentive relationship with Caroline and Mary Claire, no amount of time given to Audrey (even in her absence) is going to make them feel unloved. In fact, I cannot think of a better way to communicate my love for them than to authentically show them how I would feel, think, and act if they were taken away from me. Over time, my behavior will teach them how very important they are. Sharing time with Audrey was and is normal for them. Sharing me with Audrey was and is normal for them. Their place in the family is secure. And, her place in the family is secure, too. She still requires our time and energy. How, you may ask? We talk about her. We talk about where she is, what life would be like if she were here. We celebrate her birthday. We talk to her, pray for her, talk to God on her behalf. “Send things to her” by balloon. Bryan and I speak to anyone who will listen about Heaven and eternal perspective. We cry. I write. We take family pictures and try to put something in them to represent her. We hang her stocking at Christmas. And, we are just getting started. We will always include her in our life, and that will enhance, not diminish the life Caroline and Mary Claire have left to live. I am as confident of the goodness of this as I am about the goodness of bringing her home to my family in the first place.

Best of all, letting my little girls see the deep pain I have over the loss of our Audrey will eventually convince their hearts of God’s relentless pursuit of them. He will NEVER quit coming after them. As a loving father, He wants them near, accounted for, and under His watch care. Even if there are 99 others safe in His arms, God will risk everything to rescue them.

Jesus is the kind of God who embraced a little child and said, “This is what I’m talking about.” Do you know that Jesus? Unless we turn to Him like little children to a loving father, we will not see the kingdom of Heaven. Won’t you turn around and start running toward Him? Jesus said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37, Luke13:34) It broke Jesus’ heart that people did not run to Him. Still does. He has a longing to gather his children together, just as I did on the day I brought Audrey home from the hospital. He wants us all in His arms. But, some of us are still not willing. And, He lets us make the choice. The love I feel for each of my children is so intense. I cannot imagine how an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving creator God must feel about me…and about you. I can’t imagine what pain it causes Him for us to be far away from Him. Won’t you accept His love for you today?

Some of you who are reading have still not chosen to see yourselves as little children in need of rescue. You do not acknowledge Jesus as Lord of your life. Still, He is your Father. And, He will never stop pursuing you. He may have many of us already under the umbrella of His care, but His love for each He has created is so strong, it is as if no one else ever existed but YOU. He will leave the 99 and come looking for you…not just if you get lost…but, even if you are running away from Him. And, He will be happier when He finds you than He is about the 99 who did not wander off (v. 13). This doesn’t diminish the love He has for those who already acknowledge Him! Instead, it reveals His love for redemption! And, when I finally see Audrey in Heaven, my mother’s heart will likewise rejoice. It is all redeemed!

I admit I stole the idea for the picture above from Angie Smith (author of the blog "Bring the Rain" and of the book "I Will Carry You").  But, I could not resist it.  Doesn't a picture speak what a heart cannot?  Doesn't this picture communicate what my mouth will never be able to utter?  Dearly loved child of God, there is a place reserved for you that no one else can fill.  Won’t you wake up to God’s relentless pursuit of you? Won’t you let that encourage your soul today? There may be 99 on a hill, but to God, YOU are the 1.


Jenna said...

Once again, you take my breath away. What a precious parallel. God moves mountains through your words.

Craig Weeks said...

A you following Pioneer Woman's photo contest "Sisters"?

(click here)

Craig Weeks said...

Not just here, but you have helped me see the wisdom and goodness in being very slow to offer advice to someone who is in the early and deep stages of grief.

Marissa Star said...

Deeply touched. Hard to write through the tears ...
Thank you for sharing your heart and sharing the Lord's heart for all He loves!

Great Love! ~Ris

Jan Archer said...

Amazed at the Truth that shines as bright as the sun through this blog! You are a beautiful example of His love, not only to your daughters, but to a world in desperate need of your example. Thank you! Jan Archer