My breath came hard as panic pressed on my chest. I stood in the produce section of the grocery store, scanning the aisles, desperate for a glimpse of my towheaded boy. Every parent has been in a similar situation, but most aren’t searching for a nonverbal child who can’t understand when the game has gone too far.
Finally, an older woman approached me. “I think I saw him hiding under the tomato display,” she whispered. Sure enough. “Me!”, Ben giggled, oblivious to my trembling as I scooped him up and held him close.
It was our first shopping trip in the city after Ben got too big to ride in the shopping cart. And also our last. (We’ll, except for that time when someone found him on top of the carts outside another grocery store….but I digress.)
Our small-town store at home, though, was a different matter. The employees were familiar with Ben, and unfailingly kind. So when he became insistent on escaping me, they stepped up to help. Geri would clue me in: “he’s in Aisle 3.” Or, “in the freezer section.” Sometimes Diana paged him over the store speakers while I was checking out. And Steve the produce clerk would keep an eye on the door, in case he decided to make a run for it.
It is common knowledge among the Down Syndrome community that our children are stubborn – or “persistent”, as one kind teacher worded it. Consequently, once Ben picked a favorite hiding spot, I knew that he would always return to it. His choice was the dog food display at the front of the store, where he could lay on top of the large bags of kibble stacked opposite the checkout lines. If I took too long, he would sometimes fall asleep right there on the dog chow.
Ben eventually moved on to greater maturity. Or maybe the lumpy dog food bags were becoming uncomfortable- who knows? But thankfully the days of panicked searching eventually came to an end.
God also searches for us, seeking his lost children. “Adam, where are you?” he called in the very beginning, when Adam and Eve hid in their sin and their shame. “All day long I stretch out my hands,” he said to a stubborn and obstinate people. “Come to me,” Jesus cried out in the villages of Galilee. “How I have longed to gather you under my wings!” he wept later over Jerusalem. His is a heart of reconciliation, throbbing not with panic, but with desire to hold us close. To bring us home.
But we are hiding. Under the tomatoes, in the freezer aisle, afraid to be seen. To be known. To trust exposure to the one who searches our hearts. We know he sees us there, but we don’t want to admit it. So we get busy or get important or get distracted in order to shut out the voice of the shepherd who calls each of us by name. Angels attend us but we don’t notice, intent on our shame or fear or simple determination to have our own way. Likewise, we ignore the community of believers rooting for us from heaven’s balcony, or the parent praying faithfully every morning. Maybe later,” we reason to ourselves, “when it’s time to check out.”
We are the one sheep, prone to wander; we are the coin, kicked aside in the darkness. He, the one who searches. In the dark corners, alone and forgotten, he lifts a lamp. In our wilderness, lost and afraid, he seeks and he calls. He comes for us with love, not condemnation. With compassion, not harshness. And when we finally let him find us, cold and alone or wounded and weary – or simply asleep on the dog food – heaven rejoices.