Leaving the Ninety-Nine: Reflections on Leaving One to Bring Home Three

Monday marked our last day together as a three-person family with our precious and only son, Judah. Early Tuesday morning I will say my goodbyes and Cindi will fly Judah to Oklahoma to be cared for by grandparents as we depart for our three weeks in East Africa.

One of the surprising emotions arising during these latter stages of our adoption is a sentimental sadness that our family is changing. The past four years with our buoyant son have been beautiful. His joy is contagious and his happiness healing. For me, children are a source of sanity in the midst of an adult world filled with our unimaginative minds, pessimistic perspectives, and frenzied schedules. And the opportunity to spend time with just one little boy — daddy and son — is literally priceless.

This nostalgia in no way undermines or contradicts our excitement and love for our newest children. But we are now recognizing afresh what our vague foresight has always told us: These early years are a special season, and they don’t last forever.

When we touch back down at Louisville’s Standiford Field and exit the baggage claim into the next chapter of our lives, there will be big adjustments to make. Some we can anticipate, but many we must simply await, with the only real preparation being a close walk with the Spirit. Every family must adjust when another member is added. Yet we are cognizant of the differences in our case. We are not putting a newborn to bed that first night, and we’re not welcoming one child or even twins into our home. Three beautiful Rwandan pre-schoolers await us, with all the brightness of the resilient orphans strewn across our planet, and with all the psychological and behavioral baggage of children growing up without a family. Things are going to change.

In the midst of these sentiments and anticipations, I remember the parable of Jesus, told in response to the self-righteous criticisms of the Pharisees who grumbled over Jesus’ acceptance of the “sinners” who were coming to Him in droves. “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost'” (Luke 15:2-6).

Sometimes finding demands leaving, and the permanent rejoicing of addition can require the temporary subtraction of absence. After all, if New Testament ecclesiology teaches us anything, it teaches us that grace shakes things up. The family is growing, burgeoning, bursting at the seams. And the diversity is absolutely heavenly. Three thousand in a day at Pentecost (Acts 2:41). A headlining magician (Acts 8:9-13). An Ethiopian court official serving as treasurer to his queen (Acts 8:27-39). A murderous young Pharisee bound for high religious leadership (Acts 9:1-22). A Roman centurion of the Italian Cohort (Acts 10:1-48). A city jailer (Acts 16:25-34). And the list goes on. And on and on and on. The praetorian guard (Philippians 1:12-13; 4:22). Masters and slaves (Philemon). Sex addicts, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, materialists, winos, scoffers, and swindlers (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Insiders are being regenerated, outsiders are flooding in, the marginalized are becoming members, and the fringes are being folded into the middle. This is what happened all because Someone left (Philippians 2:5-11; John 16:5-15; Acts 1:1-11).

In sharing these reflections, my intention is not to cast ourselves in the role of a sacrificial shepherd leaving behind his perfect family for three weeks in order to live out the mission of God to the destitute on the other side of the world. I’ve never felt more weak than in the past three years, and I am well aware that the dross which will be dredged up to the surface of my heart in coming months will not be worthy of respect or imitation, but only redemption. Yet we cannot shrink back in fear of what may come or which of our precious comforts we may be called to offer our Lord in service to Him. Gunner and Cindi and Judah were given to each other as family for pleasure and happiness and joy, but not only for these things. We were mainly brought together to bring others in, so that our joy may be made complete. We were made for brothers and sisters.

So tonight I put our five-year-old son to bed for the last time before his new 4-year-old brother arrives and bumps him up to the top bunk, and the last time before his two new sisters take over not only the bedroom down the hall but also much of their new parents’ affection. I know that the times of one-on-one bedtime Bible reading have past, that trampoline time and playing catch just got a bit more complex, that the happy conveniences of the single-child home are over, and that another day is already dawning on the horizon. But far more important than these last few weeks of parental nostalgia are the coming years of family time and road trips and church camps and and sports teams and gender lessons and ethnic discussions and Bible stories and priceless memories — the coming years of brothers and sisters.

So along with you, our own brothers and sisters who have trusted Christ and awoken from the dead, we leave and we launch out and we love, from suburbia and Americology and churchianity — just to rappel into the ravine; just to light someone else’s candle; just to pry open the jaws of death; just to knock hard on the gates of hell; just to throw the flimsy weight of our feeble love into the world’s fray, frightened but not afraid.

After all, we’re not the shepherd leaving our ninety-nine. We’re the sheep that was found.

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