The summer after my senior year of high school, I embarked on a wilderness adventure with a group of friends and teachers, canoeing and camping across the untamed lands of Canada.
It was incredible! We paddled across pristine lakes, and when we got to the end of one, we portaged our boats and our gear to the next. We camped under the stars, saw so much wildlife, witnessed incredible views, and deepened lasting friendships. But it was also on that trip, driving all night heading home, that we lost someone.
We had spent over a week in the great outdoors, somewhere in Ontario, BC. In order to have as much time as possible on the trip, the leaders had decided to drive straight through to and from – about an 18+ hour journey each way. We had several cars and vans in a caravan, driving through the night.
I don’t know what time it was when we stopped at a McDonalds in Beloit, Wisconsin, for a much-needed restroom break. Everyone woke up and piled out of the vehicles, some to take care of business, others to re-caffeinate for the trip ahead. Now, you need to know that people had been changing seats and even vehicles throughout the trip, trying find the most comfortable place to get some sleep. One of our teachers, we’ll call her Pat, had gone to the back of the van to sleep before her driving shift in a few hours. She remained groggy as everyone disembarked and went inside. Apparently, after a few minutes, shook off the fatigue, decided she’d better take advantage of the stop, and rolled out of her bench seat.
Because Pat had been the last one off, most people hadn’t seen her get up. She was the last one in the restroom, after most had been in and out and purchased what they were going to eat or drink. And because people had been changing locations and vehicles, as the group piled back in it was assumed that Pat was either still asleep in the back, or had gotten into a different car.
Regardless of how it happened, our caravan pulled away from Beloit, Wisconsin at 3:00 in the morning without one of our teachers. Pat was not on board…and no one had any idea.
This was years before cell phones, so there was no way for her to call and flag us down. It wasn’t until after we’d gone a couple more hours, through all of the toll roads around Chicago, and stopped to change drivers that Pat was missed. She was next up to drive, and no one could find her.
I was just a student, not a leader, so I don’t know the conversation that ensued, but I sensed some panic, some scrambling, and then we had an urgent need to find a pay phone. I also was not privy to that phone call, but they were able to get connected to the McDonalds and verify Pat was there; not happy, but there.
I was in the lucky car that got sent back to pick up our lost teacher. We wiggled through all the toll plazas again, headed up I-90, had a memorable McDonald’s breakfast with Pat around 6:30am, and got home much later than we’d planned.
In all my years leading trips for students and adults since then, I have always been careful to make sure we leave no one behind…especially a leader who can drive…
We’ve been looking on Sunday mornings at Luke 15, where Jesus told three stories about things, or people, that were lost…and then found. Those stories were quite different than our experience of losing a teacher along the road in Wisconsin.
I mean, no one missed Pat. Sad but true. We didn’t even know one of our own was in a precarious situation. I can’t imagine how she felt during those long hours, alone, in a strange town, in McDonald’s of all places, wondering if anyone was coming back for her!
That’s completely opposite of how God deals with us. Long before we ever know we’re lost, He’s already coming for us. As soon as we realize our need, He’s there to forgive and redeem. Just as the shepherd took off after his lost sheep, or the woman swept her whole house looking for her coin, or the prodigal son’s father looked day after day down the long road for him, God is pursuing a relationship with us! He knows that life with Him is best, and He wants that for us.
2 Peter 3:9 says that God is, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” In Luke 19:10 Jesus said His primary purpose on earth was to “seek and to save those who are lost.”
No matter where life has taken you or the decisions you’ve made along the way, God doesn’t want you to be lost. He’s already seeking after you! He loves you! And He has promised to, “never leave you nor forsake you.” What a promise!
I’m pretty sure Pat wished the rest of us had treated her that well. Instead, she was lost for awhile in Beloit.