The annual Lighted Christmas Parade happened in Redding this past weekend. I took my little people to enjoy the festivities for the very first time as spectators. We've been IN the parade almost every year since the kids were little, bitty toddlers. But this year we got to sit on the sidelines which has the added benefit of arriving 10 minutes prior to showtime and leaving whenever the magic of lighted big rigs loses it's luster.
As we were chatting with friends, collecting candy canes and enjoying hot tea under our fuzzy blankets, a somber parade entry rolled by. It was a giant banner with a photo of a local missing baby, Ember Graham. Volunteers adorned with pink lights carried the huge banner with strained smiles.
The enthusiastic crowd watched, uncertain how to respond. The happy waves, clapping and shouts of, "Merry Christmas" were silenced as we soaked in the picture of baby Ember and the reminder of this precious child that has gone missing. My kids immediately noticed the change in mood and began firing questions about the display and what it all meant.
"Who is that baby?" asked my son.
"What does that sign say?" asked my daughter.
"Her name is Ember" I said. "She is a baby that is missing."
My kids wanted to know more. Why is she missing? Where did she go? What happened? Their eyes got wide with concern, confusion and a trace of fear as they came to understand a tiny piece of the evil that lurks in their world. The idea that a small, helpless baby could somehow disappear, be hurt or stolen simply wasn't on their radar. Until now.
I told them I didn't know where the baby was. And that somebody might have taken the baby away from her parents. And that those people were showing everyone the picture so if we see baby Ember we can call the police and bring the baby back to her family.
My response seemed to satisfy them. We agreed how sad and wrong it was for a baby to be missing. Our attention was quickly diverted by the next lighted display rolling past. I took a deep breath and tried to shake off the gloom of this sad story in the midst of our happy little parade. I felt a tiny, uncomfortable twinge as I envisioned the small loss of innocence this quick conversation had brought to my kids.
At bedtime later that evening, I guided my kids through our normal routine of putting on pajamas, reading books and saying our prayers. Typically our prayers cover the normal "kid stuff". Thanks for chocolate chip cookies. Please help grandpa's back to feel better. Thank you for mud puddles. That type of thing. But on this night, as there was a pause in our list of thanksgivings, my seven year old daughter chimed in unexpectedly with, "Please bring that baby back to her family."
Yes, I echoed. Please bring that baby home.
As I tucked my children in that night I was more mindful of the privilege. I said a silent prayer of thanksgiving for the safety of my happy, healthy children.
There is lots to see at the parade. Lots of lights. Lots of music, dancing, energy and noise. But in the middle of our joyful parade, in the middle of our everyday life, there is also suffering. Sometimes it is quiet and easily overlooked until we sit down as spectators and actively soak in the scenery. Sometimes that suffering might seem out of place in the middle of a bright and cheery holiday event. But it is always there. And those that live closely with the suffering, like the family of baby Ember, do not have the option to look away or focus on the next brightly lit distraction of life.
I don't know if that simple prayer offered from our home will bring baby Ember home. But I do know that those solemn volunteers carrying Ember's picture down the middle of Sacramento Street struck a chord with my daughter. As a mom, I squirmed a little as I watched this missing child display go by in the middle of the parade. I worried about Ember's story instilling fear in my children. Instead it inspired thoughtful consideration and a meaningful response. Our nightly thanksgiving for sweet treats was replaced by heartfelt pleas to ease the suffering of these strangers that had crossed our path.
Life is messy. Not everything can be wrapped up neatly and topped with a cheerful red bow. As spectators, we have the opportunity to bear witness. We can soak in the uncomfortable, be present for the painful, witness the out-of-place. Or we can turn away.
Which do you choose?