It hit me again last night, as it has off-and-on since I took Zach to the airport and sent him off to Nebraska for the summer (2-1/2 weeks ago). We have a Monday evening Bible class at Emmaus (currently studying the Smalcald Articles), and Zach was always faithful in attending. It has meant the world to me, to see the interest that my children have in the Word of God. And I really felt Zach's absence at Vespers and in Bible class last night.
It's obvious enough to everyone, and my wife and I certainly realize, that we are a long way from "empty nest syndrome." With seven more children still at home, the youngest only six months old, we've got a lot of parenting yet to do. By the time Gerhardt is leaving the house for college, I'll be pushing sixty years old. And by that point, I expect that grandchildren will be a regular part of my life. That is all pretty hard to imagine at the moment, but it did occur to me the other day that, if each of my children has as many children as LaRena and I have, that'll be 81 grandchildren. I doubt that I'll live to see that many of my offspring, but who knows.
In the meantime, with DoRena taking summer school in Bloomington and Zachary working for his Uncle Rob out in Nebraska (then heading to Sam Houston for college in the fall), it is amazing what a hole there is in my heart and in my home. Especially when I come home at the end of the day, I keep thinking that I'll find my Zach down in his bedroom. Then, as I come in the door, I realize that, no, he's not living here anymore. We've had a few years to get used to having DoRena away from home, but it still chokes me up every time I send her off or take her back to school. Bloomington is only four hours away, and close enough to Indy that I've had regular opportunities to visit her over the past two years; so that has helped to ease the transition of her growing up. Western Nebraska is far, far away, and Houston, Texas, is even further away. Suddenly my boy is a young man, making his own way in the world, and not under my roof any longer.
My dear wife put it well when she described what we are experiencing as "empty chair syndrome." The fact that we still have seven other children at home doesn't change the fact that two of our children are not at home. None of the children are interchangeable. Each one is an individual, a unique person, who can neither take the place of, nor be replaced by, any other.
It's not unusual, when other people learn that we have nine children, for them to wonder out loud why we have "so many." I realize that such people either mean well, or they don't really mean anything at all; they're simply not used to the prospect of a larger family (by comparison to what has become the norm in more recent generations). But I always want to respond, and sometimes I do, "Which of my children do you think I should get rid of?" It's a rhetorical question, of course, but it calls attention to the unspoken assumption that the younger children are in some sense incidental and expendable. No one would ever say such a thing (I hope!), but that is what it amounts to when a person questions the number of children we have.
There are a couple of things to be said. First of all, I still believe, teach and confess the First Article of the Creed (which would be true, in any case, even if I didn't believe it): God is the Author and Giver of life, not me. Each and every one of my children has been created by God for life with Himself forever; and He is more than willing and able to provide all of them with everything they need to support this body and life, as well as the forgiveness of their sins, eternal life and salvation. To suggest that it would have been better for any of them not to exist, is to pass the severest sort of judgment against both the child and the Creator and Preserver of us all.
I have to confess that my own heart and mind have often reacted to the news of a pregnancy with fear and unbelief. How will we manage? How will we provide? You see, such thoughts and questions are evidence of my own failure to fear, love and trust in the Maker of the heavens and the earth. Yet, He has never failed to feed and clothe and shelter and protect my entire family. With food and clothing, let us therewith be content. He loves even me, as well as my wife and the children He has given us, far more than the birds and the flowers which He nourishes and adorns.
And here is the other thing to be said: Once that new child has entered our life, even before his or her birth, and all the moreso afterwards, I simply cannot imagine my life or my family without that little person. A new son or daughter is never just "another child," "another body," "another mouth to feed," but an individual with a unique identity, a personality, and a life of his or her own. The Lord numbers the very hairs on our heads, and He loves each of us personally; surely it is the case that each and every child is precious in His sight. And in my own limited capacity, I find that to be true for me with each and every child He has entrusted to my care.
So, back to the fact that DoRena and Zachary are out of the house and now making lives of their own in the world. So long as I live, I'll always be their father, and I appreciate the fact that they both honor me and keep me "in the loop," but my role in their lives, and the nature of my relationship with them, is changing. It's all good, even though it hurts a bit, sometimes more than others. But my point is that having seven other children, or even another dozen more than that, does not fill up the space that is left in the wake of the two that have left. But then again, it isn't necessary to replace those two, because they haven't ceased to exist. They are alive and well and making their way in the world. More than that, even when they are finally called from this vale of tears to the Lord in heaven, they shall not be "dead and gone," but they shall live forever in Christ.
Truth be told, we don't actually have any empty chairs around the table. It's just a little less crowded now, and we don't have to pull out as many folding chairs to squeeze everyone in! But my wife was right in her observation. The nest is still full, but two of our birds have spread their wings and flown. And now I find that, just as I learned to appreciate my parents all the more when I went off to college, so am I learning to delight in my children all the more as they leave my nest to begin collecting the twigs and leaves that will eventually form their own.