The Joy of a Thousand Balloons

Photo: Sandra McCrackenMy son, Rhodes, had a dentist appointment today. It was the first prognosis of tooth decay in his tiny, pearly white, five-year-old teeth. We made plans for the follow-up appointment and they sent him and his little sister out into the hallway, each with a balloon and a toy. Outside, his nervousness gave way to a burst of relief, but he seemed to understand that the prize of a balloon wasn’t quite an even trade for the courage he’d had to spend on the ordeal. Nonetheless, they were both giddy and sang songs into their balloons like resonators as I drove them home.

When we pulled into the driveway and unloaded the van, Rhodes was last out of the side door with his treasured balloon tightly in hand. You probably know where this story is going. . . . With the shuffle of the side door closing and everybody moving into the front yard toward the house, the bright orange balloon made a sneaky escape out of his hands and ascended with gusto up into the open blue sky above our street.

My boy screamed out with fierce sadness, looking helplessly upward, trying to tell me to get it back for him. I came over to quiet him and to tell him any comfort or distraction I could think of. “Maybe the balloon is setting out on an adventure of its own up in the sky? Maybe it will come back down and surprise us or somebody else somewhere?” To myself I wondered, Maybe your yells will announce this to every last one of our neighbors?  

I tried to calm him and persuade him to a reprieve. He could hardly hear me over his own sobs, and what I was saying didn’t make much sense anyway. So I just sat down with him in the tall spring grass, pulled him into my lap, told him how sad I was for what happened. I tried to encourage him to watch the little orange ball dancing above us as long as we could, but that only made him feel worse. He cried out to it, “Please don’t leave me forever, balloon . . . please!” Wow, okay. I then realized that this was one of those sad childhood moments. To quote one of my favorite kid songs by Coal Train Railroad, “There’s just no fixing it.”  

But I couldn’t quit yet. Maybe a scientific angle would work? I proceeded to explain pragmatically what a balloon is made of, how balloons are made, and that there are lots more of them. Of course, it was no use. The only balloon he wanted was lost, disappearing into the open sky. We sat there together in a sad, helpless heap.

A few months ago at the BiFrost Conference in Philadelphia, my friend Makoto Fujimura gave a talk about the shortest verse in the Bible from the gospel of John that simply says, “Jesus wept.” Mako told the account with tenderness and profound beauty. When Lazarus was sick, Jesus did not go to him in time to save him, and he died. Jesus’ friends were heavy and vulnerable with grief. When Jesus finally did arrive, Mary hung back in the house, presumably overwhelmed with the complex emotions of sadness, disappointment, and likely even resentful anger. What could be done now? It was too late.

Jesus called for Mary to come out to Him, and when He saw her, He wept. Before He showed His power. Before He raised Lazarus. First, He wept. In this, Mako pointed out, Jesus was not just Mary’s Savior, but her friend. This particular account of Jesus has been haunting me for these past few days. And this story, this reality, was present with me sitting there in the front yard this afternoon with my son.  

Tonight after reading books with the children, as I tucked Rhodes into bed, I asked him what he was thinking about or if he wanted to talk about anything. (How often I miss offering important questions to the ones I love the most because I am distracted by the white noise of life together.) After a brief pause, Rhodes trembled the words, “I’m still sad about the balloon.” We talked about how sad things can make us strong, and how it sometimes takes time to feel better.

I told him about what Mako had said in words he could understand. “Rhodes, do you know that God is sad when you are sad? And that He gathers up your tears in a jar and saves them because they are precious to Him? Because YOU are important to Him. Did you know that Jesus cried when His friend Mary was sad? And that even though He is God, He is also our friend? He cries with us.”

We talked some more in the dim glow of the nightlight, and I asked him if he wanted me to pray for him about it. He said yes, and asked me to pray that God would bring his balloon back. I prayed for him out loud that he would know God cares for him, that God gathers up his tears, and asked God if He would give him comfort. I prayed that God would replace that lost balloon with love that would be like the joy of a thousand balloons in his heart.

He stopped me at the next cadence and said, “Why won’t you pray for God to just bring it back to me?“ I was a bit stumped at this, thinking about the physics of a helium balloon and the atmosphere and all the rest of the natural laws at play in something like that becoming a reality. . . . I hesitated while pondering this, and then I said okay and prayed, “God, please bring back the balloon for Rhodes, or surprise him with another one to make his heart mend. But in whatever happens, Your will be done.”

And then I paused and said to Rhodes, “Sometimes God brings our lost balloon back. Sometimes He gives us a hundred new balloons. And sometimes He heals our hearts from the balloon we lost. Maybe when God brings heaven down, when all things are made right again, there will be millions of balloons like this one, or even other things like balloons that we haven’t even thought of yet!” He brightened at this and we used our imagination to think of other things that might be there at the big party. (I was secretly thinking of some sort of compostable balloon-equivalent that would signal happiness and celebration AND be good for the birds and the oceans.) And he quietly added, “Maybe then He will bring my balloon back.”

A lost balloon is a simple thing, but it’s a real loss to a child. Then we grow up, and we feel these same kinds of losses every day. A lost relationship. A lost job. A foreclosure on a home. Lost innocence. The loss of addiction. Bankruptcy. A lost reputation. We can try to explain the chemical makeup of the lost balloon to make it appear less meaningful. We can make up a sensible reason for that balloon to have been better off released into the sky. We can try to diminish what the balloon meant to us in the first place. But we cannot cheat sorrow. Loss shapes us. As do the friends that are there with us on the lawn when the balloon string slips out of our hands.

May we each have a friend to meet us in our sorrow. May we be a friend to someone else in their sorrow. In this practice of friendship, may we come to know the God who weeps. God who gathers up our tears in a jar. God who collapses down into a heap with us on the grass. God who willingly tied himself up to the strings of our loss, then broke free of them once and for all to fill up our hearts with the joy of a thousand balloons, even while we wait for the rest of the story to unfold. And maybe on that last day at the big party, there’ll be a special orange (compostable) balloon, carefully tied to the lid of a small jar of tears with a label that reads, Rhodes Webb.

Sandra McCracken is a singer, songwriter, and producer from Nashville, TN. After 8 of her own studio albums, Sandra continues to expand beyond stylistic categories, moving seamlessly between projects and genres. Her work has spanned from Americana, to re-tuned hymns, to a record of children's music with Rain for Roots, to her newest album of graceful, ambitious pop, Desire Like Dynamite. Sandra lives in East Nashville, TN, with her husband and two young children who bring spark and sensitivity into her creative life.

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Come, Lord Jesus