American and Peruvian government officials were enlisted to find the missing couple. Police were involved and media around the world picked up the story. Francine Fitzgerald had lost contact with her son Garrett Hand and his companion Jamie Neal and she feared the worst.
Pictures and Posts Stopped
Even though the young couple said they would be off grid and out-of-touch for four months, as they biked together through South America, they continued to send out pictures and post updates of their adventures on social media. Everything was great. Their pictures captured the sheer excitement and fun they were having as they biked and hiked through Argentina, Chile and Peru. But then communications with the couple abruptly ended. Calls to their cell phones went unanswered. No texts, emails, or status updates on FaceBook; no pictures and zero transactions on their bank accounts for weeks.
Garrett Hand and Jamie Neal had made it to Peru but that seems to be where whatever happened happened. Relatives became alarmed and feared the worst. A FaceBook page was established to help in the search to find the missing couple. Brochures and posters with pictures of the couple were mass produced and circulated. The Government of Peru issued a nationwide alert in an effort to find the two young adults from Los Angeles.
There’s nothing easy about the geography of Peru including the rugged Andes Mountains, the Amazon jungle, and the dry arid plains. Anything could have happened. To compound the intense anxieties of the relatives was a security alert issued by the US Embassy in Lima, Peru advising that a criminal organization in the country maybe planning to kidnap American tourists. The highest levels of the Peruvian Government got involved – perhaps out of fear the negative affects a tragic incident in their country could have upon their large tourism industry.
Sightings Not Reassuring to Mother
Finally reports of sightings started coming in. A manager of a hostel in Pucallpa confirmed to police the American couple had stayed at the hostel in the jungle town four weeks earlier. The manager of a small hotel in the rain forest city of Iquitos told police the couple stayed with them two weeks later and were planning a 15 day trek to the town of Naplo.
Finally, Peru’s Minister of Tourism and Commerce, Jose Luis Silva, announced to the world that the couple had been spotted. “Jamie Neal and Garrett Hand are heading upstream in a small boat on a jungle river, he said. They’re currently in a remote, paradise-like region of the Peruvian Amazon, which is difficult to access,” he told the media. (1)
But sightings and statements from politicians didn’t bring much relief to Garrett Hand’s mother. “Let me reiterate, until we have PROOF OF LIFE, we cannot celebrate these rumors and sightings. Proof of life is my son’s voice on the phone and a picture of him holding the missing poster.” (2)
“My Son Is Well…”
The Peruvian Government responded to the mother’s concerns and sent a hydroplane to the river and took video footage of the couple clearly having a good time. The Peruvian military gave them a temporary home to live in and to make the necessary contacts with family.
Francine Fitzgerald finally was able to speak to her son Garrett. The family thanked the Peruvian Government, the US Embassy and all others who assisted in locating their loved ones. Garrett’s mother said: “I am so happy today that my son is well. Now our family will have to process all of this, and I think this will take some time. I can’t wait to see Garrett and Jamie walking off the plane and into my arms.” (3)
Lost and never found stories are tragic. Lost and found stories are filled with suspense but end with great relief and joy.
Son Deliberately Goes Missing
In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15, Jesus talked about lostness – one lost sheep; a lost coin and one lost son. Jesus told a story which to this day is one of the famous stories of the Bible. A son who had been treated so well by a father decided to pack his bags and leave for a far country. He demanded from his father the money he felt he was entitled to as being one of two sons in the family. He turned his back on all that was good and headed for a life of pleasure and selfish living. He wasted his money on reckless living and started living a very low-life in poverty and rags.
There is reason to believe that all the while the prodigal son was far away, the father’s heart was always longing to see his son return. Scanning the hillsides perhaps every morning and the horizon at sunset, the father’s heart throbbed with love for his ‘lost’ son. Have you ever wondered what point Jesus was making when He told such a story?
Lost – Who Cares?
The boy wasn’t geographically lost. He knew where he was and he knew how to get home – so the issue was simply – did he want to return? He was so lost to his father. It was a far greater concern to the father than to the prodigal son. Perhaps the careless son could care less about his condition but his father still cared.
God Cares! He’s Still Waiting for You
God’s heart is throbbing in love towards sinners who have turned their backs on Him and have headed in the opposite direction. Each day He patiently and longingly waits for sinners who are lost to all His blessings and goodness and love; He cares deeply for you no matter what you have been up to and no matter how low you have sunk in sin. He is waiting for you to come home and feel the warmth of His embrace.
God has issued a Bible and published assurances of His love and clear descriptions of His lost ones. He has engaged Christians in seeking to restore contact and causes bulletins to be written like the one you are now reading to grab your attention and to let you know – He is still waiting for you to come home.
Emptiness and Poverty of a Life of Sin
The prodigal son finally came to his senses. He realized that all the pleasures that looked so promising were wimpy bursting bubbles at best – totally empty. He started to think of all that he was missing out on, being lost to his father. He decided to return, face the ugliness of his sin and accept whatever low place his father would give him – if he would even accept him.
Complete Change in Son’s Attitude – Coming Home
The father was doing what he had done every day – looking and longing for his son to return. Over the horizon one solitary figure emerged. Did he recognize the gait of his son, his build or did he just know? Matted hair, rags, sinful past and all – the father runs to meet his son and throws his arms around him and welcomes him home.
“…But while he was still a long way off,
his father saw him and felt compassion for him,
and ran and embraced him and kissed him…”.
Immediately he convened a banquet and gave his son the best clothes to wear and announced:
“…Let us eat and celebrate;
for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.’
And they began to celebrate.”
Jesus told that story to give us a glimpse into the loving heart of God towards sinners who stray and stay away from Him. (Bible verses: John 3:16, 1Timothy 2:4, 2Peter 3: 9) Francine Fitzgerald could not rest until she knew her son was alive. Her real joy would be realized when Garrett “walked off the plane… into her arms.” The father saw the son a long way off and yes, he was walking in the right direction. The father ran and embraced him with a kiss.
When sinners repent of their sin and in brokenness ‘walk in the right direction’ by approaching God for mercy and salvation – God, through Christ, embraces the sinner with love and welcomes each one into His family – into the circle of His favor and eternal riches. In Luke 15 we’re told there’s joy in Heaven when individual sinners, who once were lost, are found.
Are you lost to God? In which direction are you walking? Jesus said: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28. Again He assured sinners that if they came to Him, He would receive them for sure. He said: “…the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” John 6:37