Once, when I was about seven or eight years old, I ran away from home. My mother helped me pack. We lived in a pretty safe neighborhood in a suburb outside Tampa where most everyone knew each other, so safety wasn’t really an issue. And the weather was nice. I don’t remember exactly why it was that I decided I needed to part ways with my family. Maybe I was mad about something, or maybe I was just feeling my oats… I don’t know. It was pretty classic: I had a stick with a small bundle attached to the end that I could carry on my shoulder. In the bundle was some food, maybe an extra shirt and one or two prized possessions I didn’t think I could live without. And a hat. It must have been hard on my mother watching me walk down the driveway to the street—cocky as all get out—with a spring in my step, never looking back. It must have hurt. I had no idea where I was going… only that this was something I needed to do. I guess I was out “on my own” for two or three hours before I decided that I had accomplished whatever I had set out to accomplish… whatever that was… and headed for home. It wasn’t quite dark as I walked up the driveway and I saw the lights in the house on: beckoning… welcoming. I saw my mother silhouetted in the kitchen window. Waiting. Perhaps she hadn’t left the window during the time I was gone. Looking back on it now, it must have taken a lot of courage for her to let me go. Courage and trust. Courage that she was doing the right thing in letting me get whatever it was out of my system, and trust that God would look after me and bring me home safe.
How many times have we heard the parable of the Prodigal? How many times have we heard it preached on? Often, the point of a homily preached on this parable is God’s compassion and forgiveness in response to human repentance: “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (v. 15:20b). And that’s a good message. Sometimes, a preacher will focus instead on the elder brother’s resentment of the father’s largesse in welcoming home his wayward sibling: “You have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back . . . you killed the fatted calf for him!” (vv. 15:29b-30). We all occasionally need to be reminded that coveting the blessings of others is, in essence, our failure to trust God to provide for our needs… don’t we?
This go-around though, I’ve been thinking about how the father must have felt when his son packed up all his stuff and left home for parts unknown. The parable leaves that to our imagination. I wonder if the father felt a little bit like God in the Garden calling out to Adam after he had betrayed God’s trust… “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). Most of us betray God’s trust everyday… in things done and left undone. But just like the father in today’s Gospel, our Heavenly Father gives us the freedom to go our own way… and make our own decisions. And off we go… cocky, self-righteous… never looking back. It must hurt. God is omniscient, but the gift of freewill complicates things. So many bad things can happen when we detour from the way God sets before us. And God knows all too well the extent of the damage we may do ourselves through our wandering. And still… he lets us go. Why? I wonder if it’s because being allowed to make our own choices, and then having to deal with the consequences, is an inescapable part of our spiritual maturation… what John Mabry calls our “growing into God.” If God made all of our choices for us, then how could we learn to be responsible? And if we are not responsible, then what does that say about us: as creatures made in God’s image, with dominion over all of God’s creation? I’m pretty sure God’s vision for us includes our learning to make responsible choices, but I’m just as sure that God aches for us when we stumble. And we do stumble. A lot.
I’ve done a lot of thinking (and worrying) about responsibility and consequences over the course of raising five children. It gets particularly tough when kids get to be in their late teens and early twenties, when they are old enough—and independent enough—to do themselves some real damage when they make wrong choices. That said, there comes a point when parents have to give their children what is rightfully theirs… in this case, the freedom to make decisions… and then send them off down the metaphorical driveway with their pack on their back. I’ve come to understand that, despite all of the risks and the heartache, parents can take comfort, knowing they’ve done their job… if their children (1) know the difference between right and wrong—they may not always do the right thing, but they know the difference—and (2) if their children are basically kind. The rest of it… young people need to figure out for themselves. Don’t get me wrong, parents might provide their children with a little insight and enrichment from time to time, but it is teaching them what is right… and the value of kindness… that provides the foundation for everything else. How does it make you feel when people you care about strike out on their own… depart the good path that’s been set before them… and end up getting lost? Pretty lousy, huh? It’s OK to hurt. And it’s OK to yell at God… God’s been there. God is still there. Waiting for us. Watching and waiting for all of us prodigals to come home.
Lent is more than a season… it’s a state of mind. It’s that moment when we wake up among the pigs, hungry for something that we used to take for granted and realize that home is the only place we will ever find it. And when we’re having trouble finding our way, we can take comfort and counsel in the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls’” (v. 6:16). I’m going to offer you a video of song titled: “You’ll find your way,” by Andrew Peterson. It’s about a young boy, pack on his back, leaving a sun-dappled clearing… walking off into the woods alone. His father stands in the middle of the clearing, watching his son leave, offering a benediction of hope and encouragement. As dusk settles in, the father lights lamps to illuminate a path back to the clearing… back home. And waits.
Watch the video: “You’ll find your way” by Andrew Peterson
John R. Mabry, Growing into God: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Mysticism (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2012).