As our friends get older, which unavoidably means we’re getting older too, we find we’re welcoming many of them into the hurting parent’s club. “You’re late,” we sometimes want to say, or “What took you so long?” We don’t say these things out loud because we know that would do absolutely nothing to ease anyone’s pain.
But this state of affairs among our more seasoned friends has caused me to want to issue a formal thanks to our very own “prodigal”, Matt, for rebelling early and vigorously (I’ll get to why I’m grateful for the vigorous part in a minute). I use quotations around Prodigal because even now Matt wears this label on his past with extreme grace. We could substitute wayward or incorrigible for the word prodigal, but that makes our dear son sound like a puppy or like the only thing that mattered to us were his misdeeds.
Prodigaldom is deeper and more complex than that. So let’s just call a prodigal any child who breaks his or her mother’s heart.
I’m sorry we ever affixed it to him in the first place, and my first reason for thanking him is why:
Having a prodigal reminds me that I am a prodigal. The longer I waited on the porch like the father, watching for our prodigal to run home, the more I realized I was nothing like that Father. Jesus told this parable in the bible, not so much to point out that we are the patient, loving fathers in the story, the ones who wait for the day when everyone we love will come to their senses. No, when I troll the depths of my own heart, this is not who I am.
Most days I am either wallowing with the pigs in a life I’ve constructed apart from the Father or I am laboring in his fields in a life that is just as “apart from the Father” as the older brother’s. Prodigal or Pharisee, it seems to me, are inter-changeable terms. And because I know I am very often one or the other, I’ve come to be grateful that there is a Father who waits for me and celebrates me whether I come home from a long way off or from the religious nearby. This is where my life and Matt’s have intersected from the very first hint of the rebellion in his heart (which, if I recall, occurred when he was about two).
Over and over we’ve seen “prodigals” emerge out of compliance. And I want to tell the stunned parents who watch what looks like a bat arising from a butterfly’s cocoon, “Be grateful. Now you know the truth of the matter.” Matt, I thank you for never pretending to be anything but what you were and are. Sure, it stung back then.
I think of Eli’s sons in the Bible, young men who maintained their priestly roles when their hearts were corrupt, and I am thankful you did not act spiritual when you weren’t. I understand that kids often do this in order not to disappoint their parents (see Number 3 below), but I also know that parenting a prodigal who did not hold back simply to make life easier on us was like yanking a bandage off a wound in one quick—merciful—motion. Because you did not pretend, neither did we.
Prodigals teach us the “believing the best” part of love. In his Afterword to Franklin Graham’s Rebel With a Cause, Billy Graham wrote, “The fact that, while we knew he smoked, he would never smoke around us, revealed his innate respect.” Dr. Graham goes on to describe something I remember from Matt’s teenage years. Franklin smoked in his room, never knowing the smoke traveled out his window and with help from an attic fan, directly into his parent’s window.
I think I can safely say every one of our boys kept things from us. In the spirit of believing the best, I attribute a good portion of this to their respect and love for us. Sure, they were sneaky, and that can’t be all good, but at the end of the day they did not want to hurt us, even though at the time it seemed like everything they did wrong was calculated to do just that.
Someone said recently that in China people worship their ancestors, but in the United States we worship our children. By being human, Matt taught us who and who not to worship. There was a time when our whole world revolved around him, analyzing him and fixing him. And then, because of the drastic nature of his rebellion, we had to lay it all—including him—down. Thankfully, there’s always an altar handy when God is around. Thankfully, he lurks in the thorn bushes so the altar does not end up stained with our blood, but rather with the blood of his ultimate sacrifice. And thankfully he places a homing device in our hearts that, if activated, will lead us to worship him and him alone.
Prodigals show us the glory of the divine re-do. I have this little table that I prize. I have no clue of its ancestry, but it can’t be all that remarkable. It came to me from my mom, who got it at a flea market. I rediscovered its graceful-but-marred existence in our attic when we downsized to an apartment a few years ago. A coat of aqua paint and a heavy dose of shabby chic later, and it is an exquisite piece of furniture. Prodigals are like my little table. They remind us how sweet restoration can be.
I love the premise of Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, that real life is discovered in gratitude. If this is so, then my list is a paltry one, at best a beginning. There’s a reason for that. I’ve worked hard to make sure each item on my list does not have a “but” in it, as in “I am thankful my Prodigal taught me to pray, but why did it have to hurt so much?” or “I am grateful for the lessons about God, but I wish I could have learned them another way.” Each Thank You ends with a period. It is a complete sentence.
But the list itself ends with a comma, an invitation for the sentences to run on and on and on. Because there is so much more than this to be thankful for.
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