According to Merriam-Webster a prodigal is a son/daughter who leaves his or her parents to do things that they do not approve of but then feels sorry and returns home. In Luke 15:11-32 Jesus tells the story of two sons and their life choices. The point of the story was not about passing judgement on the irresponsible son but about repentance and forgiveness on one hand and unforgiveness on the other. I’m not going to focus on the reaction of the older son but on the journey of the younger son and the father’s response as it applies to my own spiritual life journey.
From my teenage years I wanted to distance myself from my family. I went off to college and then further away for graduate school seeking to gain my freedom. I then got married and started my career to establish my independence. I filled my time with what I wanted and only made grudging appearances for holidays. My brother grew up and got married. My parents grew their business and took up square dancing. They had their lives and I had mine. I didn’t live in a faraway land but halfway between my parents and my wife’s parents. Close enough to make the trip but far enough to not have to make it frequently. My focus was on my career, my interests, and my friends. I didn’t have time for family obligations or responsibilities. Even after my daughter was born, I continued to pursue my dreams without any concerns for how this affected anyone else. This is the very essence of being a prodigal.
I didn’t appreciate what my family had to offer me: a stable nuclear family, deeply held religious beliefs, education, strong work ethic and financial security. Growing up my extended family including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins always got together for the holidays. Family reunions happened every year exposing me to an even larger group of family members in which I didn’t take the time to learn who they were or what our family history was. I dreamed of being anywhere but there. With age comes wisdom and only now do I appreciate what I had. My parents will be celebrating their 58th wedding anniversary this year. My family wasn’t perfect, but I was given all the advantages. My time in prison exposed me to people who came from not just dysfunctional but truly broken homes. Growing up on the streets and in some cases literally killing to get what I had.
Growing up, Sundays were all about church. My parents were active members in their church. My brother and I attended church for as long as we lived in their house. Not attending wasn’t an option. Even when I was older, I attended church, but it was more social and cultural than spiritual. My entire life my has been lived in the shadow of the cross. My parents brought me up in church, raised me with conservative Christian values, and sent me to a college founded by our denomination. I knew the hymns, the books of the Bible, and the tenants of the faith, but even though I confessed my faith there were areas of my life that weren’t surrendered to God.
I was a very average student in high school. When I went to college, I became a much better student when I started dating a girl who spent her time in the library. While we parted ways, I still graduated with honors and double majored in chemistry and biology. I went to graduate school and found out how really smart I was by consistently outscoring some of the best and brightest students at one of the state’s most prestigious universities. But academic knowledge isn’t the same as wisdom and the more I learned the more foolish I became. According to Proverbs 10:1b “a foolish son brings grief to his mother.” And I certainly caused my mother a lot of grief.
My pride of life, gluttony, intellectual arrogance, and selfishness kept me from following Christ fully. Proverbs 11:2 says, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” It was in quiet desperation that I truly called on the God of my fathers when I found myself in jail. Many who find faith in prison point back to someone in their family, like a mother or grandmother who modeled it to them. Those without a model have a much harder time coming to believe.
As a tutor in prison, I was able to use my education to help those who did not have the opportunities that I had. I would encourage my students to look forward to a brighter future that would only be possible by completing their GED. Not because of what education had done for me but what they could do with it to help their families. On more than one occasion I had students tell me that they were determined to get their GED to challenge or encourage their own children to complete their education. Those inmates were the ones that really got it and tried to make the best of their prison experience.
My father earned money by delivering papers when he was young. He served in the military and afterwards went to night school while working and starting a family. While I was still in elementary school, he made a life altering decision and became an insurance salesman. He was consistently one of the top salespeople in his company. He had his own agency for 47 years and did all right. His hard work set the example for me. I worked occasionally for him while I was in high school but knew that I didn’t want to follow him into business. I chose a different path as part of my rebellion. I had different skills and abilities but much of the same drive and work ethic. In prison I encountered those who worked hard at not working. Those who plotted and schemed at making the big score. Always more talk than action. Uneducated and unethical, a far cry from my up bringing.
I had a moderately successful career in the sciences. I worked hard. I worked long hours. I provided for my family. I never really had to worry about money to pay the bills, put food on the table or buy a few toys. A lot of my satisfaction and self-esteem came from my work. I liked getting above average employee annual reviews. I liked my steady advancement up the corporate ladder. And it was gone in the blink of an eye like the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21. The barns I had built for myself were gone and life as I knew it was over.
In prison I had plenty of time to reflect on my life choices and the decisions that lead to that low point in my life. I was in a pig sty and my thoughts often drifted back to life at home and how much better it would be to live there. My thoughts weren’t fantasies of some make-believe fairytale life, but of a home that wanted me there as a part of the family. While I was in prison my parents were the only ones who did not abandon me to my fate. I knew very few inmates who had more visits than I did. Approximately every two weeks I got to spend time with my parents who made the trek to wherever I was incarcerated to see me. I received mail and/or emails from them regularly keeping me up to date on the happenings in the family. I talked to them weekly on the phone and was occasionally blessed to call into a family get together were I could talk to my brother. Not once in what was literally thousands of communications, did I hear any condemnation but rather endless encouragement. I got to know about my extended family and all that I had missed out on over the years. I got to hear about what was going on at church, the office, and with their friends. I received postcards from all over the country and even around the globe as my parents traveled. There was no doubt that I would be welcomed home, it was only a question of when.
When I got home, I wept with overwhelming emotions. I had a room of my own. Access to good food anytime of the day or night. I was given the keys to one of the family cars to go out on errands and work. I was given a family credit card so I could start rebuilding my credit and make purchases for the family. I cooked meals, cleaned house and laundry, shopped for groceries, made home repairs, painted around the house, and gardened like Martha Stewart. I did it, not because I had to as if I was expected to pay my parents back for supporting me while I was in prison but rather to express my gratitude for all that they had done for me. I wanted to be fully engaged in the very family life that I had previously shunned. I focused on completing my parole without any violations just like I completed my sentence behind bars without any violations. I wanted to do and be my best because like the Grinch my heart had grown three sizes.
My time on parole flew by. It was quite anticlimactic when I was discharged from parole. The parole officer that had managed my case wasn’t even in the office on the day that I signed my discharge papers, there was no need to say goodbye. I was a free man but running away from home never crossed my mind. My parents are aging and need my help now more than ever. I don’t worry about what I might or might not inherit when they pass. I am secure in my position as a beloved son. I don’t live at home anymore, but I live nearby so that I can stop in and check on things. I have a new job and recently got married so I have more responsibilities too. But they are not a way of establishing my independence again but rather a celebration of the new life I was given. I have confidence that “all things work together for the good of those who love God” (Romans 8:28). I never imagined that my life would turn out this way, but the Bible and church history are full of convicts that God called to do His will and I guess that I’m just one more.
As far a prodigals go I would say that my experience is not typical. My parents did more than keep a vigil by looking down the road for my return. They walked with me through my period of incarceration confident that God would make a way for me to return to them. God used them to encourage and sometimes even feed me in a difficult situation. Their faithfulness is what got me involved in the church behind bars and with Keryx. It was there that I truly began to understand about grace, mercy, forgiveness, and repentance. And more importantly to truly appreciate these foundational principles of the Christian faith and how important they are to rehabilitation and restoration of those convicted as opposed to punishment and retributive justice that are the hallmarks of the current criminal justice system. There are far too many men and women behind bars that will never get to experience the celebration of homecoming because regardless of how bad things get in prison they either haven’t come to their senses or don’t have anyone waiting for them. One of the strongest indicators for successfully completing parole is placement back into the family. Prodigals need to be welcomed home whether it is their nuclear family or some other group that can act as a surrogate. I’m proud to be part of a group called Freedom Dreamers Chapel who’s mission is to provide that surrogate family for those coming out of prison who have come to their senses but don’t have a family of their own to return to. We provide small accountability groups, mentors, and worship experiences in a Christ-centered judgement free atmosphere to encourage success while on parole and beyond.