All my adult life I have been captivated by the picture of the father in the parable of the prodigal son—running down the road towards his boy. When the old man reaches him, he throws himself on his son and begins kissing him. It is a wonderful image.
A friend illuminated it even more for me. He said, “It is a remarkable kiss—because of the pig-sty.”
I said, “What do you mean?”
My friend said, “The boy would have smelled of the pig sty, but the father didn’t even mention it. He put a robe on top of those filthy clothes, a ring on the hand that was still stained with the swill, and shoes on the feet that had shared the mud with the animals. He could have said to the servants, ‘Quick! Run a bath for my son!’ and to the boy, ‘As soon as you’re cleaned up come into the house.’
“But this old man was wiser than that. He knew he must be patient; that even when the physical smell of his son’s wanderings were gone, it would take time to leave it all behind. The prayers weren’t all answered yet. The journey didn’t end with the boy coming down the road. This was going to take time.”
A safe haven
When our prodigals come home, we need to be patient with them. Don’t let the first thing we say be, “I hope you’ve left that life behind forever.” Many of the prodigals I have met over the years have been people who have been Christians for years but have been bruised or broken in some way—perhaps by other Christians. Others are desperately ashamed of what they have done. Sometimes they find the prospect of an immediate return to a local church just too daunting.
For many years Dianne and I held a weekly meeting in our home; we called it “The Strugglers Group.” All kinds of people came to it: some were prodigals, often people in mid-life who somehow had lost their way in the faith and wanted to take a step back towards God but were not quite sure how to; others came who had spent all their lives giving to those around them and now were burnt out; some had no faith at all. But whoever they were and whatever their story, all who came were looking for a safe haven for a while.
The atmosphere was very accepting. We often studied the Bible but we were just as likely to simply talk together. I suppose the key element is that we tried to love people just as they were and in whatever they were going through at that time. And we tried to be honest and real with each other.
Over the years all kinds of people have asked to join the group, and I have often wondered why those who had vowed never to go into a church again came. Some said it felt like home, but I think it was more than that. I have a hunch that when people let their masks down, including the leaders, and genuinely reach out to God and to each other, then Jesus himself meets with them.
You may have a daughter who has been a prodigal. She has lived a selfish life, caring little for others. But one day she calls you and says, “Mom, I can’t explain this, but I really believe that God is speaking to me. I know I’m not like all the others who go to your church but I feel I must spend some of my time working with disadvantaged kids in the evenings. There’s still a lot I’m not sure about, but I’ve started praying in my room and asking God to forgive me, guide, and help me. I know there’s a long way to go, and I don’t really understand all that’s going on, but I feel the need of God.”
What that child needs is not a mother who says, “That’s wonderful. Will you be in church next Sunday?” But rather, “Darling, this is what we have prayed for down the years. God has touched your life. We are so proud of what you are doing with those deprived kids. Let us know how we can go on praying for you.”
Be patient with them. And be patient, too, in your waiting—and yet look out for that action you can take which may hasten the return of your prodigals. It could be a letter, a visit, an apology, or perhaps just a phone call.
I remember speaking to a large group of church leaders; I was talking about how our kids can sometimes break our hearts. As I finished I said, “Some of you may want to call a son or daughter tonight and say, ‘I know you have turned your back on everything we have ever believed, but this home is yours, the door is always open to you. Forgive us if we have ever given you the impression it was otherwise. We love you.'”
A few days later I got a letter from one of those church leaders. He said,’ “We made the call that very night. We are beginning to rebuild a relationship we thought was gone forever.”
Love like Jesus
And sometimes acceptance means we have to learn to love those that they love. Peter and Hilary were faced one day with the news that their son, Daniel, was moving in with his girlfriend. Afterwards they stayed up most of the night and talked about it. They felt sadder than they had felt for a long time, but in the early hours of the morning Hilary took her husband’s hand and said, “Peter, all my life I have prayed that Dan would marry somebody who followed Christ, but that might not happen—Dan loves her, and I have decided that I will love her. And, if you can I want you to join me in loving her too.”
One day after church somebody said to Hilary, “I saw you out shopping with Sally the other day. How can you condone what she and Dan are doing?”
Hilary thought for a moment and then said, “I wasn’t condoning it; I was shopping with her. And in every shop and over every cup of coffee I was saying, ‘I love you.’” At first it was very hard—harder than you realize. But, you know, I am trying to be Jesus to that girl. And love is getting easier.”
Adapted from Bringing Home the Prodigals by Rob Parsons © 2007. Used by permission of Authentic Publishing. All rights reserved.