My Prodigal Heart

The fog had not yet lifted the morning our van climbed the hill to the Staunton Correctional Center to pick up our son Daniel. His five and a half-year sentence for foolish crimes he’d committed were over and we could finally take him home. To keep Daniel from spending one hour more incarcerated than necessary, we made the 2-½ hour journey the night before. At 6:30 that chilly March morning, he was free and we were there to greet him.

It felt strange pulling up that long road in the dark dawn. A thick fog made the prison seem eerie. Inside the car, silence fell as none of us quite knew what to say. Our daughter Kelly and her husband Dan had spent the first five years of their marriage making sacrifices to visit Daniel. Tim and I couldn’t quite grasp the reality of not spending our week-ends driving to a prison. None of us knew what to expect.

Tim, ever the prankster, went to the guardhouse with a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, but the guard didn’t seem amused. Then we sat in the van and waited. The sunrise began to burn off the fog, but a thin grey mist still made it difficult to see across the yard. The prison seemed almost devoid of life.

It was strange to think Daniel would just walk out the gate we had entered so many times. It seemed an odd process when so much effort had been exerted to keep him inside.

Suddenly, someone in the van said, “there he is!” But we all seemed frozen.

Carrying a large cardboard box, Daniel stood just on the other side of the sally-port gate. A guard stood by his side. Daniel didn’t move as the first of the two gates opened. There was a brief exchange between the guard escorting Daniel and the guard at the hut, and then the second gate opened and Daniel walked to freedom.

At the same time, the vans doors opened and we all leaped out. Daniel’s blaze orange baseball cap covered his curly hair and his old prison issue denim jacket was unzipped. Underneath he wore a tan shirt that still had the creases from having been just removed from its package.

Without speaking, Daniel stood next to the car as if unsure of what to do next

Even though we had new clothes for him back at the hotel, I could no longer stand seeing Daniel in prison garb. I removed his cap and asked him to take off his jacket. As soon I spoke, the words of the Father of the Prodigal Son echoed in my mind. “Hurry, bring the royal robe…” Tim took the box from Daniel as I shoved him his father’s jacket that was laying on the front seat. He pushed his arms in the sleeves and climbed into the front seat.

On the ride back to our hotel I marveled at why I didn’t love our obedient daughter more than our prodigal son. In so many ways it seems prodigals get to eat their cake and have it too. It’s always seemed unfair in a logical sense, yet emotionally, it’s crystal clear. But I sometimes struggle with putting the two together.

Perhaps it’s because I too have the heart of a prodigal. In my own frustrations over the direction God is leading me, I too have run away, taking with me God’s inheritance. I seldom hesitate to shake my fists and stomp my feet because God didn’t do something I thought He should. After hours anguishing over my foolish tantrums, I marvel at a God who loves me in spite of them.

Could it be the prodigal son was surprised to learn his father still loved him?

Too often, I measure myself against folks who seem to do the right thing no matter what. I cringe as family members tell how they never complain. Or how they press on with a positive outlook. Words that could never be said about me. When I get angry, I want to run away from God. But, when I’m out in the world, I’m always shocked by how big the wake of my rebellion grows.

More than once, the overwhelming responsibility to be a “good” Christian has driven me away from my relationship with Christ. I don’t feel like going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, or holding my tongue. Not that I’ve ever been successful at any of those, but the burden of trying weighs heavily on my heart. And in those dark moments, well meaning folks say, “Let go and let God.” But I don’t want to.

Fortunately, in the midst of my pity party, I run out of steam. Then I start to remember the blessings I have enjoyed because of Him. I remember how much I matter to my God. And the moment I acknowledge the error of my ways, the realization that He proclaims, “quick, get the royal robe…” amazes me every time.

Having a prodigal of my own has made me aware of the anguish my prodigal journeys cause our heavenly Father. It has made the power of grace very real to me. For it is His grace that makes us all loved equally and unconditionally by God. It’s grace that is the great mystery of our faith. The very thing that never ceases to amaze me. And the thing that calms this prodigal’s heart.

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