Prodigal [prod-i-guhl]: the extravagant waste
of abundance and position
What prompts the prodigal to leave faith and support for ambiguity and isolation and why does the prodigal return?
" . . .He was lost and is found." (Luke 15:32, NIV)
I left my vibrant local church in Arkansas after graduating from Hendrix College to move to Dallas and attend seminary, all of this in preparation for evangelical pastoral ministry. I was surrounded by Godly friends in college -- five of my seven friends would later go in ministry. Two friends from the local church I left behind later joined me in seminary and were very supportive. Including these two, seven of nine good friends later entered ministry. Most are still in ministry or something related to ministry more than 25 years later.
My mother, step-dad and wife were devout Christians and heavily involved in church.
I was attending Dallas Theological Seminary and working as the Learning Center Director in a local church. I was well received by the children I taught and their parents when I occasionally preached on Sunday mornings. I memorized a Bible verse each day and meditated on it throughout the day to keep my focus on things of God. I had committed long passages to memory (more than 400 verses) in this way, because Jesus quoted the Bible when Satan tempted him. I listened to only contemporary Christian music when I drove and when I went to sleep.
In summary, I had excellent support from those closest to me, I went to great lengths to keep my focus trained solely on God, including devoting large amounts of time to my profesional training in seminary and I was receiving excellent feedback on my professional skills and promise. I did not drink or do drugs and I made good grades.
Why does this matter?
All of the preceding words are written more than 25 years after the fact. In the lengthy gap, I was the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the lost coin ... I was a beer-drinking, cigar-toting outspoken agnostic who on three occasions dared God to strike him dead to prove His impotence.
What the ... ?!
A series of negative experiences in the church where I ministered stirred up feelings of rejection that were familiar but heavily repressed. This would awaken feelings of rejection and abandonment by my father (who took off when I was 4, ending what I perceived as a golden age for our family) and apathy from my shell-shocked mother. The rejection by God's flock became rejection by God for me and awakened a perfect storm, a geyser of emotional and spiritual turbulence.
The devil is in the details.
The abandonment by my father, followed by the resentful apathy of my mother and my subsequent emotional withdrawal from the family was a pattern that would repeat itself during my seminary years and then again years later, each time occurring in equal intervals. The same characters would appear again represented by different people as if my soul (spirit?) and/or God was reenacting the tempest either out of abject cruelty or immeasurable and clever compassion to give me opportunity to grow from spiritual prodigal to spiritual phoenix.
The RescueThere was an episode of the original Twilight Zone series that featured a parasite that crawled into a man's ear and slowly burrowed its way through his brain over several days. The experience was so torturous that he had to be tied to a bed, writhing and contorting until the parasite ravaged its way through his head and out the far ear. Exhausted but relieved that he had survived, the man passed out.
When the man awoke, he immediately noticed that he was still restrained to the bed and that two of his friends hovered worriedly over him. "Why am I still restrained?" he whispered upward. One responded "When the parasite came out of your ear, I squeezed it between by thumb and finger and killed it. I didn't realize that it was pregnant and dozens of babies sprayed into your ear." The camera focuses on the man's crazed eyes as he realizes his fate will now be many times worse than the agony he had just survived.
Betrayal is like this, hopelessness is like this, doubt is like this. Pick your personal poison. It eats through your brain, destroying whatever it passes enroute to an illusory exit that once embraced, multiplies and opens new and even more destructive paths through your psyche, blindsiding your exhausted optimism that all is well. The minor losses of this horror show are love and trust; depleted, you pray only for a return to sanity and freedom from its restraints, accepting that your new life will include neither.
I awoke early one morning with the parasite again pillaging my brain as it did on a schedule no more or less reliable than stormy weather. I had accepted that I had exactly the same amount of control over it as I did the clouds. I tried to quickly think of something more positive, relegating the ravenous memory to the back porch of my soul. I pictured my childhood home and the converted back porch that was my bedroom so that I could push it into the cold, airy space, but it did not relent.
I could not have known, but something entirely different was in store. It was to human learning what a sonic boom is to sound -- loud, surely, but not primarily. The blast of a sonic boom is more about the compression of sound into a smaller footprint of time and so was this a compression of self awareness into a small footprint. I've had epiphanies and this was not that. It transcended that experience, like seeing yourself from the outside with new knowledge and a new perspective in high definition. Others describe a similar transcendent experience at times of grave emotional trauma such as the death of a parent or child. This experience was like they describe but with a blast of information added.
I was betrayed by someone close to me, repeatedly, slowly and over a period of time. Once discovered, I began to reel emotionally, spewing hurt like a geyser at full tilt. Every day I waged a war, often in a losing effort. I didn’t understand my own actions as I tried over and over again through counseling, force of will, reflection and hyena-like outcry. Eventually, I accepted small victories like being sane for a couple of days at a time but they went unnoticed by anyone but me, further restraining me to a bed of insanity where none of the dots connected.
Like the restrained man in the opening story, I would then awaken from my spent slumber to find my situation was much worse than I had imagined and I was already living in a world that made no sense to me, where everything that I grasped for temporary respite was yanked from me by denial after denial. And then I discovered that the betrayal continued through all of this, that everything I believed to be a lie and tried to convince myself was true was indeed a lie and that the betrayal continued for a long period of time while my betrayer watched me writhe in agony, desperate for sanity and hoping for understanding or compassion.
Something very important happened upon the second discovery. I realized that the betrayal was not about me, it was about something else, and I regained my sanity. The fog began to lift and I could catch my breath. It would be years before I knew the real driving force behind it all, before I would get true honesty about what had happened and gain true perspective.
This is what gushed into my head. My father left my mom, myself and my two brothers when I was about four years old, ending a golden age that I remember well. I would find out years later that my mom, shell-shocked from the experience, hated men for awhile and was left with three boys. I lost my dad and, to a lesser extent, my mom, who was emotionally bankrupt, like all of us. This state would persist for a period of time.
My mom then remarried and eventually had a daughter. My stepfather was a louse and emotionally abusive, at times humiliating me in front of my family. This state would last for an extended period of time. During this time I was told that I had an anger problem because I screamed and yelled and threw things at the slightest provocation.
The revelation is this … I continued to live this cycle for more than two decades always with the same three characters. There is always a “golden age” followed by abandonment that leaves in its trail my mom, the one who trusts the wrong people at my expense and is unable to help with the emotional fallout, and while still off balance from this drama, the one I trust brings another I cannot trust into my life for an extended period of time, piling great hurt upon hurt. I am the one who is betrayed, angry and perpetually questioning his guilt in the process (although a relatively minor player), isolated and feeling like I or my environment must be insane. I am the control group.
I attracted these characters into my life in time intervals that very closely matched the time that elapsed between my father leaving and the end of my mom’s second marriage. I lay stunned on my bed that morning when the main character’s fatal flaw was found. I attracted only two of these characters at the end of each cycle; I adopted the role of the missing player in succession representing my father, mother and stepfather in an unending quest to understand and resolve while my life appeared to be happening to me as an outside observer.
My wife woke up beside. I told her that I had figured it out. “What?”, she asked. “Everything.”, I responded. I left the bed and began earnestly scribbling notes in the vain hope of documenting this enlightenment though it was not the stuff of documentation. It was too fast, too compressed and too loud. It hit me for the first time, for I was agnostic, that intelligent design was part of the process. I could not have attracted the right players and directed them in their assigned roles in the right time intervals. I had a peace that I lost at four years old in the knowledge that having this experience meant that all of the things that had happened in my life to that point were woven into a masterful picture by a great puzzle maker. In this certainty I began to feel a warm glow just to the side and top of my stomach that lasted for days. I floated from formerly mundane moment to the next.
I retold the story to my children, then only twelve and fourteen, almost immediately. My son cried as I explained the cycle that involved his mom and my role in the end of our marriage. My daughter exclaimed wide-eyed “This will change the world!”
The Meeting with a Trusted FriendAfter this encounter with God, I sought out a seminary buddy that I trusted. I traveled to meet with him at a bookstore and began to share the story you now know. We discussed it for awhile back and forth and got caught up. He suggested that I do the things that would get me out of Satan's line of fire by beginning to do a devotional daily and listen to Christian music as a means of worshipping God. Music had always worked big for me.
My friend asked me about my father, what model of a father was I working with. Why? He had struggled over the years with getting weary and figured out that it was because his idea of the Father was based on his idea of his father, domineering and hard to please. As a result, he would work hard to please the Father and wear himself out, not bothering to even look for the positive reinforcement since he wasn't accustomed to getting it. When he saw that he was selling God short, that changed his perspective.
For me, my model of a father was an abandoning father. How did I see God the Father? I saw him as an abandoner. When church-ianity brought hurt, I expected more hurt to be piled on so I ran. What did I think of God? He was my worst fear, I served Him and He served me up to be slaughtered by men. I projected my father issues onto Him and the irony thickens, because I repeated the mistake of my father and abandoned everyone.
Now I can see God as loving and, although I have miles to go, I don't see Him as abandoning and that was the tipping point. I still expect the worst from church people but I haven't seen it yet.
At the moment, that my friend turned the conversation to his father issues I began to have sexual thoughts about everyone in my line of sight. They seemed to come from nowhere so I was suspicious that the bad guys didn't want me to return to God. They immediately preceded my reflecting on what my friend had shared, which then led to an epiphany about God being boundless and always loving. The off-the-cuff remark from my friend was the pivotal point for me that led me to follow his instructions and eventually restore my relationship with God. In the seconds preceding the epiphany that led to repentance, Satan hit hard at my point of greatest weakness.
What was Satan attempting to block? I had a dad issue that turned into a man issue that turned into a church issue and the church represented God to me. I must get over my dad issues to see God. I cry in church every week, because
My Mom's PrayerI would find out much later that this is what my mom prayed for her prodigal son that led to this large-scale intervention:
Because you rage against me and because your insolence has reached my ears,
I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth,
and I will make you return by the way you came.
Isaiah 37:29 NIV
What does it feel like to return to Christianity after a 25-year absence?I was lucky enough to have been a part of a couple of churches that included many clever, vibrant, committed Christians who were great role models. This did not prevent me from embarking upon a lengthy sprint from Christianity and myself. However, they became my life preserver.
They made an impression that followed me for more than 25 years!
My reconciliation to God and to the church is under construction but it is a work that is progressing. When I attend church now, I feel great apprehension, but I also feel a connection to my old roots -- I feel nostalgia and sentiment in the best ways. However, everything is fresh, not stale, as it was when forsook Christianity and the church more than 25 years ago.
When I participate in a church service now, my perspective is very different than in my youth.
The RequestA trusted Christian friend and minister felt that the church could benefit from an "outsider's" view, i.e., a view from a Christian not yet assimilated into standard Christian practice and language. The following is my response to that request. What am I thinking after such a long absence?
If there is no God, what are these people doing?
Some of what I see is very familiar. A learned and glib pastor still waxes eloquently and passionately, the young music director still leads hymns and choruses with his eyes closed and his hands raised high in worship and still about 1 out of 10 of the congregation follow suit, lifting at least one hand to the sky with their heads bowed and eyes also closed. Here and there a tear is shed or an "amen" is broadcast, although I get a feeling that the infrequent "amen" is out of fashion. Why does the crowd so expressive during the music fall so silent during the sermon? Speakers don't need encouragement? I know different.
The pastor then engages the congregation to drive home a new idea that will serve as spiritual sustenance for
the next week, when the process is repeated. I find comfort in the staging -- sometimes I am overwhelmed
by it -- but I wonder . . .
The Results: Has the Emperor Clothes?