I’ve never thought of myself as the prodigal son. I’ve been the good son, the responsible son, the son who holds it together when chaos engulfs our family, but never the prodigal son. For reasons probably apparent, I’ve always been a bit too arrogant to view myself in that way. Besides, in the story of the prodigal son (at least the version I grew up learning), the prodigal son needs saving. He foolishly squanders opportunities and jeopardizes relationships. I don’t do that (or so I assumed). But, as I was reminded today, there’s a bit of prodigal nature in each of us, myself included. Let’s face it, everybody needs saving of some sort, even if it’s from ourselves.
My denial of my prodigal status dates back to childhood. When you grow up hearing your own accolades, it’s easy to buy into your own hype. My grandmother used to warn me, don’t forget your sh*t smells just like everybody else’s. It was this same grandmother who would also constantly remind me to never forget where I came from (as if I could forget). And yet, there are times when I wonder if she was right to be concerned. I left home and never came back (at least to live). Now with the kids and work and life…I don’t visit home as often as I used to. I don’t call as much as I should…these things weigh on me from time to time.
But then moments like today happens, and I’m reminded of just how connected life is. My wife’s cousin recently moved to Atlanta from Baltimore to attend Morehouse college. We’ve know him since he was a little kid, so to see him all grown up (figuratively speaking), is amazing. We picked him up after church and brought him home for a homecooked meal around the table with family. Then we disappointedly watched our football team lose (typical ATL rites of passage stuff). On the drive back to his dorm we chatted about Atlanta, moving to a new city, finding his place, and it hit me.
I remember sitting in his shoes 18 years ago with my uncle in the driver’s seat, me new to Atlanta, anxious but so excited about this new phase of my life. My uncle was my guide to this new world. We are less than 10 years a part in age so we grew up sort of as brothers. He let me borrow his car on weekends when my friends and I wanted to get off campus and explore (i.e. get lost) in the city. He let me crash at his place. He was my meal ticket when I needed a good homecooked meal. He gave me good advice (and some questionable advice if I’m being honest). But he was always looking out for me. He was my lifeline.
We’ve lost touch over the years. You know how families grow a part sometimes. We live in the same city, and yet we don’t see each other. He’s busy and travels. I’m busy and travel. But both of those are really excuses. The truth is, at some point along the way, we had a disagreement about how we see the world and we stopped talking as much. He was probably right (still is). For some reason, (probably pride) neither of us could see each other’s perspective for what it was: concern for each other.
And so we grew a part. My favorite uncle, the man who stepped in and filled the void that my own father left, that relationship was changed. Perhaps not coincidentally, today’s message in church was about the prodigal son. What struck me most about hearing this story as an adult was the father’s reaction to the son. He welcomed his son back with open arms. He seemed to anticipate his son’s return, and when he did finally come back home there was restoration. In the real world of messy relationships how many of us are on the giving or receiving end of such restoration?
I think about these things because I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of distant familial relationships. I think about these things as a father in particular because I’m constantly on the lookout for the seeds of discord that manifest in distant relationships. Bottom line, I want my girls to always know that they can come back home. I can’t help but wonder, would the son in the story have come back home if he didn’t already know his father’s character? I want to be like the father in the story, not the I told you so dad that sometimes I already seem to be. That’s gonna take more work on my part. I fully expect them to stray from time to time, we all do. But I want them to know that I’ll be here when they return, that’s the kind of character I’ll instill in them.
Driving our young cousin back to his dorm brought back a flood of good memories and gratitude. It reminded me that I owed a debt to someone, and perhaps the window hadn’t closed. So, I gave my uncle a call and hopefully rekindled a relationship. It was a good talk, nothing groundbreaking, except the simple act itself of reconnecting. He seemed more happy to hear from me than I expected, and I found myself sharing more than I planned. And in some small way, it felt like I’ve begun to come back home.