It’s late. Probably most of you are in your beds, cozy and comfortable, sifting through the day’s events as you drift off to sleep. That’s where I’m heading after I hit send.
But before I do, I want to sift through the events that happened here, and tell you about the day I had with my teenage son, home sick from school, second day straight, because we had a heck of a time getting along. And I’m hoping I’ll find some understanding as I share it.
I’ll be brief: I had confiscated his phone last night because he had gone to bed with it and was still on it late, walking pneumonia and it being a school night be danged.
I wanted to keep his phone this morning, at least until he’d looked online at the schoolwork he missed yesterday, or until he might have even done it. But I didn’t. Instead we worked out a schedule of sorts for how he’d spend the day, resting and being sick, but with an eye to getting some of the work done as he was able.
Reasonable? I thought so.
Somehow the day spiraled out of control (mine) with there being quite a bit of time for TV and video games and a trip to the store for treats (his) and not so much time on the homework. OK, not any.
I was fine with all the resting part, but when he felt well enough for more activity, I expected a little school work attempted. By 6 pm, it was time to focus solely on homework in my mind, and then came the “how about I go hunting before it gets dark and take my Chemistry with me to study?” request.
Reasonable? In retrospect, I see that this is where the insanity set in (mine), but at the time, with this bright face and winsome voice (his) and what might be a beautiful sunset on the horizon, he could sell it.
When he got back, I’m expecting Nothing. But. Homework. But I can’t find him at the homework desk and go looking. I find him upstairs, fighting with his girlfriend on the phone instead.
And I snapped.
I snapped out of “please the teenager against all reason.” I snapped out of “I can make this son happy and successful and adoring.” I snapped out of “just one more compromise and then he will appreciate me.”
And I said very kindly, but OK, maybe with a tiny edge, “I want your phone tonight and every night going forward until your homework is done.”
And all hell broke loose. He was loud and mouthy. I was self righteous and condescending. He insulted; I defended. Hadn’t I been the one to give in and go along, all day long? He was the one who was out of line. Why couldn’t he see it?
“You’re always telling me how I mess up,” he said. “I never do anything right! Even now, I’m not seeing this the way you want me to.”
I told him how I was on his side, how I’ve always been on his side, and how, dang, I was the first one on his side because I had been asking God for a brown baby boy for over two years before he was even conceived.
But all he heard in my passionate self-defense was that he was unwanted by everyone but me.
Lordy, lordy. He was down, and I could feel it.
I was feeling for me, too. Misunderstood. Taken for granted. I really wanted to lash back into that storm and straighten us both out. I could have tried to re-explain it, to help him understand what I meant. Or I could have thrown up my hands and given up. As frustrated as I was at that moment, I really wanted to do both. But I didn’t.
What I said instead was, “I can’t imagine how it felt to hear that. I tried to assure you of my love and support, and somehow I succeeded in assuring you of no one else’s. I don’t know how that happened, but I can tell you one thing: I won’t stop trying to communicate my love to you. As messed up as we are at this moment, I won’t quit reaching out to you. I hope you won’t quit reaching back.”
Nearly an hour later, I found him crumpled on the floor of his bathroom, and I was undone. What (or who) had come along and stolen reason, peace, and love right out of our home? Was I too harsh? Was I too soft? Was my tone too authoritarian? Was my tone too conciliatory? Was I a dictator? Was I a wuss? Maybe the answer was none–or all–of the above. Or maybe it had nothing to do with me at all…
In typing this tonight, I’m not clear about everything that happened, but I do see this much: by never holding any firm boundaries for the day, and by constantly reminding and nagging him instead, I’d been teaching him to ignore what I said and to do as he pleased.
With an entire day of doing exactly that, why would it suddenly be so wrong to quick, call the girlfriend? I can see this perspective in retrospect now that I’ve cooled off, how I empowered my son to disrespect me, though all I could see at the time was his disrespect.
As I’ve been doing our Romans homework this week, I’ve been overwhelmed by the extravagant love of God.
And how he took on all the sin and pain and misunderstanding and suffering and insults and hatred and even death for us, and how all he gives back is love.
All he gives back is relationship.
All he gives back is himself, his presence, every single day starting now and lasting forever.
God stops at nothing–not even his own death–to communicate his love to me. And if he’ll do that, “is there anything he wouldn’t gladly and freely do” for me? He is The Prodigal God, always reaching out and running after, meeting me right where I am.
And with all of that pressing in on me, filling me, breaking my heart this week, I just didn’t have it in me (for once) to set anyone straight. Or to defend and explain and blame again, my usual go-to.
So I sat down on the floor with him, leaned over, and wept.
I was reminded of the last time I’d held my son and cried. He was 3 1/2 then and had gone missing sometime that morning while I was reading with his sister. I went outside to check on him around 10, but the only sign of him I found were his shoes and socks right next to the dog bowl, kibbles and bits strewn about.
I knew two things right away: he’d eaten dog food again for breakfast, a habit I was trying to break him of, and he was barefooted out there somewhere with the dogs on a chilly day. The rule was he could go anywhere he wanted to on our property, as long as he could still see the house. I hadn’t thought to make a rule about shoes and socks.
“Stone! Stone! Where are you?” I walked into the yard and hollered, then jogged around the house and barn, yelling louder. “Answer me!” I demanded. There was no answer in the silence. At the barn, I jumped on the 4-wheeler, revving up the motor. Surely he was just down by the creek with the dogs.
I raced down the driveway towards the creek and called him, but with no response, came back up along the trail through the woods by the barn, killing the motor every so many yards, hollering and listening for an answer.
I’d left Josie Love, age 7, alone at home without a word. I called her from my cell and then called my niece, a student at the nearby college, asking her to come over to be with Josie while I looked for Stone. I had to fight the urge to fall apart when I heard Ashley’s voice, her concern comforting and connecting, because I didn’t want to waste time repeating myself. “Ten minutes,” she said. “I’m walking to my car now.”
“Thank you, God,” I said as I jammed my phone back in my jeans. I cranked the 4-wheeler again, but this time, it didn’t catch. “Please God, please God, please God…I’ve got to find Stone!” I pleaded aloud. “Please let me find him. Please crank this thing for me!”
A wave of panic rose in my chest as I struggled with the switch. I was losing valuable time and frantic about what my baby—lost, alone, cold, and hungry–was experiencing at that very moment. Fear flooded my heart. “OH, GOD, NO! Have mercy! I’m freaking out! I cannot do this!” An inhuman howl tore itself out of my gut and crawled up my throat, the exhale visible as it clawed its way out into the cold.
The 4-wheeler sputtered and caught, and I turned and sped along the wire fencing on the south side of our property line. Blackberry vines snagged my socks as I sped by. At the oak marker on the property corner, I got off and unhooked the metal gate, swung it open, drove through, and re-thread the chain back through the latch.
All of this was tediously slow, revving up the racing fear in my heart and head. I felt like I would explode with it and floored the 4-wheeler faster. Stopping to yell for him and being patient enough to listen for a reply was irrationally difficult, as if I believed that by racing around in circles, I might conjure him before me.
“Please God, please God,” I begged as I drove. “Please help me to trust you. I can’t find any trust. I need help!” I had covered the farthest boundary line and was heading up along the ravine edge with the creek far below. A cold wind had whipped up, and the woods, thick with underbrush and dead limbs, were menacing. I continued to cut the motor every 50 yards or so and holler, listening intently, swallowing my sobs so that I could hear the slightest, “Here I am!”
After crossing the pastures, hoping I might see him over the next hill or along a tree line, I realized I needed to get home to check on Josie Love. By now it was almost 2 p.m. and I’d been gone for hours.
The thought of Stone out in the cold without a jacket or shoes and without a proper breakfast and now, without lunch, made me sick with worry and dread, but I turned the 4-wheeler toward the house. “Dear God, if you’ve ever heard me pray, hear me now: I need your help. Please bring Stone home. Please calm me down. Help me to trust you with his life.”
Once home, I quickly updated Ashley and Josie Love, grabbing another jacket as I did so. I was pulling on a pair of gloves before heading back out, when I heard the screen backdoor creak open and in walked Stone, coming in as he always did, full of talk and enthusiasm for everything he’d been doing outside.
I can’t remember now what he said except for something about the dogs. I mostly remember feeling dazed, like can this really be happening? He walked right to me, soaking wet and talking a mile-a-minute, and I swept him up in my arms, incredulous, the relief pouring over me and all the questions I couldn’t find the words to ask. I dissolved in sobs so loud that Stone, incredulous himself, said, “Are you crying, for real?”
I had to sit down. The relief was like a massage. Like finals are over. No, like the child I’d feared dead was alive. Yes, like that.
“Buddy, where have you been? I was so afraid! I’ve been calling and looking for you everywhere,” I said to the top of his head, his curls smelling like rich soil after rain, his wet shirt clinging to him, his feet muddy.
He answered questions and explained as best he could, and eventually we came to understand that he and the neighbor’s dog, Louie, followed Dunlap, Stone’s Blue Tick, down to the creek. They played on the rocks and wandered along the creek a while, and then he fell in, trying to jump across it.
He realized he was lost by then, but he and Dunlap followed Louie, “who knew the way home,” and headed up the side of the gorge. They took some time climbing up, and he fell and rolled down a ways at one point, but once up on top, he saw the salt lick we put out for the deer. He knew where he was then and could see the house and how to get home.
All of this replayed in my mind while I sat on the floor beside him. And I felt grateful all over again to have Stone safe and near me, even if it was just to fight and make up. The getting lost memory and today’s events linked together in my mind, and like Bill Murray who relived the same Groundhog Day over and over until he grew enough to embrace it, I relaxed into the blessing of breathing the same air beside my son, who I love more than I know how to tell him.
God’s son died in the menacing woods so that I could learn to love mine, to connect with him at all times, but especially during conflict. God’s son died so that I could sift through words and attitudes to find truth and live forgiveness. God’s son died so that I could draw from the Source of love when mine runs dry.
Thank you, Jesus, for enabling this life, where I get to start over every morning, learning to love and being thankful for its gift. And thank you for the work you are doing. It is so obviously not mine.
Quotation is from Romans 8:32, The Message.
The Prodigal God is a book by Timothy Keller.