Shepherding the Prodigal Heart
Today is Mother's Day. I know a Mother is "only as happy as her saddest child." And a Christian Mother is only happy when she knows that her children are all walking in the truth of the gospel. This is her lifelong mission. I'd like to share a story with you. It’s a beautiful story of redemption-about one of our three children, our intellectual prodigal son, JP. I hope you find hope in my story for the prodigal child in your family.
Thank you in advance gentle reader for this story is near and dear to my heart.
When I think about our oldest son a couple of memories always come flooding into my mind. I, like all Moms, have a long list of happy memories- first time I held him, first steps, first day of school, you know the highlight reel we all play in our heads when looking at family photos or on the anniversary of each child’s birth. But today I want to share with you the spiritual journey Jody, his Dad and I, found ourselves on with our JP.
The first memory that floods my heart is of me driving home from Denver, Colorado (1989) in a champagne colored Nissan Maxima, it was a beautiful car, completely unpractical for a young Mom of soon to be two children, but it is what we had. I had just taken my 4-month-old son to see a specialist in Denver. JP, my son, had been born with a large dermoid tumor filling his middle ear space and also the petrous portion of the temporal bone (base of skull). Thankfully a portion of the tumor was also hanging down through his Eustachian tube and into the back of his throat so it could be detected early. A very astute night shift nurse found it when he was just hours old. It was a scary introduction to parenthood, one my husband, Jody and I hesitantly walked. We tried to navigate it in faith, but we were both so young, we were often afraid. The MD had not been particularly positive that morning about JP’s prognosis and I was fighting back ugly tears driving home.
Sidebar, I am also pregnant at this moment and sick as a dog during this car trip. And yes, if you just did the math, I had two children in less than a year, sue me 😊.
Back to the story, as I drove I cried out to God to heal my precious son. I heard God speak, to my heart, not in audible tones, in an overwhelming calm. God said “trust me, I have plans for him!” And that is exactly what I did. I trusted God was in control. I felt a flood of warmth fill my soul and I drove home with a new measure of faith. It really wasn’t that heroic of a thing to do. I could only trust God, I did not possess the power to fix this problem. But God honored my heart and renewed my faith each and every morning. (Lamentations 3:22-23) JP had a number of surgeries over the next few months and we were perpetually in a battle with infections. Big ugly ones, where his ear would drain so much that the infectious material would cover his shirt. You could actually hear it bubbling out of his left ear from across a room. Not pretty or normal. And our antibiotic arsenal was shrinking. Scary times. But God was faithful.
Fast forward 18 month and the next memory occurs. In this memory I am standing in a hospital room at Children’s hospital in Birmingham, Alabama (1990). We brought JP in to the doctor earlier that morning with the worst ear infection we had ever seen, and that is saying a bit. His ear was sticking perpendicular to his head and a huge mass was protruding behind his ear. Our pediatrician sent us straight to the hospital. Jody was not with me. He had to stay with our youngest daughter, Maddy, who was only eight months old by this time, until Jody’s Mom could fly in from North Carolina to help us. This vivid memory includes the doctor telling me the results of the emergency MRI we had just completed. He stated that the tumor was back with a vengeance and the MD suspected cancer, because a dermoid could not return so quickly. After the word cancer, it was if my ears stopped working. I saw the doctor’s mouth move, but it was as if Charlie Brown’s teacher had invaded his body. Wah-wah-wah! A nurse came in and prepped JP for exploratory surgery and I stood in a haze. As I saw him being wheeled out to the OR, that tiny little baby on that great big stretcher, I began to cry and pray! I pleaded with God to make all of this stop, heal my son. Once again, I felt the familiar warmth flood my spirit. It was like I was standing in a bathtub that was filling with warm, pure, water. Once again, I heard God speak to my heart – “Trust me! I have plans for him” And once again, it was all I could do. I had no skills to fix him. I turned it all over to God. Again, I trusted Him. To make a long story short, the news was better than anticipated. And atypical dermoid was the only way the MDs could explain JP. JP went on to have at least three more surgeries and many more ear infections, but each time God was faithful. His last surgery was shortly before his 7th birthday- tumor free ever since. God is faithful.
Fast forward 5 years, and the next spiritual milestone memory involves a first grade JP. That afternoon I remember JP walking into my bedroom in Enterprise, Alabama (1995) with a thick book in his hands “The Biography of an Atom.” He looked concerned, so I immediately sat down on my bed and pulled him up next to me. I asked what was troubling him and he laid out his problem. He said that he was reading (he was a very early reader and too smart for his own good) and on page 37 the book makes a statement that implies God did not create the world. It was not a bold confrontation to faith, but JP perceived it as a threat to a truth he had previously learned. A year previous, JP had asked me to pray with him so that “Jesus could live in his heart everyday not just at church.” So we had prayed together and my Mother’s heart soared. Jody and I discussed age appropriate truths with our oldest son, trying our best to shepherd this very smart kid and his heart. A heart that was battling knowledge read in a book and feelings felt in his heart. I hesitated for a moment, unsure how much my young son could handle as I try to explain the various theories of how God created the earth, young earth, old earth, you know the drill. JP sensed I was hesitant and he took my face in his small hands as he looked me straight in the eyes and said “don’t make anything up. If you don’t know the answer, its ok. But I don’t want an Easter Bunny or Santa Claus story here. Is God real or not, Mom?” I answered confidently that God was indeed real and I explained to the best of my ability to a child with a higher IQ than my own, the theories that were implied in the book at hand. This was the beginning of many conversations as Jody and I shepherded a very bright prodigal heart. JP loves facts and one of his classic quotes is “every word has meaning Mom, chose each one carefully.”
Jody and I continued to live out the gospel in our home. We were faithfully in the Word, in church and in prayer with and around our children. We were far from perfect parents. I am sure too strict, ill-equipped, but faithful. JP continued to grow spiritually too, but he always had such tough questions. Questions his Mom of simple faith never wrestled with. As JP approached the end of high school, we were nervous about the college years. College is a time when both Jody and I made our faith our own, but we had a number of friends who turned away from God during those years. We continued to shepherd his heart and remind him daily of how much we loved him. We told him again and again that God had a special plan for his life. And we continued to pray for God to meet him where he was at.
JP left for college (2007) and loved the pursuit of knowledge. Well, actually his freshman year, he pursued trouble in the form of alcohol and a set of very pretty blonde twins. He almost bombed out of school. His father and I kept reminding him that school was a privilege. Those without the grades, did not get the privilege to stay. He buckled down and studied hard, but something in him hardened. He no longer wanted our advice or came to us with spiritual questions. He was grown at the ripe old age of 19 and charting his own path. He stopped going to church, except for when he came home, which wasn’t as often as we would have liked. He would roll his eyes at statements of faith or my declarations of “I am praying about _______.” Jody and I continued to pray for him and love him with all of our heart. His grades were good and our support remained unchanged. JP was running from God. Practically that meant a separation from us too, it seemed. James 1:6, says a person who doubts God is like a wave of the sea, tossed about by every conflicting opinion. That was JP’s state at this moment. Not happy and unsure who he could blame his unhappiness on. For a while we were handy scapegoats.
I’m not sure if college is to blame or if it is just a time of growth in every person’s life. I had been with JP when he prayed for Jesus to come into his heart so many years before. Jody and I had watched his obedience in water baptism at the age of 10. We had prayed with him about many issues through the years. We had shared bible stories and truths, but the evidence of His presence in JP’s life was shrinking. Jody and I prayed, and we rested in the fact that God had him! We couldn’t force feed him Jesus, his faith had to become his own. No shirt tail Christians allowed.
Sometime in his Junior year of college, JP met a beautiful red head and things dramatically improved. Sarah, his eventual wife, loved Jesus and wanted to go to church. Jody and I were thrilled. When JP asked Sarah to marry him, we were there. JP then asked his Dad to perform their wedding ceremony. Jody packed as much of the gospel in that wedding that he reasonably could. Just short of an altar call 😊. JP and Sarah moved to Texas and were faithful church attenders, and even started going to a small group within the church. They had their first baby and from the outside things looked good. Shortly after they moved home, my last go to memory takes place, so keep reading. I promise the story has a happy ending.
IMPORTANT SIDE BAR: God works in mysterious ways. By this time, Jody and I were busy investing in young marriages in our church and our community. We had started hosting a Marriage Covenant Group in our home on Sunday nights and were walking with 3-4 couples at a time over a 10-week period through the gospel, using Tim Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage as one of our main resources. Good stuff. God was busy healing marriages and we were enjoying being used by God to equip marriages in the Gospel. Often, when Jody and I prayed together as we walked in the mornings, we would petition God to be faithful in shepherding our own adult children’s hearts as we faithfully shepherded the hearts of other young adults. During one particular group, we met a young man, an intellectual, who reminded me so much of my oldest son, my heart literally hurt when we were around him. Over the course of 10 weeks, I heard his story. He had been raised in a Christian home, even served in church as a Deacon and had wrestled with faith because “he couldn’t wrap his mind around some spiritual truths.” He sat at my table one evening, with his very tearful wife and stated, “he no longer believed in God.” End of discussion. Jody and I wept over this couple. They eventually ended in divorce. We wept over the lost soul of our young brother. We began to pray again in earnest for JP!
Soon after this event, JP and his family of three, soon to be four, moved back to Alabama (2014). Sarah his wife expressed concerns about JP and the condition of his heart. He did not like to talk about his faith and his life was missing spiritual fruit. We continued to pray. We were not called to action, perform an intervention, dowse him with holy water, or anything, just pray. How do you shepherd the heart of someone who knows the truth, but is wrestling with nuances that hinder him from deepening his faith or full surrender? We could badger, or condemn or rebuke, but that was not in our hearts. Just as we had done at every crossroads with JP, we prayed and trusted God had him. So again we prayed, much to the chagrin of our daughter in law, I’m sure. She wanted JP’s heart fixed and I think maybe in a small way she blamed us for not “fixing him.” But there was no more revelation from scripture we could provide, JP knew the truth. So, we prayed and loved him and his budding family well.
Then one evening out of the blue, JP called and asked his dad and I to come over to “talk.” Jody and I had just bought movie tickets and were walking into the theatre. We quickly gave the movie tickets away and drove to JP and Sarah’s apartment. JP was clearly broken. When we walked in, it was obvious. He was a man surrendering. He was just missing the WHITE FLAG. We sat in his living room and talked about Jesus with he and his wife. He asked questions and we answered. We reminded him of God’s faithfulness over his life and every step he had taken as a child. We then prayed and asked God to forgive us of our doubts and we clung to our son as he wept tears of repentance. God had him, He always had. God was not offended by JP’s questions, God created his keen mind. God wanted his heart. God wanted JP to die to himself so that He could become King and fulfill His plans for JP’s life.
We left their apartment rejoicing, weeping happy tears. We were ready to kill the fatted calf and celebrate! God had proven once again He was enough. The lifetime of loving our son through the gospel had not been wasted. My inability to articulate complex truths had not been the stumbling block for our precious first-born son. We were not to blame or to brag over his redemption, we were mere spectators- all glory was and is God’s alone.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith- and this is not from ourselves,
it is the gift of God –
not by works, so that no one can boast.
If you have a child that you have watched grow cold spiritually, do not lose heart, sweet mama bear. Resist the urge to rebuke. But instead earnestly pray. (James 5:16) Sometimes a valley of doubt and questions are needed in a believer’s journey to strengthen their heart for the final task of surrender. God definitely has a plan for our son and his family. We have watched as he is growing in his faith and beginning to lead his family spiritually. God’s timing is perfect. God knew JP would need a fresh dose of His spirit before the birth of their second child. For the rest of the story keep reading the FAITHFULNESS of GOD (https://wordwashedwife.com/blog/2018/3/26/god-is-faithful. God continues to faithfully love and care for our family.
Stay washed in the word, friends! I’ve enjoyed our time together! Remember that you are only responsible for showing your child the gospel, loving them well and modelling forgiveness and repentance- God is the one who draws the child to himself. We are mere spectators.
Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.