The PRODIGAL SON in the book of Luke in Christian scripture is undoubtedly my favorite of the parables taught by Jesus. It is my story.
I was raised within the love and protection of a community of hearty, salt-of-the-earth farmers. Their lives were dedicated to raising families and raising crops. Very simple needs, even simpler desires. I often have reminisced that we were the prototype for the “Waltons” of television fame. Indeed, it is true. My extended family of great-grandparents, grandparents, mother and two aunts lived in an early 1900s house with 9 upstairs rooms which could be used as bedrooms when necessary. During the years previous to my arrival in 1947, the household consisted of numerous children and a full live-in housekeeping staff plus an assortment of farm-hands. During the harvest season Mammy (my great-grandmother) assisted by her daughters prepared a lunch table groaning with several meats, 2 or 3 potato dishes, vegetables fresh from the garden and at least 4 pies for dessert. They fed 6 to 12 hungry men. As was customary, the women folk ate after the men had finished.
But it was a hard life. I was earning a wage by the time I was 12 years old, had after-school chores, and during the summer worked long days in the fields as well as helping to tend the cattle, pigs, and chickens. It was a very hard life. I determined early in my youth that I was not going to be a farmer. When my friends from town came to visit they were awed by my lifestyle. I, on the other hand, was envious of their freedom to join social groups and participate in extracurricular school activities. They enjoyed the farm chores which to me were onerous.
Church attendance was mandatory. Through the eyes and ears of this thirteen year-old, the preaching was ominous and the threats of a punishing God were overwhelming. I finally accepted that anything which felt good was probably a sin. When I turned sixteen I was no longer required to attend services or participate in my family’s religious tradition. When I turned seventeen, one of my multiple addictions had already consumed much of my life and another two, smoking and drinking, kicked in with a vengeance. By nineteen I was fully controlled by substance and behavior addictions.
My grandfather, who raised me as his own son, offered me his farm. I ridiculed the offer saying that no way in hell was I going to be a farmer. Fifty-two years later I am still haunted by the look of rejection on his face. We never recovered that father-son relationship. My last remembrances of him are of a sickly man sitting in his favorite chair which offered a view of the highway. Reading his Bible he would look up to see who was driving by. Sometimes it would be the community’s undertaker, a solemn man named Lawrence. Looking at me with his clear blue eyes, Grandpa would quip in his Dutch accent, “Well, maybe next time Lawrence will be coming for me.”
I had an idyllic upbringing and a wonderfully simple life surrounded by people who loved me. But, I thought something was missing. I thought that those city folks living in the midst of glitz and excitement were offering a dream which my community and my family’s traditions could never provide. And at age nineteen I chased after that dream.
Drinking, smoking, drugging, and carousing assured me that finally this farm boy had arrived. Life was going to be grand and lavish. Partying every night, trashing relationships became the norm and for a few years I loved it. Never looked back on what had been sacrificed. Lost my job because of drinking, failed college because of my drinking, destroyed a military opportunity because of my drinking…..”Aw what the hell? That wasn’t the life I wanted anyway.”
Then the blackouts began. The car wrecks, the addiction-imposed poverty, the broken promises to friends and family stirred within me memories of a much simpler life, a life of hard work, joy, and focus. Like the prodigal in the book of Luke, I asked myself if I could go back home. Could I return to age sixteen and redirect?
Of course my answer was no. The farm had been sold, my family was cautious of their wayward son, no eligible prospects for a relationship wanted to take a chance with me, and my faith walk had virtually dead-ended. I was spiritually, morally, and physically bankrupt. I was a broken man at age 34 with no hope for redemption.
With nothing to lose except my wretched life, I arrived in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. Something about those AAers sparked hope within me. Their message of sobriety through a Higher Power and a fellowship with kindred sober-living drunks offered a glimpse of a new life through recovery. I latched on to the enthusiasm and promise which I discovered in those rooms and held on to it for dear life. Unspeakable joy interspersed with debilitating depression controlled many of the early days getting sober.
My Father welcomed me with open arms as if we had never separated. He told me that those arms were wrapped around me all of the 17 years spent in the far country. I finally understood that God walked that trek every step of the way protecting and loving me while patiently waiting for me to return. The parable of the Prodigal tells me that Father was overjoyed to have me home. He prepared a feast and a celebration for my return. The celebration continues. We are no longer strangers, I have come home.