Tony Woodlief | Author

The prodigal and I

I passed through Wichita today, which was no small thing for me, because on every corner is loss. That is the place we took our children to see a game not long before we divorced. There is the building where I used to gather with men who were my friends. Here is the hospital where I first bathed two of my sons. Here is the house where I cleaned my daughter’s body the night she died.

This is the city where so much was given to me. This is the city where I pissed it all away.

More than once I catch myself whispering, “I am so sorry.” I am saying it to my children who are not with me. My children who once had twenty acres on which to play and one house in which to live.

I know it could be worse. What’s more, there were things in that earlier time that I would rather be shot than go back to. Yet I grieve.

Rembrandt - The Return of the Prodigal Son - WGA19133

We have to find a balance—all we sinners and screw-ups, at least—between mourning and thankfulness. Between repentance and renewal. How I mourn what has passed. How I beg for mercy. And yet, how I give thanks for what remains, and for new blessings taking root. Alongside every “Forgive me” belongs, at least in my life, thanksgiving—because if God is anything he is the father rushing to embrace his pig-stinking prodigal son, to give him more and still more, before the boy even draws breath to beg.

If I could extend the story, I would give the son a limp, because forsaking home leaves scars—on us, on those who love us. I would have him hobble sometimes to where his father’s livestock are kept, and crouch with some effort beside the muck, and breathe it in. I would have him choke down a dried husk. I would have him remember where he has been, and I would imbue the joy of his remaining days with sorrow.

I would do all this that he might not find himself lying once again with pigs, longing for the freedom of a slave. We need to let our minds return to hell on occasion, the prodigal and I.

I’ll pass back through soon, and see as many old friends as can make time for me. I’ll recall the goodness that was there, and it will hurt, as it should, as I need it to. A great many of us can look back on carnage. But we can look forward to grace, find it where we stand, find it even, God forgive us, back there, where we thought he did not see, did not care. I know I can. I can see the sty behind and my father’s house ahead and though my pace is slow for limping there is grace, there is grace, even for one such as me there is grace.

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