Fall is no doubt my favorite season. I love being outside on a cool day when the sunshine is enough to keep you warm yet not make you sweat, as turning leaves cover the sidewalks and yards. In the fall we take a lot of walks, slash bike rides. That short time between arriving home from the sitters with the girls and dinner we will often walk around the block because it’s just too nice not to.
Adeline often rides her bike out ahead of us, while Maisie and I follow in her “car”. She lasts in the car for awhile and then she insists on walking or pushing her car so she can explore the things around her, like leaves and bugs and flowers and pretty much anything. She loves pushing the car herself. As you can imagine, this adds quite a bit of time to our walk. It also adds all sorts of games to the mix as her and Adeline battle it out, bike vs. car – competing for the “most stubborn child” award. The winner is yet to be determined.
Often we are about 200 feet from the house when Maisie exits the vehicle to walk on her own, which converts the 2 minute ETA to a 20-minute one. Maisie creates her own path home as she heads the opposite direction of our house, goes to pick every flower in sight, or stops to crunch the leaves below her feet. Her path home becomes very different than the path set our for us, you know, the sidewalk for example?!?!?
But as her Mom, I lead her back to the path and eventually home. That is my job. When she walks on to someone’s grass, I guide her back. When she heads up a driveway, I turn her around. When she books it for the street, I grab her and reposition her on the sidewalk. I redirect, refocus, and remind her that her path is the sidewalk and it will lead her back to our house – it will take her home. Unlike the neighbors yard, driveway, or our street – the sidewalk will get her back where she belongs.
This is exactly what God did with me during my 8 years away from home. Way before I acknowledged it and headed back intentionally, God was redirecting my path back to Him, where I belonged.
Last week I mentioned that the prodigal son’s plan was very different from his father’s. He tried to take his own path in life when he left home. But even when he was coming home, he attempted his own way a few times too. First, by hiring himself out to a citizen of that country in order to survive. Fail. Second, he intended to ask his father to take him back as a hired servant; to return home with the idea of begging for simply a place as a servant, not at the table as his son. Fail again.
At this point in the story of the Prodigal Son it becomes very clear that he has a little something to learn about the grace of his father. He has a lot to discover about the father’s love, and even more to comprehend about what it means to be his son.
Going away was a choice the son made. It was a choice I made. The choices we make are not always the ones God wants us to make. The choice to walk away from God is not his idea of the best decision for us, or his heart’s desire for his children. But God gives us the space to do it because he has a plan for our time away, and a set path for our journey home. To be clear, I don’t think the Father wanted the son to leave. It wasn’t his hope for his son. But he could see the bigger picture. He knew all that could happen to the son while he was gone, the many attempts he would make to “fix” things himself, and how he would welcome him home, meet him on his way back to embrace him on the day his path brought him there.
Just like the lost son, I too had my own plans, my idea of the best path back to God or of how to “fix” things in my life. The thing I know now, that I didn’t then, was that God already had me on a path, guiding me home, steering me back every time I wandered off distracted by something along the way. Just as I gently guide Maisie back to the sidewalk to make sure we arrive at the house before sunset, or in time for dinner — exactly when we need to be there, God patiently set me back on track more times than I can count.
In 2004 I got engaged. I was in my second year of teaching and coaching. My fiancé and I bought a house together, moved in, and began planning our wedding. My life was on schedule. I had everything you are suppose to have: a good job, a fiancé, a dream wedding on the horizon, friends – things were good.
Yet, something was missing. I wasn’t truly happy. I knew it deep down, I just didn’t want to admit it. I even remember trying to go back to church a couple of times over that first year of living together. This was my version of the plan, a halfway attempt at my faith, a possible reconnection with a local church, and of course convincing my Buddhist fiancé to go to church with me. This would fix things. It would make it all better. I could stay right where I was in my comfort zone and solve my own problems. The unsettling feeling would go away, a simple reconnection with church would vanquish the anxiety and bring peace. I was sure of it. Just like the son’s attempt to hire himself out in order to afford food, my plan intended to keep me where I was and make a minor change in my life that would bring forth what was missing.
God had other plans. Bigger plans. A different path. A crazier path.
It took my relationship hitting rock bottom, along with my life in many ways, for God’s plan to take effect. I was devastated after calling off my wedding only months before the Big Day, my life no longer made sense, I was hurt and alone. So my sister and I planned a trip to the Dominican Republic to get away from it all. 7 nights and days in an all-inclusive would take care of us. Little did I know, God was gonna use that week to forever change the course of my life. That trip would lead to mission work in the Dominican Republic, which would carry me to Kenya, which would open the door to seminary, which would bring me to the place I am today pastoring at my home church.
God had other plans. Bigger plans. A different path. A crazier path.
His plan, not mine. His path for my life, and I simply couldn’t get off of it. I thought I was out on my own, doing things my way. But God was simply giving me the space to learn the lessons I needed to, in order to truly grasp the grace and love of the Father.
The thing about his path, is that it leads to him. And no matter where we are on that path, the Father can see us, and he is waiting for us. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t even wait for us to do it on our own. Instead, he runs to us, throws his arms around us, and welcomes us home. Just like the Prodigal son who,
. . . got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The son was prepared to barter with the father for a job, but the father was ready to restore the son to his position of honor, to love him, to welcome him home — to forgive him for leaving, squandering his inheritance, and attempting to live the life he thought was necessary. He met him on the path, while he was still a long way off, as a demonstration of grace.
This is what God does with us. He forgives. He restores. He lavishes us with love and grace. He meets us where we are and brings us home wrapped in his compassionate arms.
“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” (Ephesians 1:7)
Let me be clear- the things we do and the people we are with, during the time away, they matter and they impact us. Although the father welcomed him home, the son still had to live with the mistakes he made. His inheritance was gone. There was no getting it back. He now stood covered in grace, forgiven and transformed, but it did not mean the past was erased.
The past doesn’t go away and the effects of our choices are real. Grace covers us, but we also have to live with what we do when we are away. There is healing, but the scars remain. At least I have found this to be true. Many of my scars are still visible. God brought me home and restored me, and much healing has taken place. When I look back at my time away, I see God present throughout it, in ways I was unable to see during it.
God’s grace was present in my life even when I didn’t know it or acknowledge it. It was there when I walked away from an unhealthy relationship and avoided the possibility of a painful divorce. It was there every time I partied too hard and made irresponsible choices . . . every time I put my life in danger . . . every relationship I broke because of drugs and alcohol taking priority over friends and family . . . it was there in the face of loved ones who stood by me.
The scars remain: broken friendships, the after effect of drugs, the memories. The scars are my thorns. I often think of Paul’s cry to God to take away the thorn that plagued him in 2 Corinthians 12:
“in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
The past is not erased. The scars are there. The memories are real. The thorns remain. But they all purpose to glorify God because they point to the simple truth that his grace is more than I need. Because only God can use my scars for his glory. God alone heals enough to restore us, while leaving us with scars that remind us that indeed his grace, and his grace alone, is sufficient for us; that he is all we need.
This is why I am telling my story. To tell the story of my encounter with his grace and how the love of Jesus saved my life. To tell the story that points to Jesus who healed my brokenness, leaving me with only scars. Scars that tell a story, a story that points to the Father, and that reveals the lavishing love and saving grace of Jesus.
You can’t erase the past. But you sure as heck can use the scars in your past to tell a different story. The scars I bear point to God the Father, how he never left me, nor forsook me, but instead how he patiently and persistently guided me back home . . . even if I had no clue he was there doing it all along.
I can’t erase my past, but then again without it I would not have a story to tell.