“I’m ready to leave,” he said in a mix of sweat and tears. Usually people say that on the way out. That was his opening line. Wherever he’d come from, he’d been outside. Unfortunately it was hotter inside. The door to my office in the back of the small country church was closed. The only cool air in the room came from the slow-turning fan and the slight breeze that blew in through the window. It was hot. I could’ve fried an egg on my desk by the time it took him to finish a sentence. He spoke with a long country accent as he wiped the tears with his dirty shirt. I’d seen him before. Seemed like a nice guy. This good ole boy was running on Red Bull and regret today. He was nervous. To be honest, so was I. We were both new at this.
One of the best and worst things about being a country preacher is that you’re always on call. Like a spiritual surgeon. Everyone knows where to find you. After all, the parsonage is only 10 feet away from the church. In a moment’s notice, you could be thrust into the deepest corners of someone’s life. Into their depression. Their abuse. Their anger. Their confusion. Their desperation. Their parole. Anything. And in those moments, you don’t do anything but listen. This guy had to be at least five years older than me. He called me ‘pastor.’ I paused. That word. That was me. I’d only been one for 2 months. Green as green gets. Suddenly I had a degree and for some reason that made me capable of solving other people’s problems. The truth was, I knew as much about life’s problems as this guy knew how to preach. But here we were. I didn’t have much, but I had an ear. And this guy was ready to talk.
“Hmmm….” is all I could utter after twenty minutes listening across the desk. It was a lot to take in. He was living with a married woman. A woman with two small children. In a trailer with ten people. Ten. A trailer that may or may not have been full of illegal substances. He wanted out for good. I thought that was a good idea. My mind scrambled for a good ‘pastor’ response. I didn’t remember covering this in seminary. How do you extract an addict from a drug house with nowhere else to go? Was that in James or John? I held the Bible in my hand but wasn’t exactly sure where to turn. Whoa. Welcome to ministry.
“Are you sure you don’t have anywhere else to go?” I asked. “No,” he shot back, shaking his head emphatically at the floor. He was panicking. When you’re homeless and hungry, black and white turn gray quickly. The ‘practical’ and the sinful start to merge. That’s where you find the deadliest, subtlest kind of sin. The kind you can justify. The decision your stomach makes instead of your brain. Deciding between the bed of his truck and the bed of a married woman came down to one question really: which did he fear more? Being homeless or being a hypocrite? Six months ago, what seemed like a place of refuge had become a hive of adultery and addiction. Now he wanted out. Like Joseph, he’d simply left his clothes and run away. (Gen. 39:13) Other than his disability check, he had nothing and no one.
Foxes have holes and rednecks have trucks. But he’d been stripped of that too. One accident had taken his truck and his best friend. He didn’t have so much as a pillow to lay his head. So here he was. “I need to get right with God,” he said. He was thinking with the right body part today. To his credit, it was an hour’s walk to the church…and he hadn’t turned around yet. He’d walked in with just enough desperation to humble himself. The Spirit was working in that uncomfortable chair. Now I needed Him working on my side of the room.
“Where do your folks live?” I finally asked. It seemed like a fair question. His face lifted for the first time in minutes. But he wasn’t smiling. “They live over on Baker’s Ridge,” he said with a scowl. In the hills of central Kentucky, people give directions in ridges like the rest of the world does in streets. “It’s just over the hill,” he pointed. (They all said that.) In almost 30 minutes, he’d never mentioned his parents. I was about to discover why. I had no idea where Baker’s Ridge was, but at least we were getting somewhere. “When’s the last time you spoke with them?” I asked unassumingly. By the expression on his face it was clear that I had jumped from one sore spot to another. Sin really is like a snake. Keep pulling at the tail and eventually you’ll find the head. I kept pulling. When people come face to face with their sin, they do one of two things: they repent or they run. This guy was running. From something or someone. And he was stacking guilt on top of shame inside a drug-infested trailer. Misery loves company. So do addicts. Like a modern-day prodigal son, he’d taken his disability check, run away from home, and found himself worse off than when he had begun. Like a pig in slop. (Luke 15:16). When people run from their problems, they can never run fast enough. Out of sight is never out of mind. That’s because people carry their pasts around like clothing. The only way to heal a bitter heart is to locate the root. (Heb. 12:15) But sometimes that root can go down deep. Years deep.
Three years to be precise. The last words he’d spoken to his family had been the curses from his driveway after being kicked out of the house. He told the story slowly. One night, a small dispute between he and his father had turned into a shouting match over everything from stolen money to prescription pills. One explosive argument had left him out on the street. He started walking and never came back. Sounded familiar. Clearly he’d become better at walking out of doors than walking in them. After three years, he was back where he started. Homeless and alone. But maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. I didn’t know how to be a pastor yet, but I did have a car.
“Would you want to ride up the road and see your dad?” I finally asked in a tender voice. I was treading lightly. The ones we love the most can cut us the deepest. “Like you said, he’s just over the hill. I’m sure he’d love to see you after all these years.” I waited for his response nervously. His eyes cut at me and then cut away. “Pssssh…I doubt that,” he said in a grumble. I could see his embarrassment between bursts of anger. I reminded him that a cot in the basement of the church was all that I could supply. He was thinking hard. Weighing his options. He didn’t have many. The only sound in the warm room was the soft clang of the ceiling fan. He had a decision to make. Deny himself…or deny his father. Two of the most powerful forces on earth were making war inside one heart: hunger and pride. Both can drive a man to almost anything. Pride had driven him into a cesspool of sin. Hunger was driving him out. Out of darkness and into light. He was helpless and he knew it. But nevertheless he’d arrived at the first step of the Gospel. Complete humility. The seed of faith grows well in the soil of poverty. At rock bottom, God is able to strip away prideful illusions from the most arrogant of sinners. Suddenly he looked up. Then in a low voice he told me that he wanted to go home. I smiled and got my keys. Two months on the job and I was about to witness my first miracle.
When the barns start to outnumber the houses, you know you’re deep. His father’s house must have been six or seven miles off the country highway. The more we drove across the winding ridgeline, the more I wondered if he’d forgotten where he’d grown up. He hadn’t. He knew exactly where to go. Eventually we came to a small bluff overlooking the valley. As he pointed to the house, I glanced at the nervousness in his eyes. Three years. Three years running from this house. I suddenly wondered if this was even a good idea. What if this wasn’t a Hallmark moment? What if this was just material for Dr. Phil? What if my car ended up on the nightly news riddled with shot gun holes? Every story has two sides. Maybe dad remembered it a little differently… a little worse. My mind started playing the ‘what if’ game like crazy. I knew the story of the Prodigal Son but maybe it looked a little differently in real life. Maybe instead of feasts it ended up in restraining orders. I was nervous. One way or another I was going to earn my pastor stripes today. I hopped out of the car slowly and realized he was even slower. It was safe to assume this was a gigantic first for everyone involved. I really wasn’t sure what my role was here. But we were here. No turning back now.
We walked up the gravel driveway a few yards, and I put my hand on his shoulder and squeezed. Then I stopped. “Listen, I’m going to wait back here at the car. You go ahead and say what you need to say. I’ll be here, praying for you brother.” He didn’t refuse. He just nodded and kept walking to the door. I stayed back, within earshot of the porch. I leaned against the car, folded my arms, and watched intently. This was going to be something. An experience to say the least. He knocked. And waited. Suddenly a pair of eyes peeked out through the window and shot back in. What seemed like a couple minutes passed by. Apparently nobody in this family moved very quickly. Then the door opened. The man who appeared looked like a middle-aged version of my friend. It had to be his father. Spitting image. His mouth was closed and a stern, penetrating look was plastered on his face. The silence lasted a couple seconds. Then he spoke in a familiar low voice. “What the h*** are you doing here?” he asked. After three years, I supposed that was fair. My back came up off the car instantly when he glanced over at me across the yard. “And who the h*** is this?” I gulped. I also waved awkwardly and smiled a cheesy smile that I wished I hadn’t. The son spoke in an upright posture. “Pa,” he called him. “I’ve come to make amends for what I done…and this is my preacher.” His father’s eyes softened for just a moment and glanced over at me. “Oh…sorry preacher.” In rural Kentucky, being a preacher grants you a measure of neutrality and respect from the most calloused kinds of people. All I could do was smile. The father’s piercing gaze directed back to his son. “So you come to make amends, huh? You still seeing that friend of yours over there too? I guess she done kicked you out and you’re looking for a place to stay.” Once a father always a father. Even when they’re out of the loop they’ve usually got a pretty good bead on things.
He told him where he’d been and what he’d done. Then he pleaded for forgiveness. For the way things had ended. For the words he’d spoken. “I’m so sorry,” he said in a hushed voice. His father’s arms remained folded. Then a storm of words poured down upon the son. “Son, do you remember all the things you done?!” he shouted. He’d cursed at his mother. He’d stolen from her too. He’d brought drugs into their home, then the police. And after bailing him out of jail, all they’d received in return was a loose tongue, a bad attitude, and a terrible influence upon his younger brother. Years of frustration were being unleashed. His father wanted him to remember everything he’d left in that house. A mess they were still cleaning up. Tears began to streak down the young man’s face. If he wanted back into his father’s house, he was going to have to own up to everything he’d done. Every stupid decision. Every word. His father was making sure of that. Only ten yards away, I felt like I was watching a movie. These people I didn’t know interacted with such raw emotion, like I wasn’t even there. As painful as it was, there was nothing I could say. Nothing I could do. This man didn’t know me and I didn’t know him. This was between a father and his son. Three years of pain went both ways. The father had been waiting. But was there any mercy left in this man’s heart? What this young man had done was beyond teenage rebellion. He’d disgraced his father’s name. The list of memories went on and on, more than I’d been told back at the church. Perhaps more than the son had chosen to remember. As I looked on, I suddenly realized that his younger brother was listening behind the door. The mother too, watching two proud men work out 3 years of hurt on their front porch. They could never forget the utter disrespect. The lying. The theft. But this wasn’t about forgetting. This was about forgiving. I kept my head down as the father’s voice rose. This was a verbal whooping. I prayed, listening for something. Something kind. Something warm. Something good. Then I heard it. One word. “But,” he said. I smiled. “If you wanna come back, your mother and I will give you one last chance.” The son finally smiled and stood tall. He then shook his father’s hand. One hug. No kisses. No ‘I love you’s. No home-cooked dinners. This was the Prodigal Son…the redneck version. Homeless and then homebound. Exiled and then forgiven. Lost and then found. (Luke 15:32) Reconciled in a stormy, 15-minute barrage of words, capped with forgiveness. As expected, the father then quickly reminded him of the conditions of conduct under his roof. I laughed to myself…the warm and fuzzy moment hadn’t lasted three seconds. But it was enough to end three years of pain. The mother and brother walked out and hugged the long-lost son. I walked up to the porch and shook hands as the new preacher in town. “Thank you,” is all I said with a smile. There was nothing else to say. The prodigal son had finally come home. In a small corner of rural America, the Gospel had played itself out in the hearts of one blue-collar family.
He wasn’t given a robe or a ring, but the son received all that his father had that day. For free. All he did was come home. I witnessed a miracle that was so Gospel-like, it shook my understanding of humility. A repentant son stood before a loving father and pleaded for forgiveness. Pleaded. In the face of every mistake he’d made, he pleaded for a second chance. After three regrettable years, God orchestrated a beautiful episode of grace that changed the lives of everyone involved. Including this spectator. But it’s how he came home that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. His life had become so lowly and desperate that it led him back to his father’s house. And eventually to my church. Most ‘Christians’ will never feel that kind of humiliation. A humiliation that utters the words, “I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.” (Luke 15:21) But humiliation isn’t just for adulterers and addicts. It’s for every sinner who discovers how ugly they are apart from the righteousness of Christ. No one can be called a son or daughter of God without first admitting their own wretchedness. If you’re reading this story and you haven’t placed yourself on that front porch, you’ve missed the glory of the Gospel. You’re not worthy of the cross. Period. And admitting that is embracing your own helplessness and addiction to sin. (John 8:34) That’s where my friend was blessed to find himself: poor in spirit. (Matt. 5:3) We’re saved through faith, but what prodigal sons know better than anyone is that faith never comes without repentance. The kind that pleads for forgiveness. Homeless addicts are searching for fulfillment like everyone else. They’ve just looked in the wrong places. But homeless addicts also have something a hypocrite never will: a need. It’s impossible to love a Redeemer you don’t need. The Father will never be your sufficiency until He’s your absolute necessity. No one comes to the foot of the cross until they have nowhere else to go. Desperate and pleading. That’s faith. It’s more than a walk. It’s running home like a prodigal son.
“God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world – what is viewed as nothing – to bring to nothing what is viewed as something.” -1 Corinthians 1:28