40 Years in the Wilderness: A Prodigal Son's Story

The story of my journey to repentance and faith in Christ is one of a lost, lonely black sheep who wandered in his own personal wilderness for 40 years. I spent those 40 years running from God, denying the truth that I knew inwardly but refused to confront.

At the end of those 40 years in the wilderness, the Good Shepherd rescued his wandering sheep, when the Holy Spirit grabbed hold of me in a surprising, unexpected way.

I was raised by strong Christian parents, attending Bible-centered churches my entire childhood. My parents practiced their faith in the home, not just at church. So I was doubly “without excuse” (as the apostle Paul would doubtless say)… but I ran from God anyway, beginning in my teen years.

I had many excuses for doing so, among them what I saw as hypocrisy in the church (particularly around issues of race and racism — I grew up, during my early years, in the western Bible Belt in the 60s, so you should be able to imagine…)… A fundamentalist church theology and preaching that I experienced as “heavy on the hellfire, and light on grace”… One particularly deranged pastor who solidly contributed to scaring me off… and other various troubles. But we know that there is no perfect church (in practice) on this earth, and in hindsight it all comes down to the fact that I didn’t want to bend the knee to God or to Christ. The world and its pleasures were calling, and I wanted to experience them. So just like the prodigal son… I ran.

Somewhere in the middle of those 40 years of running, when I was in my 30s, I remember sitting on a rock in the mountains during a hike with my best friend, and talking with him about my unhappiness and dissatisfaction with my life, and with myself. I told him that I didn’t think I would ever be “fully myself” until both of my parents had died. I didn’t verbalize the rest of what I was aware of in the back of my mind, but refusing to confront directly. This was the unresolved question that had been haunting me for so many years… a question that I kept running away from, sweeping it under the rug every time it arose. This was the ultimate, fateful personal question that we all face (or foolishly refuse to face)… “What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” (Matthew 27:22)

I foolishly thought that once my parents had finally passed on, I could be free of this question. I would be able to move on from it, finally “be myself” and find that elusive satisfaction in life. The question persisted in presenting itself to me, in large part due to the long-suffering faithfulness of my father and mother, who over the years asked, pleaded, and encouraged me to take it seriously. But I was just as persistent in brushing away this nagging question. I kept running, swatting it away, for years.

In 2010, when I was 54, my mother suffered what appeared to be a stroke, which subsequently was found to be associated with a terminal brain tumor — glioblastoma multiforme, the most deadly type. After a period of weeks in the hospital, she came back home to die.

Shortly before she passed, while she still had just a minimal ability to speak, I had one last private talk with her. I apologized to her for all the suffering and pain and disappointment that I had caused her because of my waywardness. And I found myself telling her, “I really don’t know if heaven is real, but if it is, I think I’d like to be there with you.” The Holy Spirit was prodding me.

About six months after the initial diagnosis, she passed away at home, with me holding her hand, my father sitting on the bed in quiet disbelief. (“I can’t believe she’s really gone!”) He had prayed so hard for God to heal her, and I know he had held on to his hope until that last night of her life.

My father, at the point when my mother fell ill, had been showing obvious signs of developing dementia for some time. It wasn’t really bad yet, but quite noticeable. Losing his precious wife was emotionally and mentally devastating for him. They had enjoyed a very good marriage (now I realize because it was centered on Christ), and she was the light of his life. Now that light was gone. Christ remained as the primary light, but the stress of caring for her during those last six months of her life, and the searing pain of losing her… I think it just accelerated the development of his dementia.

I began attending church on Sundays with my dad shortly after my mother’s passing, at his request. It seemed like the compassionate thing to do. We had had a strained father/son relationship for a long time, since my teen years. I found myself more willing to put those tensions aside for his sake. The Holy Spirit was beginning to soften my heart, I think.

I remember during one church service, I found myself thinking, “Some day I’m going to be attending church as a member… as a believing Christian.” I was experiencing a kind of prophetic future-sense of belonging in the church… not yet belonging, but I was sensing something of my future. Kind of came out of nowhere… seemingly.

(I had also previously attended church a couple of times at my mother’s request, maybe six months before she suffered her tumor-induced stroke. She had been so sweetly loving and endearing with her request, I just couldn’t refuse her. My stony heart was beginning to soften even then. That first Sunday after church she told me, beaming with a big smile, “This is the best day that I’ve had in a long time!” She was so happy to have me in church with her and my dad!)

In May of 2013, just shy of three years from her passing, my father’s dementia just blew up… or so it seemed. I had a sense that it had been steadily worsening, but I was busy with my own life and distracted and stressed by a crazy job in an extremely toxic workplace. I wasn’t watching out for my father’s welfare as I should have been (I dealt with a lot of guilt from that)… and so when I discovered that his bills and finances were a bit of a train wreck, and he was increasingly not able to take care of himself or his affairs, I had to step in and straighten things out and help him to manage his life. I took a three-week leave of absence from my job, temporarily moved in with him, got his bills and finances back under control, and with the help of his brother convinced him to sign a power of attorney, and to hand over the keys to his car. (He was no longer safe to drive.)

I cared for him for about 1 1/2 years. It was really tough. If you have ever cared for a parent or other family member suffering from Alzheimer’s disease / dementia, you know how difficult and depleting it can be. It was a real trial by fire, but looking back I can also see that it was a refining fire for our relationship, and for me personally.

Now the tables were turned in our relationship in a very real sense, as I increasingly became a parent for my father. He became more and more dependent on me as his caretaker, and increasingly childlike as his Alzheimer’s dementia progressed. With this role reversal, my compassion for him grew (naturally), and those old father/son relationship wounds in me receded and began to heal… I think as a natural outworking of our new relationship.

In the way that dementia consumed him, I could see that from my father’s perspective, he was regressing backwards through his life… although he was not consciously aware of the regression. With each passing week and month, his awareness of where he was in his life was moving backwards in time. It finally reached the point where he no longer recognized me as his son. To him, on most days, I think I was just another of the outside caregivers who I’d hired to help with his care. Something familiar about me remained, but it was very hazy and indistinct.

Soon, we could no longer effectively care for him in his home, so I moved him into a nice residential care facility owned and operated by a member of his church. It was a fast downward slide from there, and in November 2014 he entered into hospice care in that home. I was informed by his hospice nurse that he had probably about six weeks remaining to live. I had realized that the time was fast approaching, but this was a gut check. “It’s really here,” I thought. That time was soon to be on me, when I would lose my last parent to death.

And I also found myself thinking, “This will be the point in time that I’ve thought about, when I can finally lay that nagging question aside.” The time when I could finally move on with my life and “be fully myself.”

This was my plan. My father was going to die, and I would just skate around that question and leave it behind me, once and for all. I wouldn’t have the influencing presence of a fervently believing parent to remind me of it. But unknown to me, God had His own entirely different eternal plan for me.

On Christmas Eve morning, December 24, 2014, my father passed away. The next seven days were consumed with preparations for his funeral, notifying old friends of the family and his business associates, and dealing with a break-in at his vacant home two days after his death. I was distracted, off-kilter, and in a daze…

Seven days after his passing, on New Years Eve sometime around midnight, I was sitting quietly alone at home, and without much conscious focus I found myself considering my father’s life. There’s nothing like the tragic regret of realizing your own lack of appreciation for a parent after they’re gone. In my four decades of rebelliousness I had been so blind to his stellar personal qualities. There are many I could list, but what stood out the most for me was his very strong personal integrity and honesty, his steadfast, deep love and faithfulness to his wife, his rock-solid faith in God, in His word and His promises, his unwavering belief in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and his amazing propensity for obedience to Him.

As I sat quietly contemplating his life… and feeling the heavy weight of regret for having been such an unappreciative, rebellious son… and really, feeling the weight of my sin for how I had dishonored both him and my mother, and God… I was suddenly confronted with that old question that had been pursuing me all those years. This time, the question was squarely in front of me as a very solid presence. I realized, in a flash of an instant, that I COULD NOT run away from this question. I could NOT just skate around it and leave it permanently behind me, as I had planned. I had to face this question head-on.

Immediately as I realized this, I knew what I must do. There was no saying “no,” and there was no more delaying. I had been running for far too long. I must say “yes” to Jesus Christ.

Six days later, on January 6, 2015, I was water baptized into Christ.

I must admit that during the six days between my decision and my baptism, there was some wavering and questioning within me. I definitely felt that, despite the fact that I had grown up in the church and had been steeped in the Bible, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into, how I would proceed with this new life, how I could be faithful and not fall… This was complete terra incognita for me. I knew all the basics of the Bible and salvation well enough, but had no idea how to actually live as a Christian. But the one thing that I did know… I could not turn back. I had committed myself to Jesus Christ, and there was nowhere else to go but forward into that unknown mysterious future with Him.

I’ve heard it said that it’s a small minority of people my age who will accept Christ as Savior, especially after having been running for so long. I’ve also heard that most of us will come to our decision as a result of someone patiently sharing the gospel with us. I reflected on that a bit, realizing that no one had been sharing the gospel with me leading up to my decision. And then I realized that I had heard an amazing and very convicting sermon. That sermon was my father’s life. That sermon showed me the example of his character and his faithfulness. The example of his personal integrity. The example of his fervent belief and trust in Jesus. And the example of his long-suffering patience and, now I know, decades of faithful steadfast prayer, alongside my mother, for me to be saved.

As I said in my first post here, I consider myself one very fortunate formerly lost black sheep. Out of all the kids that I grew up with in the church, I was the only one who had not been baptized. I was that rebellious outlier, the one sheep out of the 99 who Christ told us he would surely pursue and rescue. How amazing is His grace, pursuing me for 40 years across that wilderness! He is, truly, the Good Shepherd.

I’ve gone overly long in telling my story, I know. Many people will have more dramatic and harrowing tales of divine rescue than mine. But that’s my story… and His story. This is how He can rescue us. No matter how long we have been wandering.

In closing, I’d like to say that if you’re here and you have been wandering in your own spiritual wilderness, I urge you to stop running. Stop running from God.

Stop running from the real eternal God to one of your own preference or design. You will never meet that god, because he doesn’t exist. Jesus spoke eternal truth when He told us, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” There truly is salvation from sin and death in no one else. He is the only way to heaven and eternal life.

If you’re a seeker or a skeptic, listen to the very word of God:

I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me. (Proverbs 8:17)

You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened." (Matthew 7:7-8)

… that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us… (Acts 17:27)

Read the Gospel of John (my favorite book of the Bible). I especially encourage you to approach this scripture with an open mind and an open heart (even if you’ve read it before), and in particular be very open to the opening verses in chapter 1. This is some of the most profound and revelatory scripture in all of the Bible.

Perhaps ask God to reveal the truth for you via this scripture, as you read it… even if you think you already understand it. If you’re open to hearing, He will reveal the truth to you.

I encourage you also to ask yourself, “If this is all true, then what are the implications for me?”

And… for any parents of a prodigal son or daughter: Keep praying. I am living proof that “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man (or woman) avails much.”

Pray remembering always that it is His will for your son or daughter to be saved. Knowing this, remember what Jesus promised us: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

Pray for me and my sons also, if you will. Both of my two sons are unbelievers. They don’t have the advantage of a biblical, spiritual foundation that I had, so I feel more than doubly challenged.

“Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

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@HighRoad What a wonderful testimony of the grace of God :slight_smile: Praying for you and your kids brother. He is able!

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Steve, what a moving testimony. I will gladly pray for you and your sons. May the dramatic change in your life glorify God and be a witness to your sons to the truth of the gospel. They can’t help but notice I am sure. :blush:

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So very touching. Thankful for a fellow prodigal who was trained up in the way he should go and cared for by two loving parents who gave of their time and spirit to ensure yet another child will be in their presence for eternity. My experience is so parallel to yours not only with parents but also with children. One of two of my sons have salvation granted by Jesus. I will pray for yours. Please pray for mine. God bless. And may the anniversary of your father’s return home on the 24th and your bent knee days later give you peace, love and joy in this season of Emmanuel. Thank you for sharing. It blessed me this morning.

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Thanks for sharing. I have a prodigal and am always feeling guilty about what I have done. This gives me peace and home. Keep sharing your story!

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Wow Steve, sadness gripped me over your Mom and Dad as I too was asked to transport my Father who had onset dementia home. We made it half way and things went south with him quickly. He passed about six months later.

This touched me deeply and from all you shared your heart, thoughts, scriptures, I think I kind of see the mantle of your Father upon you. In welcome o Connect I shared about my prodigals and I thank you for praying for them. Our effectual, fervent prayers will avail much.
I learned to respect though I didn’t agree, a genuine Christian life has dramatic impact on a non believer. I am honored to know you.
Mike

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I prayed for your prodigal this morning, @Keldon_Scott. So happy to hear that the other one has been rescued by the Good Shepherd. One down… one to go!

“Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it.”

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@bkpkr2, I prayed for your prodigal as well. Please realize that none of us are perfect parents (my parents made mistakes, too, for which I’ve since forgiven them)… and I have boatloads of mistakes to regret. But God’s grace and mercy and rescuing love is greater than our mistakes. He is able to save. Keep praying!

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@mgaplus4 Mike, I prayed for your prodigals as well. So good to meet another brother who has traveled that same hard road with their father suffering from dementia. I trust that you learned some things of value from it all.

Re: the mantle of my father… Hmmm… He had a level of integrity and character that I don’t know if I will ever be able to measure up to. Honestly, it’s been a struggle for me learning how to live as a follower of Christ. So many ingrained, negative and unhealthy patterns of thinking, particularly, to overcome. But looking back over the past five years, I’ve made a lot of progress, thanks to the instruction of God’s word and the Holy Spirit. He is surely pulling me along. I have a long way to go, many things in myself to overcome still. I am so thankful that He is patient, and for His grace!

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Steve I appreciate the prayers and will share when they change or come to fruition. Let’s continue to grow together in Christ and press toward the prize.
Mike

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