I wrote the paragraphs below a long time ago. Originally published as one of my early columns, they eventually landed in my second book, Practice by Practice. I sense today’s readers, at least some of them, need these words (lightly edited from the original) even more now.
My earliest memories of my mother are all in the garden. She’s bent over. Dropping tiny seeds, pulling pesky weeds. Staking tomatoes, hilling potatoes. Her flowered dress billows in the breeze and a sun patch rests on her back. I think she’s beautiful, even with that dirt smudge on her chin.
Mom grew one of the best vegetable gardens on the block. But she and Dad tended a more important garden at the same time. Planted seeds with every word. Pulled weeds with each gently correcting discipline. Watered generously with love and tenderness. I was that garden.
My parents paid vigilant attention to the soil of my life—to every budding desire, each sucker that would have stolen from my growing, greening edges; every small important stalk that needed staking before the contrary winds of life thrust it down. Even when I was grown, they tended from a distance. Their support and encouragement fertilized new growth, strengthened my firm roots, and helped me visualize what I could become. Until their deaths, they watered me frequently with prayer.
When I left home in my late teens, I rebelled against their careful tending; a quietly dark rebellion of mind and spirit that wormed its insidious way into my behavior. Undercover, covert. My parents, unaware, never stopped praying. Eventually, likely because of those prayers, I came down where I ought to be. Some prodigals, thank God, do.
Tangled webs haunt the soul of a prodigal’s parent. Questions and regrets. Sorrow and guilt. Unreasonable hope colliding with unspeakable fear. The remembered fragrance of baby skin and the sweet recall of days when night-time interruptions meant only a feeding and a diaper change. A soft lullaby, perhaps.
It’s tough, tending the soil of a prodigal’s life. And sometimes parents, weary of constant weeding and withering rejection, need parenting themselves. A hopeful word, a flesh-and-blood hug. I know this.
Parents of prodigals, you who feel so flawed and forsaken in comparison to some others, know this: the Divine Gardener of the soil of our lives is the perfect parent, but he, too has rebellious kids. Because he gave us each the terrible gift of free will. Terrible because it means we are free to choose wrong – and its eventual consequences; a gift, because we may also choose right.
Like my parents, forever watering me with prayer, God continually bends over the gardens of his children’s lives. Tending, weeding, pruning, praying. And tuning his ears to hear their faintest cry. Home, I’m going home. And when that happens, God, the great economist, the gardener of all souls, will see to it that nothing is wasted. Certainly not the tears. And never, ever, the prayers.