Michael Jordan and the Prodigal Son and Me.
I met Michael Jordan one summer while he was golfing at a country club in Pinehurst, North Carolina. My uncle and his family lived on the golf course and I was spending a few weeks there before I started the seventh grade.
When word spread that Jordan and a gang of other important people in the clubhouse that morning we all went down to get a closer look. This was before Jordan became human. Before the gambling and his father’s murder and the failed baseball experiment and the infidelity. Jordan was a God at the time and I had a Nike swoosh mark shaved into the back of my head to prove it. I told everyone in Pinehurst that summer that I had my haircut that way as a tribute to a friend in Boston that had been shot and killed for a pair of Air Jordans.
I’m not sure why I lied like that. In the ninth grade after I shaved stripes in my left eyebrow (insert your own Vanilla Ice joke here) I told everyone I knew that my neighbor Kerri Kapapolous had done it while I was asleep. She yelled at me in front of my whole world in the cafeteria during lunch. For at least a week I spent my lunchbreak in the school library pretending to read the paper because when it was unfolded and held upright in your hands it offered a pretty good hiding place.
Maybe I’m like Samson, razors bring out the worst in me, but Michael Jordan didn’t know any of that. Neither did Dean Smith or Dr. J, who were with him.
They all signed the back of the shirt as well as a couple of random rich looking white guys. If I ever become a random rich guy and I’m having dinner with Lebron James and some awkward eighth grader comes to the table and asks me for my autograph cause he assumes I’m famous too I hope I’d say “You don’t want my autograph kid, I’m just a random rich guy.”
Later that day with the autographed shirt safely tucked in a drawer I went back down to the clubhouse. It had been 3 or 4 hours and I wanted to see if I could get Jordan’s autograph on a piece of paper to frame.
The party had already finished golfing and all the fans had gone home. I saw Jordan walking to his car in the parking lot. I ran out after him and said “excuse me Mr. Jordan, can I please have your autograph?”
He stopped in his tracks and turned, a golf bag resting high on shoulders that towered over me. With a look that froze opponents across the planet he said “didn’t I already sign you kid?”
Life is Limited
In the real world, in parking lots in Pinehurst, North Carolina, life is limited. Your hero turns to you and tells you that he’s not going to give you another autograph. Your hero tells you he remembers you and that you’re not getting a second signature, the only thing you want that day. That stupid summer, with a lopsided swoosh mark growing back in the back of your head and a mouth full of lies.
Sometimes I think God is like that. Bothered by me, tired of my requests for his time, even if it’s just 3 seconds for him to sign off on some prayer I’m saying or need I’m sure I can’t live without.
He’s on his way somewhere important after a round of golf with Moses and Elijah or Elisha whichever one plays. I’m chasing him down in the parking lot. He turns with his big God golf clubs and he looks down at me. And he says in that massive voice of his “Didn’t I already forgive you kid?”
Forgiveness is the thing I ask for the most. In my head maybe I know that God’s forgiveness is eternal and inexhaustible but in my heart I feel like he’s going to run out of them. That he’s got a limited supply. And I’m burning them up, one by one, sin by sin.
The Day After the Party
I’ve read the story about the prodigal son more than anything else in the Bible. If you’ve messed up life like I have it’s a pretty good read. I think when you get arrested they should read you that to you right after your Miranda rights. Imagine you’re in the car handcuffed and the cop in the passenger seat is just up there with the NIV version. I think that’d be a nice way to take a little sting out of going to jail.
Part of the reason I’ve read that story so many times though is that I think there’s something missing from it. I feel like there’s some verse or passage that I might have skipped that makes the whole thing make sense. It seems too good to be true. The prodigal son takes his inheritance, blows it on fast living, ends up in a pig pen and then gets a party thrown for him when he returns home. I’ve always wondered what the day after the party was like:
The first rays of sunshine crept across the floor and landed on a pile of party favors being swept up by a servant. A welcome home banner was being taken down and across the house the sounds of morning reverberated.
In his old bedroom, the prodigal son rolls over and slowly opens his eyes. He’d dreamt it so often, dreamed of this place so often he didn’t believe it was real. Those nights in the dark, curled under a bush or beside the barn when his money was gone and his hope with it, he’d wondered if he’d ever know safety again. He sat up, surprised to find himself there, laughing at the memories of the night before. The feast, the party, the ridiculousness of it all. His family that celebrated his return as if his absence had only increased their love for him, amplified it. There was a knock on the door. He had a door again, that was something he had missed.
The head of a servant peered in:
“Sir, your father is waiting for you in the kitchen.” This servant didn’t go to seminary either and didn’t seem that concerned that in Biblical times “kitchen” was definitely the wrong word to use.
With a yawn and a scratch of his head the prodigal son got up. He put on his clothes and made his way to the kitchen. There at a small table sat his father.
“Sit down son.” He said, motioning to a chair across from him.
“Thank you for the party father. I never expected that and …”
“Son, we need to go over the list.” His father said, interrupting him.
“Yes” he replied, touching a large pile of blank paper with his hand. “We need to make a list of all the money you spent, all the mistakes you made and all the people you hurt. Then we need to figure out how you start repaying your debt.”
“I had a plan father. I had plan when I was walking home but when I saw you running I didn’t think I’d need it. At the party I forget what my plan was.” The son said, with a voice of shame and sorrow that had taken but a brief hiatus during the previous night’s celebration.
“Well, you’ve got the rest of your life for it to come back to you.” The father said taking out a pen and writing “family inheritance” at the top of the list.
I would say that most of my life this is how I would have written the second part of that story, the directors cut if you will, an alternative ending that was too harsh for the version they released in the Bible.
The father’s anxious sprint toward the lost son doesn’t make any sense. That’s not how life works. People pay for their mistakes. They don’t get a party for them. When you return home from wasting your inheritance on the world your father says “didn’t I already bless you kid?” End of story.
I don’t understand forgiveness and it’s always depressing to me when I read a book that tells me that’s the first step of the Christian walk, believing that God forgives you. If I can’t get past that first step than the rest of it, all the rest of it remains completely closed to me.
It’s not that I think I don’t need forgiveness. I just don’t understand how it’s possible. If I can’t earn it, than it’s out of my control and I’m powerless.
I remember the first time I ever knew how outrageous and insane real forgiveness was. I had gotten myself into some serious trouble at work. The kind of trouble that’s so big and ugly it makes you ashamed that there are people in your life close enough to you to get some of the trouble spilled on them. I wanted to push everyone away, to expel people from the planetary system that was me and just go float somewhere and die.
I called my wife on the phone and told her as much.
“I’m sorry you met me.” I said through angry, frightened tears. I was desperate for her to go, to pull away from me so I could inflict pain on only one person. The person I felt deserved it the most. Me.
“I love you.” She yelled through the phone.
“How can you say that? That doesn’t make any sense.” I responded.
“You don’t get to decide who I love. I love you. That’s my decision. You can’t take that away from me. I love you. I choose to love you.” She repeated words like these over and over again. She attacked me with love that day. And forgiveness I didn’t deserve. Forgiveness I couldn’t earn or make sense of.
I was overwhelmed that day. And I think that was such a thin sliver of what God’s forgiveness is like, how big and nonsensical is love is. I heard a minister once say that his forgiveness, God’s grace is given wastefully. He pours it out on us in such abundance that it’s almost wasteful.
The tenth party
I have to confess that most days I still think there’s a list God will ask me to work through the day after he throws me that welcome home party. I have a hard time understanding how something can be true and illogical at the same time. And so much of God is that way.
But some days, when I least expect it, in ways I can’t control, I believe a different day after for the prodigal son.
The first rays of sunshine creep across a dusty road and grate against the eyelids of the prodigal son trying to sleep uncomfortably on a bed of gravel. His teeth felt dirty, his mouth and hands stained with the red of cheap wine. A long scratch ran across his cheek, a shoe was angled beneath his head for a pillow. How many times did this make he thought from the part inside him that still remembered returning home. He was doing so well, things were so happy but his never agains always seemed to fail him in the end. How long would he be gone this time?
Miles away, an anxious father stands by the front window of his house.
“Sir, I checked his bedroom and the barn. His things are missing. He’s left.”
“I know.” The father says with sad eyes.
And then with slow steps he walks to a large closet and motions to the servant.
“Help me with this Welcome Home Banner.” He said pulling one from a pile of a thousand.
“Today could be the day he returns.”
(I wrote this about a year ago and took it down off my blog but a few folks asked for it to return. So despite it being really long, I put it back up.)