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The prodigal father

By Gary Deskins

I was surprised to see him the Sunday morning he cautiously walked through our church doors for the first time. I knew he had been far, far away from God for most of his 67 years of living.

But as I spoke that day, I couldn’t help but notice how attentive he was to God’s Word. He sang spiritual songs and joyfully clapped his hands alongside other worshipers. As people prayed, he bowed his head, too. Perhaps, I reasoned, this senior prodigal was on his way back home to the Father’s house.

He grew up with a hard-drinking father and a soft-praying mother in the tiny town of Lebam, Wash. When he spoke of his mother, he fondly described a dear woman who gently taught him the ways of God and demonstrated her spiritual devotion with unsung deeds. He cited several examples of her Christian faith in action, but one especially stood out.

Early on chilly Sunday mornings, she trudged down the same well-worn path leading to her beloved church. Her weekly sunrise task was to load a pot-bellied stove with firewood so parishioners coming in from the cold would find a warm church waiting for them.

He told me that the spiritual heritage left behind by his godly mother was never forgotten, merely forsaken. Possibly, he had given the God of his mother the pink slip when he entered the Air Force.

After serving his country faithfully for 20 years, he moved back to a community near where he grew up. He continued to work and live his life as the proverbial good neighbor. At times, alcohol got the best of him, but he was never a mean drunk or an irresponsible husband or dad. Perhaps the plight of his children softened him spiritually. Their divorces, battles with alcohol and drugs as well their bouts with depression left him feeling like a failure.

During our initial conversations, I sensed that the door he had slammed shut on God decades earlier was now open, if but a crack.

For several months, this senior attended my Sunday school class, armed with a Bible in his hands and sincere questions in his head. “What does the Bible say about …?” and “Where can I find that in the Bible?” became routine each week. Other class members commended him for his candid honesty and earnest pursuit.

His spiritual hunger grew sharper as evidenced by his frequent visits to my office to borrow books from my library. “I need some more books,” he would say as he turned in the batch I had previously loaned him. Theology, church history — you name it — he devoured every book I placed in his hands.

I answered his many questions. Years of pastoring and graduate studies helped me discuss anything from anthropology to eschatology.

But I fumbled for words one morning when he asked me matter-of-factly, “When can I be baptized?”

I explained the significance of water baptism and the need to identify with Christ. “I’ve done that,” he told me with a sheepish grin. “I’m doing my best to follow Christ.”

That’s all I needed to hear. His heart was right again with God. A water baptismal service was set. Honoring his request would be a sacred privilege.

The entire church sanctuary was filled to capacity the morning I waded into our baptismal tank to begin the service. One by one, each individual stepped into the baptismal waters to publicly share their faith in Christ. I baptized several children and a couple of middle-aged adults. The joyful sound of congregational applause greeted each person as they sprang forth from the lukewarm water.

Finally, the person I had saved for last — my senior friend — joined me in the waist-deep water. Dressed in slacks and a simple white shirt, I could see the nervousness in his eyes. My suddenly dry mouth was evidence that the magnitude of the moment had a hold on both of us.

I felt myself holding back the tears as I slung my arm around his shoulder. When his wet eyes met mine, I found it impossible to speak for several moments. After gaining my composure, I spoke words that brought forth a rowdy cheer from the congregation that had been weeping right along with us.

Fourteen years of challenging pastoral ministry suddenly was worth it all as I looked at this senior by my side and said, “Dad, I’m so proud of you today.

“When Jesus was baptized in the Bible His Father spoke from heaven saying, ‘You are my beloved Son. With you I’m well pleased.’ Dad, I feel the same way about you. You are my father. And today I want to tell you as your son, I am well pleased!”

I put my right arm firmly around Dad’s waist and immersed him into the baptismal waters. Six years later, I still get goose bumps when I rehearse that moment in my mind.

After baptizing Dad, I presented him with a new Bible. On the flyleaf, I reminded him of how God had brought his spiritual pilgrimage full-circle:

Dad,

I am truly thankful that I have the privilege to present this Bible to you. My prayer for you is motivated by what Paul writes in 2 Timothy 4:7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” My prayer is for you to keep running the Christian race. My prayer is that you finish well. Many years ago, your mother handed you the baton of faith. Somehow, you lost that baton, so God graciously handed the baton to me, your son. Now your son has been given the glorious opportunity by God to hand the baton back to you. Now that you have it in your hands, don’t drop it! Remember, keep running. And remember, your mother is cheering you on from heaven’s grandstands. She is proud of you. And so is your son.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. And to every father who reads these words and takes them to heart, Happy Father’s Day to you, too.


Gary Deskins lives in Toledo, Wash.

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