Prodigal. A label that is slapped on those who grew up in church, know the Bible, and yet for reasons “unknown” to those around them they choose to embrace the ideas, ways and lifestyle that is contrary to the doctrine and beliefs they were raised in. I’ve been asked on many occasions how a parent should respond to their prodigal. Well, I honestly don’t know. We’ve been blessed with great kids who love the Lord and haven’t rebelled. So I’m not sure what advice to dole out. What I do know is that I have zero problem asking candid questions and I won’t beat around the bush. If I need answers to something that I don’t know, I will find someone who does and I will ask. Which brings me to this months Stunningly Strong Woman, Michelle. Her prodigal story was 20 years in the making. These past nine months she’s been “unbecoming” that label and lifestyle. She’s the first to tell you that she’s still struggling and that she is continuing to walk down the path towards the Heavenly Father. To this I say GOOD. I’m not here to write and publish completed and perfected stories. After all, what good is Stunningly Strong if you only see the polished parts of all the women’s lives I share? Parents, friends, relatives, acquaintances, listen up. If you’re facing a situation where a loved one is a prodigal then you need to read Michelle’s story because the person who was once lost can tell you way better than I can on how to reach out to those who aren’t living like they should.
Here’s her Story
I was raised in the church and when I say that, I mean I literally grew up in church. My dad was very militant in his ways and my mom? Well she’s my mom and will always be emotional. At our house what they said, especially my dad, was how things went. You didn’t question it, you didn’t ask why, you just did it and if you didn’t like it, too bad. It was a very strict, controlling environment with God at the “center” of it all. And because my parents were so involved in church and church leadership, often times, they would pawn me and my brother off on others so they could “minister.” I do believe that in their minds, they did the best they knew to do in the only way they knew to do it.
Middle School, High School:
Our church had Christian school that I attended from 8th grade until I graduated in 1996. My mom was a nurse but my dad worked at our church; which meant there was no “escaping” the watchful eye of my parents. If I messed up, I think my dad knew about it before I did. My life growing up was go to a Christian school, get out of school and stay at the church until my dad left to go home, go to church on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights and Wednesday nights. My parents volunteered me and my brother for EVERYTHING and we hated it. We would have to clean the church sign, clean the sanctuary, help pull weeds in the flowerbeds, vacuum the hallways, clean the bathrooms, basically anything that needed to be done if we could do it, then we had to do it.
When my brother and I became teenagers mom and dad got extremely involved in the youth program, mom as the youth choir director and dad as a youth leader. Looking back, I really don’t think they did that for control reasons, I do believe they wanted to be around us and be in our element so they could relate to us and understand our generation. But again, they always knew what we were doing and if we did anything wrong, even if it was something so small like passing notes in service we got into so much trouble.
The Path to Prodigal: College
When I graduated high school I chose to stay home and attend Capital University so I could major in psychology. I have always been a very strong willed person, which meant that at the age of 18 I thought to myself, “I’m an adult, I can have some freedom and start to do other things. Things like sit with my friends at church and wear pants on Sunday.” My dad, with his militant type leadership told me that if I was going to be under his roof then I was going to live by his rules.
That meant that if I wanted to drive my car, I had to be at the church anytime the doors were open, I still had to sit with my parents during services, wear dresses on Sunday and participate in youth the youth ministry even though I was in college and I really didn’t want to be a youth leader. They took church and made it a thing of CONTROL. If I didn’t “Do” church then I didn’t get to drive my car and I certainly wasn’t going to be allowed to stay home.
My reprieve was attending Capital University. My parents didn’t work at the campus, they couldn’t see or hear what I was doing. When I first started college I thought I was seeing “freedom” for the first time. Mom and dad’s strict control over my life made that so called “freedom” look incredibly appealing. I began meeting people outside my little, controlled, church bubble that I had been raised in. I was getting invited to parties, I felt popular, football players started talking to me, and that’s really where things changed. I became really good at living a double life.
One night I met a guy, we began dating off and on and our relationship lasted for seven years. He introduced me to this whole world of clubs and dancing, drinking, sex and even weed. My parents, for obvious reasons, did not like him at all so they tried to control that relationship by taking away my car, which didn’t matter because I just ended up taking the bus everywhere.
The Path to Prodigal: Not My Religion
The irony of my lifestyle is that some of the people I was partying with where from my Christian school and had been raised the same way as me. I know that to everyone else who was still in church, we looked like complete backslidden, fall off the wagon, lost our mind, sinners. And in a way we were. I’m not arguing with that. We were prodigals. But the constant judgment and condemnation from the church is what kept us away from the one place we really needed to be. I came to a place where I just said to myself, “This is my parents religion and I don’t want anything to do with it.” Years and years later, while I was still living as a prodigal, my mom wrote a letter to a family member and chastised them for being gay. When I asked her why she did that her response was that God placed it on her heart. I just looked at her and told her that I failed to believe that the God of the Universe who sent his Son to die on the cross for man’s sins, told her to chastise someone. I told her that believe God is love and regardless of what someone else is going through God will love them no matter what and we are supposed to love them as well. Her excuse was that because they were living in sin, she needed to call them out and I just told her she was a hypocrite. That thinking, that feeling of not being worthy and the judgment was the main reason I stayed gone for so long. Like I said, I didn’t want my parent’s religion.
The Path to Prodigal: Pregnancy
When I was twenty-one, I casually hooked up with a guy a couple of times (it was during a time that I was OFF with “my on and off” boyfriend of seven years) and I ended up getting pregnant with my daughter. I was shocked and in denial and didn’t know what to do or how to tell my parents. One of the biggest reasons I struggled with telling them was because I had aunts who had kids out of wedlock. My parents would always tell me “You will not be like that you will not act like that, you will get married then have children.”
When I was six months pregnant, my parents STILL had no idea the secret I was hiding from them. I was still living at home, but they didn’t pay attention, they just thought that I had gained back the 30 pounds I had lost after high school. I was under mom’s insurance and going to the OBGYN, so I don’t even know how she didn’t see the bills coming in. It was crazy how oblivious they were.
When I was at the end of 7 months I knew I had to tell them what was going on, so I wrote them a really long letter and sat it in my mom’s car before I left for work and then I didn’t come home until that night. I was certain they were going to kick me out, and I feared the disappointment and anger they would have towards me and I just didn’t want to face them right away. When I finally walked through the door, actually thinking I could sneak into the house, they were sitting there waiting on me, and I thought “This is it, I’m out of here and they truly hate me now.” Because I had written the letter and they had the whole day to process it, I think the initial shock, anger and disappointment had worn off. They gave me a blanket and onesie as a gift and as a way to say “we’re here for you.”
My dad is not emotional at all and I had never seen him cry; until he looked at me and said: “I’m sorry if I failed you and I wasn’t a good dad to you. I’m going to try to do better. I’m just sorry you couldn’t come to me and that I created this thing between us where you couldn’t come to me.” He humbled himself and opened himself up and that moment changed the way I looked at him and it helped our relationship tremendously.
My mom and dad knew they had to let the reigns go a little bit and loosen up, after all I was about to be a mother, I was an adult and they couldn’t control me like they did when I was younger. We sat down and talked and came up with a plan. They told me I could stay at home, they encouraged me to keep going to school while I was pregnant and they told me they would help take care of the baby while I finished out my degree. A couple of months later I had my beautiful daughter; I was in class the day before I had the baby and was back in class the week after I had her, my professor thought I was crazy
The Path to Prodigal: Single Parenthood
When I left the hospital I went back to my parents house to live. The first six months things seemed okay, but then, the control started to creep back in. They began to dictate how I should raise my daughter, and they continued to use the house and the car as a means of control. They implied that if I didn’t live the way they wanted me to live, they would take my daughter because they could raise her better than I could. It was hard. The support wasn’t there like I thought it would be. Being a new mother and trying to do school was so hard, but I was really blessed because I also had a great job so when it got to the point that I couldn’t take their control anymore, I moved out. They left for vacation I went out, got an apartment, packed up my daughter and I and we moved.
Not long after I moved into my own place, my cousin Tia moved in with me. When I was pregnant I had cleaned up my act and stopped partying and even continued to stay on track for a while after my daughter was born. But when I got my own place I began to party again. Tia, she would watch the baby while I went out, she would even watch my friends daughter so we could both go out together. I would come home and she would be cuddled up with my daughter in her bed. She was the absolute best. She never said anything to me or judged me. I do know she prayed for me; she didn’t yell at me, or preach at me or tell me to get myself together, she didn’t even complain, she was humble and kind and she loved me.
Path to Prodigal: Pregnancy #2
There I was, out partying again, and sleeping with the guy that I was off on with for seven years and I ended up getting pregnant again. So, I’m Twenty-five years old, two kids by two different men, and a complete disappointment to my parents. Not only that, but neither one of my kids’ dads assumed responsibility for their children. I thought that MAYBE, because we had been together for a long time, that MAYBE my son’s dad would step in but he didn’t. I knew that after I had my son, I needed to buckle down and get it together. I had another extra person that I had to take care of and no help.
Path to Prodigal: Feelings of Failure
Going through my second pregnancy, I really felt like mom and dad tried to make me feel like a bad person. After all, they had been married for over 40 years, and love each other like teenagers in love. I just felt like I was big disappointment to them and like I couldn’t do anything right. I knew I was an embarrassment to them because of how I had been raised in church and they were still in church leadership; I think they felt like people judged them because of me. So again, the judgment kept me away from church. In order to make myself feel better I went to school and got my Bachelors and Masters degrees. And while they praised me for those accomplishments, I still felt like I wasn’t worthy.
Path to Prodigal: Relationships
About three years ago I was dating someone and we moved in together. As a single mom you worry that someone will love you, but you worry more that they will love your kids as much as you do. Sometimes you are even wiling to stay with a person if they treat your kids better than they treat you. You honestly don’t care if they are bad to you. My live in boyfriend was verbally abusive to me, but I was willing to deal with it because he was so good to my kids. Of course, my parents pointed out that I was doing everything backwards, as far as having kids out of wedlock and living with someone when I wasn’t married so they tried to do an intervention. Because my children come first in everything in my life, my mom and dad have always used my kids as a way to try to manipulate me to think like them and to do what they want. The intervention or conversation whatever you want to call it was not pretty. It pretty much went like this:
“This is not the way to go. You need to think about your kids first. This guy is not for your and he is not who God wants you to be with.” I was so mad, and I asked them “When are you going to stop?? I’m 37 years old and you can not control me.” I’m sure my parent’s prayed really hard because after that conversation I found out he was cheating on me and we broke up and he moved out.
Path to Prodigal: Relationship with God
My parents used God and the church as a means of discipline rather than a place of mercy and grace. Parents often times don’t realize how their control can affect your relationship with God. What they model is what you associate with the Heavenly Father. I know my mom and dad didn’t recognize the how they affected my relationship with God. In my mind it was so much easier to not be a Christian. I’ve never been one to sit on the fence, so I’m all in or I’m all out. And I was all out. Finding out that my live in boyfriend was cheating on me was a huge pivot point in my life. I just thought to myself what am I doing?
The Road Home
About nine months ago I was in my car on the way to work and I was listening to a minister who is married to an actress talking about how he and his wife had both struggled in relationships before they met. When they started dating they decided they would remain abstinent until marriage because not only did they want a physical relationship with each other they also wanted a spiritual relationship with each other. He went on to say that when you sleep with someone you take on their spirit and it makes it incredibly hard to break those soul ties. That spoke worlds to me. I started having sex when I was 18 and I struggled with it up until two years ago. I listened to what he was saying and I was going to stay abstinent until I meet my future husband. Over the last 9 months that decision has changed my life. It’s been hard a progress, I’ve reevaluated my relationships, I’ve cut people off that where toxic, I changed my number, my whole thought process is different. Just fifteen days ago I started a blog, lovelifewithjoymichelle.com it’s been a struggle because I’m a very private person, but I felt like I needed write, not just for my personal growth but to help others as well. This whole process, the blog, staying abstinent has been a big eye opener for me and it’s brought me back into personal walk with the Lord. I’m only 9 months into it and it’s taken over 20 years to get to this point.
A Different Approach:
Going through what I have gone through I have approached parenthood in a totally different manner. If my kids ask me questions like “what would you do if I was gay? Or if I got pregnant?” The first words out of my mouth are “I would love you and I wouldn’t do anything differently. I may not agree but you are still my child and I’m not going to treat you any differently. I’ll love you and pray that you will change, but even if you don’t change I’ll still be here loving you.” I think if my parents had just loved me through the small things, through the little mess-ups, and not made them such a big deal it would have changed my entire walk with the Lord. As a parent I decided to have a relationship with my kids and love them no matter what. I make it known that my kids are the number one priority in my life.
In the Midst of the Mess:
I want to share the story for anyone out there that is praying for a prodigal child. One day as I was walking out of Children’s Hospital I saw a girl that was crying. I could hear her on the phone and it was obvious she was going through a really difficult time and no one was there for her. As I approached her I felt the Lord tell me that I should let her know that everything would be all right. I just thought, “You’re crazy Michelle. You aren’t even living for the Lord right now. Why would He want you to say ANYTHING on His behalf to anyone??” I tried to blow it off but the closer I got the pull to say something to her became stronger, and even though I tried to ignore her and just walk on by, I couldn’t. I stopped, looked at her and said, “It’s going to be alright. God wants me to tell you its gonna be okay.” She just looked at me in shock and I said “I’ve been exactly where you are right now; feeling like you have no one, but that’s not true. Can I hug you and pray with you?” And I did just that. It was so crazy, how even in the midst of my mess God wanted to use me. That moment let me know that my Heavenly Father hadn’t written me off, that He still had His eye on me and that He still found value in who I was because He could see past the junk to what was really there.
Parents of Prodigals, This is what I want to say to you:
Even though we may not be walking with God the way you want us to or the way you think we should, He still watches over us, He still loves us and cares for us and He still has His eye on us and His hand on our shoulder and He will still use us, just like He used me in the middle of my mess. Love us THROUGH this time and don’t use church or God as way of discipline or scorn. Please don’t look at us as an embarrassment to you or your walk with the Lord. The first place we need to feel welcomed and valued is home and the second place is the church. If you present a home full of love and church full of grace we will come back. It may not be in your timing but we will return. You can love us without condoning our lifestyle in the same way the Holy Spirit will convict us without condemning us.
My Stunningly Strong Story So Far:
I’m a work in progress. I’m starting new and although I haven’t been faithful to HIM, He has ALWAYS been faithful to me. Even though I may have failed my parents and myself He reassures me that he is proud of that and me he loves me unconditionally.