Early in my history as a school head, when a student graduated from Grace who didn’t know the Lord, or who wasn’t showing signs of being open to Jesus, I would have considered that student a “mission failure.” I thought as a school we had somehow blown it, hadn’t said or done the right things, and that if we had just done something more or better, he or she would have responded positively to the gospel.
Back then, I had very little understanding of how this all works. Part of my lack of understanding rested in the fact that my own children were kindergartners or younger, and part was just a paucity of experience, of not having seen God’s hand at work. Now, as I look back on decades of watching students leave here, grow up, and have children of their own, I realize that in most cases God is just getting started when they walk out of here. What we, their parents, and their church are doing is “laying kindling” at their feet, waiting for the Holy Spirit to light it afire. And, that can take years.
I’ve always had a heart for that late bloomer, the straggler. In both Matthew 18 and Luke 15, Jesus tells a parable about a shepherd who has a hundred sheep. He loses one, and he frantically leaves the other 99 behind to find the one he’s left behind:
What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
In God’s economy, it doesn’t really matter that He has most, or almost all, of us. Every single one is important. And, so, He doggedly pursues that one who goes astray, won’t rest until He finds him and brings him home. When he finds him, He rejoices as much as He did for the other 99. That’s the passionate, prodigal, loving heart of a dad, of our God.
I remember one time at Disneyworld when my oldest was about five years old. We were in the packed crowd leaving the Magic Kingdom at the end of the day, and I remember for a few minutes, we lost her (it felt like an hour). My heart pounded in my chest; my breath came shallow as I thought of her, confused and scared and not knowing where we were, my imagination running wild thinking about someone taking her. Those were some of the most horrific moments of my life, replaced by relief, tears, and rejoicing when we found her. I remember that time, how that felt, when I think of our shepherd-Father, chasing after His lost ones.
John Stott, the late British pastor, wrote in his biography of faith, Why I Am a Christian, that he came to know the Lord because the “hound of heaven” relentlessly pursued him. He echoes a poem by 19th century British poet Francis Thompson, an opium addict who, despite his struggles, was a follower of Jesus. The hound followed, and eventually caught, Thompson, “with unhurrying chase, and unperturbed pace, deliberate speed, majestic instancy, they beat––and a Voice beat––more instant than the feet––‘all things betrayest thee, who betrayest Me.’”
I love that the heart of God is this way–relentless, passionate, constantly pursuing, persevering, leaving all behind to get back the one He’s lost. Over the years, and for whatever reason, God has also given me that heart for my “straying” kids from Grace.
I love them all; I’m so proud of the ones who know Jesus when they’re eight. I have one now, a senior who thinks he wants to be a pastor, and I love it. I pray for “boring testimonies” for my own children––you know, saved at seven, loved Jesus all my life, always secure in who He is and who I am in Him––who wouldn’t want that for their kids? Yet for whatever reason, God has given me a particular heart for the rascal; for the charmer, thinking he has everyone fooled but only fooling himself; for the super-smart kid, the one who has all the answers but hasn’t yet lived the really hard questions. I love these kids.
There’s a really good reason some of them are jaded and turned away; those they’ve loved and looked up to, those who have claimed to know Jesus, have lived like knowing Him and following Him, doing what Jesus does and saying what He says, are two completely different things. But, most of them have no such reasons––they have amazing moms and dads who love Jesus and who gave them a rich legacy of faith. Yet, for reasons known only to the Lord and pretty much no one else, these kids have turned away. Over the years, they’ve taught me a lesson I knew in my head as a young parent, but now know deep in my bones: that parenting is not a vending machine, where you put in the right combination of coins, push the correct buttons, and get what you ordered. Kids are messed up, little broken versions of us. And, like us, in need of redemption: sometimes finding it now, sometimes later.
For my friends who are parents of these late bloomers, what Brennan Manning called “ragamuffins”, I often encourage them with the story of Monica and Gus. Monica was married to a nonbelieving, licentious husband, but a devout follower of Jesus herself. She desperately wanted her son Gus to be a believer, too, but, instead, he became a degenerate. He drank like crazy, slept with all kinds of women, even followed a cult, all well into adulthood. Got engaged to an eleven-year-old, then broke it off. A real prize guy. Still, through it all, Monica prayed, and wept, and chased after Gus, and continued to pursue him, even after he lied to her, ran from her, and wanted nothing to do with her.
One day, at 31 years old, Gus was sitting in a garden with some friends, when he heard a child’s voice say, “take up and read.” He picked up a nearby copy of Romans 13, read of the authority of God, and surrendered to the authority of Christ, becoming a Christian. Gus is better known as Augustine of Hippo, one of the three greatest theologians in Church history, whose Confessions have encouraged believers and nonbelievers alike for almost 2,000 years. His mother, Saint Monica, for whom Santa Monica, California is named, became revered in the Church, a picture of patience and perseverance.
One of my kids may be the next Augustine one of these days. So, along with their own Santa Monicas, I pray for them almost every morning in my leather quiet time chair.
Some of them don’t really want to have anything to do with me right now, and that’s okay. I’ll still reach out to them, and I’ll be waiting if they want to talk. Some want to let me have it, as a representative of the school, for the things we taught them that were wrong, or that we didn’t teach them that they now believe to be true, or how someone hurt them. I listen, seek forgiveness when and if necessary, but always make sure they know they were loved then, and they are still. I want them to know this is a safe place for them if they want to keep talking.
Sometimes they do. Over the years, I’ve built friendships. It’s funny how I was a seemingly-distant authority figure to many of them in school, yet time and life has given perspective and space for me to become a counselor, a mentor, a friend. Some relationships have been fleeting, some long-lasting. Sooner or later, whether by the hound of heaven running them down through me or another who loves them, so many come to rediscover that the Lord of their youth was the lover of their soul all along, all this time searching, searching, searching…
And, they stop running. And rest. And breathe deeply. And all Heaven rejoices.