I don’t know how God does it. Every day He holds his hand open, allowing us to stay or go. Every minute He is in the process of letting us go, leaving us to choose a path towards him or away from him. The reality of this is sobering and convicting. And utterly amazing.
My oldest son has slept with a blanket and a small stuffed walrus nearly every night of his life. Tomorrow he turns 13 and as I tucked him in tonight, he announced that he won’t be sleeping with them anymore. While I understand his decision, it is a symptom of something much larger. He is growing up. He is moving consistently towards self-sufficiency and capability. And that move, unfortunately, is necessarily away from me. He is leaving a little and I have to let him go.
Letting go is so hard. It is, without exception, the hardest element of my job as a parent. Tonight, as I close another chapter, I am longing for the past and grieving the move forward. The thought of packing away a much loved blanket and a walrus leaves my heart heavy.
Of course the hope is that as I let my children go, they will, in some intangible way, remain tethered to me. That as they journey and experience life, their hearts will linger at home. I imagine that this is the hope and heaviness God wrestles with constantly. As he holds us in the palm of his hand, there is the persistent truth that we are free, at any moment, to walk or run away from him.
In Luke 15, Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son and the father in the story leaves my soul humbled and thankful. I imagine the father sitting in the kitchen when he sees his son in the doorway. As his son speaks and requests a blessing to leave, the father fights to maintain his composure, shell-shocked by what he’s hearing. What can the father say? To follow his heart would be to say no, to refuse his son the blessing. But to follow a greater love for his son would be to let him go in hopes that he would someday soon return. So, with an anguished heart, he lets him go.
Perhaps that night he leaves the porch light burning, hoping the son will come to his senses and return. He lies awake listening for the sound of his son, for the echo of a shoe on the gravel driveway, for the screech of the screen door. But nothing. Days go by, nothing. Weeks, nothing. Months, nothing.
I am convinced that the longer the son was away, the more urgent the father’s worry became. I wonder if there was ever a moment that the father wasn’t thinking of his son. How many times during those long months did the father rise in the middle of the night, go to the window and strain his eyes for the shadowy figure of his son? How many mornings did he wake up, pack a bag, and start down the road only to realize he couldn’t continue? How many hours did he spend wondering, waiting and wishing?
Then one day, the son comes home. I like to think it was one of the nights the father spent at the window. I imagine him, eyes searching the horizon until he sees a shadow. An animal? A man? Maybe a wandering traveler. But this figure looks familiar. There’s something about the walk – the way he swings his arms and length of his strides. The father rubs his eyes, anticipating the vision to leave, but it doesn’t. He steps onto the front porch and there is no longer any doubt. His son has returned.
The father runs through the darkness setting off a series of chaos and commotion in the neighborhood. Neighbors are peering out their windows, some standing on their porches. They watch their dignified neighbor sprint down the street still wearing his bedclothes. They are intrigued as he reaches his son with outstretched arms, nearly knocking him over with the weight of his emotion. They stare as he weeps. But the father is oblivious. He doesn’t notice the lights on around him, the open doors and windows, or the row of suspicious neighbors. He doesn’t see their puzzled expressions. He sees only one thing – his son.
Just like the son in the parable, we have the opportunity to leave. It is the blessing and curse of free will. We can leave when we choose. However, we can also return when we choose. That is perhaps the greatest and most glorious promise in the story of the prodigal son. Although God may let us go, he also remains steadfast in his waiting for our return. While we may wander off, he never does. He is always watching and waiting for our homecoming.
Letting go is painful. It is heart wrenching. But I am so grateful for the example God gives. As I let my children go a little bit more every day, I will take my cue from my heavenly Father. I will look to Luke 15 and the glorious depiction of a father who lets his child go with grace and welcomes him home with love. I will count on that example in the coming years. I will rely on it to give me the strength to hold my arms open. To hold them open each day, ready to release my children into their own futures, but equally ready to receive them back home.