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DORA, Ala. (BP)--"Michael Jones was one of the sweetest kids I ever had the pleasure of having in one of my Bible classes," Mac remembers. "He was the first eighth grader to volunteer to teach an adult men's class on youth day when the church's teens took on the roles of the adult leaders. Today, some 15 years later, whenever Michael's name comes up, men from that classroom still comment on what a good job he did."
"He was prepared and enthusiastic," Roy recalls. "He had a gift for teaching. Most grown men couldn't have done any better."
Michael had made a profession of faith and been baptized at the age of 10. His parents were active members of the church. His dad served as a deacon, his mom taught college/career classes, and the Jones' home was known for its open door for after-church gatherings and weekend fellowship.
Brad, one of Michael's closest friends at church and school, remembers: "Michael's parents were the ones we kids could talk to. They listened and didn't judge you. And no matter what you told them, you knew it wasn't going any farther."
Mac developed a special bond with that year's class and each year moved up as their teacher when they advanced into the ninth grade class and even through their senior year in high school. During that time, Mac watched Michael becoming a different person:
"I'm not saying he ever got into any sort of trouble. If he did, I never heard of it. But he stopped bringing his Bible. Stopped participating in the discussions. I mean, he was there, but he wasn't there. I tried to talk to him, get him to open up. But he just wouldn't."
By early adulthood, Michael was married, operating a successful business, and living a life that didn't include his church or his parents. What had happened?
Janet, Michael's mom, has no explanation. "We never nagged him about not coming to church. There was no argument, nothing that we can point to and say, 'That was when it all started.' It simply got harder and harder to get Michael to stay in touch. Finally, he stopped answering or returning our phone calls. We've tried everything, but he won't communicate, and his wife is following suit. And now we have a granddaughter we've never even met."
Lonnie, Michael's dad, adds more: "We've even had friends say, 'I know there's more to this than you're telling us. Michael wouldn't do this unless there was a reason.' If there is one, Janet and I would both love to know it."
For many Christian parents, this story is all too familiar. For others, their prodigals wandered off not only from their family and faith, but into drugs, alcohol, crime and other heartbreaking situations. Whatever path was taken, loving parents who, albeit imperfectly, did their very best to teach their faith to their children have been intentionally cut from their children's lives, and the pain is a constant companion.
"Where did we go wrong?" Even the best parents look for an explanation in their own failures. They say, "If I'd only ..." and "If I just hadn't...." On and on they examine their parenting record, looking for that moment, that mistake that flipped the switch on their relationship.
As the parent of a prodigal, I can truly understand what some parents are going through. And having spoken in countless churches, I've met scores of moms and dads who feel that they failed as parents.
While Satan would have every father or mother of a prodigal believe he or she is the only one dealing with this kind of problem, the sad truth is that churches are full of hurting parents who think no one else could possibly relate to what they're enduring.
Why? Because guilt -- one of the biggest tricks in the devil's arsenal -- embarrasses those heartbroken parents into silence. They believe that anyone who found out about their prodigal would immediately assume that, had they done a better job of parenting, their child would never have turned against them or against God.
Yet I could point you to any number of wonderful Christian parents who have seen their children grow into rebellious total strangers. The big question is: What are we doing to comfort and encourage these people? II Corinthians 1:4 says that "He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God."
God has called us to help one another. Urge your church to open communication between the parents of prodigals. Use the pulpit to address the issue and assuage undeserved guilt. So often parents of prodigals sit through sermons -- with Mother's Day and Father's Day usually being the worst -- hearing only the admonitions and none of the condolences that remind them that they are not to blame for their adult children's wrong choices.
Suggest beginning a support group and see what sort of response you get. And stock your library with good materials like Phil Waldrep's "Parenting Prodigals," Gregg and Margie M. Lewis's "The Hurting Parent: Help and Hope for the Parents of Prodigals," and Ruth Bell Graham's "Prodigals and Those Who Love Them."
Judy Woodward Bates is an author, speaker and TV personality. Visit her website at www.Bargainomics.com.