I am the Prodigal Son

This is the third article in our series, “Here I am. Send me!” We learn in Isaiah 6 that only after the prophet is totally convicted of his own sin and failures, met by God’s perfect love and might, can he go forth as a true servant. This is nothing new to us in ministry. We see daily how the Lord has used our past trials, our insufferable weakness, to allow His strength to shine forth in our work. In this series, we’ve asked a few courageous souls to tell us how their particular hardships have prepared them perfectly as servants of the Lord. Read the second article here.

I grew up in a dysfunctional home, to say the least. Though my mother gave her life to Christ while I was still under the age of ten, it meant nothing to me at the time. The only thing I noticed was that we now went to a strange place on Sunday mornings, when I used to watch cartoons and play outside, and had people say odd things to me while I sat on an uncomfortable bench for an hour. 

Outside of that, life was the same at home: yelling, screaming, fighting, and abuse only avoided by countless hours spent outside with my brother.

This way of life bred problems internally. I was angry, bitter, confused, and desperate to know what love was: love from a father, love from a woman, and love from friends. The only frame of reference I had was being called derogatory names and occasionally hit by my father, sensing how much of a nuisance my very existence seemed to be to my mother, and recognizing how much less appreciated I was than my older brother.

Naturally, in an effort to find the love I so desperately desired, I was the poster child for rebellious activity. It wasn’t sudden. It crept in slowly. First, fighting neighborhood kids at my brother’s request in hopes to disprove the many names he and my father had called me over the years. Meanwhile, seeking to know what it was like to be loved and desired by a woman through a series of misguided relationships that began as early as first grade. 

Those fledgling activities led to more complex activities over the years. From fighting those neighborhood kids, to even more brutal violence and wicked actions against others. From misguided relationships, to flat-out mentally abusive and sexually degrading treatment of women. All the while I felt nothing but emptiness.

When out of high school, I latched onto any father figure I could in hopes they would appreciate me and take me under their wing. They sure did. One man had interest in me on an unnatural level. Another man used me to fill his bank account.  

I tried to be the tough man. I tried to be the rich man. I tried to be the ladies’ man. I tried to be the party man. I tried it all and came up empty.

It turns out, God had actually been bringing real men in and out of my life the whole time. A Sunday school teacher named Jack saw insight and potential in this angry, mischievous little boy. Randy, a baseball coach turned role-model brought life, joy, and a sense that my friendship was desirable. And the Lord sent me a Step Father, who means more to me today than any man in the entire world apart from Christ. 

Amidst all of the abuse, poor choices, and chaos, God was at work behind the scenes. Seeds were planted. Truth was shared. Love was displayed.  

Meanwhile, being tough wasn’t working out; it landed me in an ambulance one night with people on the street screaming, “I think he’s dead!” Being the rich man wasn’t working out; the more money I made, the more I spent. Being the ladies’ man wasn’t working out; the more women I had relationships with, the less I appreciated them. Being the party man wasn’t working out; the more partying I did, the more regrets I had along the way. I was tired and I wanted out. I wanted to be rescued from the life of chaos I had created for myself.

One night, at the age of 23, Jesus Christ showed up. It wasn’t at church. He made Himself evident to me through the novel Deadline, by Randy Alcorn. Alcorn masterfully depicts the story of the prodigal son in a scene where a man who had lived a life of rebellion, and surrendered his life to Christ at the last minute, died and was approaching the gates of heaven. I could identify with that man and the insubordinate life he had chosen. All the while, as Alcorn described the man approaching the gates I thought, “This guy is in for it.” 

Others who had lived their life for Christ were greeted warmly with a great reception. “This guy, no way,” I thought. 

Then Alcorn described another person running toward the man from inside the gates. Was it his grandfather? His grandmother? A friend who had prayed for him? 

No. It was Jesus Christ. He was running as fast as He could and it was described in such a way that I felt it in my own heart – Jesus loved this man deeply, and He always had. 

That was all it took.  

The seeds sown by those loving men throughout my life took root. I surrendered to Christ without a word. I wept tears of sorrow and joy. I was instantly made a new man.  

What the Psalmist wrote was indeed my story:

“He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.” Psalms 40:2-3 

What does this have to do with ministry? I became useless as a salesman (I was selling cars at the time).  I wanted people to know what a life with Jesus had to offer, not the various swanky things a car had to offer. I found myself participating in church activities with youth. First, teaching a class for young children, then being invited on a youth retreat with Junior and Senior High students. It was on this retreat when God called me.

“Shaun, look at them. They are where you once were. Will you go to them and share with them what you were searching for all of those years? Will you stand at the crossroads of their life?”

“I will. Here I am Lord. Send me!”

To learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check out more articles from Rooted’s youth ministry blog. 

Shaun McDonald has been serving as youth pastor at Open Arms Church in upstate New York since 2008, and has been involved in youth ministry since 2004.  He has a passion to see Christ take root in the hearts and lives of youth and their families.  Coming from a tumultuous and rebellious background, Shaun can think of no greater privilege than sharing the greatest hope of Jesus Christ.  Shaun received an Associates Degree in Pastoral Ministry from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, Bachelor degree in Religion from Liberty University, and is working on his Master of Divinity in Discipleship and Family Ministry through The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Shaun, his wife and their three children live in Rotterdam, N.Y. You can read his devotional blog at www.shaunrmcdonald.com

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