I’ve written before about the various eccentricities of my family’s personal menagerie, from chow-hound Sally to micromanager Evangeline. Each one has had something to teach us with their unique stories and quirks.
Yet, of all our animals, none has had as much adventure as Olivia. Ordinary, low-key Olivia, the least eccentric of them all.
With her dark tortoiseshell coat, chubby physique, and gentle disposition, everything about Livvy spells domesticity. Unlike our other shelter pets, she was an owner surrender, not a stray. But unlike pampered-from-puppyhood Sally, she doesn’t boldly assert ownership of everything she lays eyes on. She gets along with everyone, minds her own business, and says please and thank you.
Sure, she has her playful streak. But you’d never suspect her of being adventurous.
You’d never guess she’d slip out of her home full of soft beds and ample food, to try her paw at the wide, wild world – and refuse to come home for three long weeks.
Yep, you read that right. Olivia – sweet, laid-back Olivia, lover of naps, belly rubs, and mealtimes – is a prodigal.
Prodigals – human as well as animal – don’t always look the way we expect. They might not strike us as bitter, rebellious, or unstable. Their inner struggles don’t always show in their attitude or actions.
Yet they still wander. They still need restoration.
And, whatever their driftings, God is more than willing to give it.
The Call of the Wild
Olivia’s case was pretty simple. While letting the dogs out one day around this time three years ago, one of our family members stepped away from the half-open door for a moment. Seeing the path open to a new, unexplored world, and smelling the tantalizing breeze therefrom, our unflappable little cat slipped through the door and vanished, literally behind our backs.
Who knew there was a dab of wonder-lust lurking in that little kitty’s heart?
The truth is, we humans at least all have a dab of “wander-lust” in us – sin. “Sin” can refer to a specific action, but it also refers to a condition – the condition all humans inherit thanks to the sinful actions of our first ancestors. Essentially, sin (condition) means we’re predisposed to sin (action). We all do, think, and say things that fall short of God’s standards for how we should treat Him and our fellow creatures.
Even the most conscientious among us has flaws and will “wander” from the right path. No matter how hard we try, no matter how good our intentions, there will be times when we fail. It’s like we have a spiritual heart condition that we can never quite manage, overcome, or heal.
We tend to view some sins (and the people who commit them) as worse than others. But all sins, even the least consequential, are still sins. They still separate us from God.
We might not think of ourselves as the worst of sinners, or as a prodigal child. We might feel we haven’t done as much or as badly as “other people”. But we all have.
We’re all broken. We all need forgiveness. We all need Jesus.
We all need to come home.
When we realized Olivia was missing, my mom sprang into action. She scoured the neighborhood, notified neighbors, and posted on social media. She set out Olivia’s litter box to try to guide her back to the right house, and borrowed a humane trap from a friend. She also recruited our cat-loving cousin, who helped spread the word, monitor community lost-and-found pages, and, when we had to go out of town, check and re-bait the trap.
In the meantime, we prayed and tried not to worry. Our hopes rose at every report of a stray torti cat, or even a cat with no description. They sank with every false positive, and with every sight of our empty trap. As days became weeks and the trap remained empty (or turned up a possum or raccoon hungry for our salmon bait), we began to fear we might never see our sweet girl home again.
As it turned out, we didn’t get Olivia back by waiting for her to find us. One morning, my mom went down to check the trap – another possum. Turning away, she spotted a dark little shape sitting under the edge of our neighbor’s trailer several yards away.
Heart pounding, she forced herself to walk calmly toward it. It spun away and crept under the trailer. Skirting the trailer, my mom was just in time to scoop it up as it emerged on the other side.
Olivia! Home at last!
In Luke 15, Jesus tells a story about a young man who demands his inheritance from his still-living father, leaves home, and squanders it all in a foreign land. When, humbled and desperate, he decides to return home, we’re told that his father “saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (v. 15, NIV). In the same way, Jesus implies, God longs for the return and restoration of prodigal humanity.
But He doesn’t simply wait around hoping we’ll show up. He looks for us. The same chapter compares God to a shepherd who does not rest until he finds the only lost sheep out of a flock of one hundred. When he finds it, he carries it home – not unlike my mom with Livvy, I imagine – and celebrates!
Sometimes we can wander so far from God we think we can never get back and can never be found. We can stay away for so long we think God will give up on us. Sometimes we give up on ourselves.
But we can never escape God. There is nowhere He can’t see us or reach us. And as long as our hearts beat, He will seek us. If we don’t go to Him, He will come to us and stretch out His hand. We can take it or refuse it. But until our lives in this world end, He will keep cornering us with that outstretched hand.
And if we take it? All the citizens of heaven celebrate! The God of the Universe rejoices!
This is a God who loves us so much He was willing to die for us. He wants us with Him forever. And when we say “yes”, He welcomes us with joy!
To Him, every single one of us is worth celebrating. No matter what we’ve done, no matter where we’ve been or how far, no matter how unworthy or insignificant we feel – we’re loved, valued, and wanted.
A Messy Homecoming
Who wouldn’t want to come home? Who would run from the hand stretched out to bring them help and safety?
Olivia wasn’t as far away as we thought she’d been. She’d been hanging out around the back of a next-door neighbor’s property. So why hadn’t we seen more of her? Why hadn’t we caught her sooner?
One look at the cat in my mom’s arms offered a clue: Olivia’s belly and hindquarters were covered with dried blood.
According to the vet, it looked like Olivia had been attacked by an animal – one of our worst fears, as we live near woods. The wounds had become infected and were making her sick. And she’d somehow broken a back paw.
This was one beaten-up little cat who likely wanted nothing more than to be left alone.
Sometimes pain and brokenness make us shun God. We want to heal in solitude so we can show up in His presence whole and clean. We want to look as good, as worthy, as possible when we finally petition Him for mercy. Or to at least be strong enough to handle any disappointment or rejection we might face when we do.
Maybe we’re not quite convinced that home is as good and safe as we hope it is. Sometimes a taste of the wild taints our taste for the homely. We become used to suspicion, to bearing sole responsibility for ourselves. It’s hard to believe in goodness, hard to let someone else take the burden. How will we see in the blinding light without skepticism’s filter? How will we keep our bearings without self-responsibility’s anchoring weight? The lightness is scary, disorienting, like we could float away. What’s left of us without all our survival gear? A small, vulnerable, half-blind soul.
And God knows all about it. He knows our hurts and fears, our doubts and desires, our shame and shortcomings. We can’t hide them. We can’t wash them away. We can’t fix them. We can’t heal ourselves, or make ourselves worthy.
The good news? He can. And if we let Him, He will. It is what He wants most for us.
He wants us home and healed. And to be healed, we must be home.
With good vet care, good food, and a long rest in a quiet bedroom, Olivia eventually recovered from her ordeal. She still bears scars, but goes about life with her usual placid air.
In fact, I’d like to think she’s happier now than she was before. Because her ordeal did gain her – and us – one major good thing: Evangeline.
While visiting the animal shelter about two weeks into Olivia’s absence, to make sure the wanderer hadn’t been found and taken there, my mom spotted a petite, scared-looking young torti. Unable to bear the thought of leaving it there, and secretly wondering if she’d ever be able to bring her own straying kitty home again, she adopted the cat. Later, when Olivia returned and recovered enough to venture out of her room, we introduced her to her new sister.
It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. But over time, the two cats learned to share beds, play tag, wrestle, and greet each other in passing. Nowadays, I’m happy to report, they are good friends. They spend the nights playing and conspiring. and during the day can often be found curled together on the same bed or in the same patch of sunshine.
God always brings good out of the bad things in our lives – even those caused by sin. We may botch our end of the relationship, but He never botches His. His faithfulness keeps the whole thing going.
He turns our ordeals into opportunities for blessing. He takes our broken pieces and arranges them into masterpieces. He takes our empty hearts and pours love and life into them. Out of our ashes He makes diamonds. Our scars spell messages of wisdom and hope.
He doesn’t let us suffer in vain. He doesn’t let the remains of shattered lives get thrown away as useless. We’re too precious to Him for that. He bottles our tears and keeps count of the hairs on our heads.
When we come home, we don’t need to view our wanderings as utterly wasted time, as though we have less life to live than if we’d come home sooner. We don’t need to hunt for a quick, easy place to bury or incinerate our past so we can rush on to try to make up for it.
We only need to give our past to God. He will take care of it, discarding whatever needs discarding and redeeming what He wants to use – which often turns out to be more than we think.
And He will give us more than enough grace – all His riches in Christ – to more than make up for all that we’ve lost.
It’s been three years since Olivia’s great escapade. And it wasn’t her last.
About five months after her first adventure, she escaped again, this time for even longer. We finally caught her with a bit of Thanksgiving turkey. Thankfully, she bore no injuries. But to this day, we’re careful to check for potential door-dashers before exiting the house.
Our own strayings are rarely one-time affairs. Even after we return to God by repenting of sin and committing to follow Jesus, there are still times when we step off the straight and narrow. Now that we belong to Jesus, we will always be covered by His atonement. We have the Holy Spirit in us, to guide and empower us to do right. But we’re still human beings with choices to make, living in a fallen, dysfunctional world. We’re on our way to being made perfect, but we won’t be until we meet our Lord, Role Model, and Perfecter face-to-face.
When we fail on our journey with Christ, we need to confess our sin, ask for forgiveness, and return to following the right path. This doesn’t mean starting our faith journey over. It might not even mean returning to the point where we left the road. It means asking God where to go from wherever we are, and resolving to follow Him there. It means returning our eyes to Jesus, redirecting our feet after Him, and recommitting to living in a way that honors Him.
Because God still wants us. He won’t disown us or kick us out of His household for sinning yet again. Yes, He wants us to learn and improve, to respond to His love and kindness with gratitude and devotion. But He knows better than we do that only He can get us where us need to be. And even now, He refuses to give up on us.
So draw strength from His faithfulness. Rest and rejoice in the knowledge that God loves you, wherever you are and wherever you’ve been. If you’re feeling lost and far from home, call out to Him. He’s nearer than you think.
He can find you. And He will.
“But the father told his servants, ‘Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then bring the fattened calf and slaughter it, and let’s celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ So they began to celebrate.”
–Luke 15:22-24 (CSB)