My Prodigal Paradigm Shift by Ethan Bird

My Prodigal Paradigm Shift

by Ethan Bird  |  May 26, 2017

My parents thought I was going to Ecuador to be a student missionary. I was really going so I could run away from God as I knew Him. I was drawn to the Latin surf scene, the gorgeous women, and the freedom to pursue my new pornography interest away from my sheltered subculture. After years of spiritual disillusionment, I had given up on trying to reach God. Ecuador was the logical next step. As a “student missionary,” I could explore another lifestyle without unnerving or disappointing my family.

Growing Up with God

We were missionaries in Taiwan when I was a kid. My family was constantly planning worship services and hosting Bible studies. I was baptized at age nine, partly because I wanted to be an example to the guy my dad and I were studying the Bible with. I also thought it was time to grow up and take responsibility for my relationship with God. So I squared my shoulders under the weight of my expectation of being a better person, instantly.

When I was 13, our family moved to the United States and I attended Christian high school and college. Despite my commitment to follow God, I felt Him just out of my reach, even though I could tell He was working all around me. I felt a deep spiritual loneliness during weeks of prayer, sensing that the speakers had deeper relationships with God than I did. I knew I needed to be more intense in my prayer and Bible study, especially if I wanted to survive the imminent tribulation at the end of the world.

I begged God to fill me with the Holy Spirit. I wasn’t exactly sure what that would look like…

I started studying the Bible for several hours in the morning and sometimes at night too. I begged God to fill me with the Holy Spirit. I wasn’t exactly sure what that would look like, but when I compared my experience with a classmate’s story of receiving the Holy Spirit, I was pretty sure it hadn’t happened to me. I felt wistful and sad since I wasn’t sure what to do differently.

I felt compelled to share my faith: selling literature, cleaning yards, and volunteering for health fairs. It was rewarding to give, but I sensed it would never be enough for God. Sometimes I resented Him for delegating impossible tasks to me, but leaving me alone to accomplish them.

Trying to Make It Work

During this time, I worked hard to overcome sin. In high school, became convicted that I had a problem with lust and decided to stop acting out. I was successful some of the time. In college, I went for an entire year without a single wipeout.

My efforts to find and please God peaked my senior year of college. I had spent as much time in Bible study and prayer as I could possibly sustain. But God didn’t seem any closer. I was dissatisfied and empty. In a sickening moment, I realized I didn’t have any other methods to try. My spiritual stamina was giving out. I felt like a swimmer in a riptide who knows they can’t resist the current and simply gives up to drift. I decided to give up on trying to reach God.

Escaping to Ecuador

Ecuador seemed like a great place to jump off the spiritual bandwagon without causing pain to the people I loved. I hoped to silence my nagging conscience through surfing, Spanish, and self-medicating.

I didn’t have any money, so my travel plans involved transporting someone’s car from New Mexico to Miami so I only had to pay for gas and tolls. On my way, I stayed in a cheap motel and dialed up my new prodigal lifestyle by watching anything I wanted on TV. We didn’t have a set when I was growing up, but I made up for lost time by drinking in action, drama, porn, and all sorts of reality TV. The only thing I avoided was sci-fi and horror.

The next morning, I drove to Miami feeling guilty but resolute. This was the life of the prodigal and I was committed to finding out what it was like. I expected God to begin punishing me, but wasn’t sure how or when it would happen.

After dropping off the car, I headed for the metro-rail. My morose outlook soon intensified when an accident delayed the train, causing me to arrive several hours late to my international flight. I would need to wait until the next day to fly to Quito. I figured God was already dishing out the penalty for my rebellion.

Welcome to Miami

With only a few dollars left, a motel wasn’t an option. But I had to endure the 24 hours until my next evening flight. I roamed the airport looking for a place to nap. Airports seem to plan against this crisis. I couldn’t find any nooks or crannies away from the glaring fluorescents or linoleum floors.

I had heard of penthouse suites and seen them in movies, but this was my first time staying in one.

So I sauntered outside at 1:00 a.m., imagining where I would curl up if I were homeless. Miami is humid and mosquito-blanketed in the late summer, so no patch of ground looked hospitable. I decided to ride around on a hotel shuttle to burn time and avoid malaria. The driver said he preferred that I didn’t ride with him, and told me to hang out in the hotel.

I apologetically explained to the hotel night manager that I had no money, but asked if I could sit in the lobby until morning. In a thick Arabic accent, he blessed me with a paradigm-changing gift.

“How old are you?”

I told him I was 23.

“I have a son your age and I know what I would do for him.”

Curious, I listened closely.

“Be out by 6:00 a.m. when the day manager comes in.”

He passed me the key to a hotel room.

When I let myself in the top floor, I realized this could be grace. The suite overlooked Miami. I had heard of penthouse suites and seen them in movies, but this was my first time staying in one.

I was confused and a bit jarred at his kindness. The narrative of my trip, which seemed to be tanking, was that God was bearing down on my insurgency. But here was a blind corner.

I lay in bed thinking. But then I turned on the TV and watched another night of Miami Vice. I guess I wanted to be sure to find out if tonight’s kindness was a random act, or if God was truly different than I understood Him to be.

Prodigal Persistence

The next evening, I flew to Quito, Ecuador, arriving at midnight. No one was there to meet me, since they came the day before. There were no cell phones then and no one answered the school office phone at my prospective teaching post. Since the airport closed, I was escorted to the curb by a kind flight attendant who called a taxi, despite my protests that I had no money.  The only difference this time was that I couldn’t talk with the Spanish-speaking taxi driver.

We drove with my suitcases on the main avenues, and then on small streets up the steep hillsides. Around most American cities, the nicest houses are on the hillside, but here they became increasingly ramshackle as we climbed higher. Near the top, we stopped in front of a concrete and tin hut with a light on.

I recalled reading a story about a Peruvian missionary family who was abducted and held for ransom by the Shining Path guerillas. I wondered if that was currently happening to me.

With no other option, I hesitantly entered with the taxi driver. A grandmotherly woman showed me to a room just larger than its cot, where she motioned me to sleep. The next morning, we ate a simple breakfast on a small table over a concrete floor. We sat staring at each other, unable to communicate but both wondering what would happen to me next.

The narrative of my trip, which seemed to be tanking, was that God was bearing down on my insurgency.

I spotted a large book, which turned out to be the Quito yellow pages. I searched for an Iglesia Adventista, which was near the extent of my Spanish vocab.  When that didn’t work, I found a Clinica Adventista, which I dialed on the house landline.

“Yo… missionero…Americano.” I exhausted my conversational Spanish in one phrase. I gave the phone to my hostess, who had a difficult job describing my predicament or why the clinic should help. After hanging up, she pointed to the wall clock at a spot where the minute hand would be in 30 minutes.

When I called the clinic again, I heard, “Un momentito.” Several seconds later, I was greeted with a most glorious sound. It was the voice of my college friend, Ricardo. I was puzzled since I knew he worked several hours away from the clinic. He just happened to be at the office briefly as he returned from vacation. He was picking up his mail on the way back to his territory.  Ricardo generously paid my taxi fare, bed and breakfast costs, and a bus ticket to my school, which was four hours away.

Paradigm Shift

I still can’t tease apart each of the conflicting thoughts and feelings of that day, but I crumpled in my stiff resolve to run from God. The events of the last 48 hours didn’t align with my previous impression of Him. He had rescued me twice while I was running away as fast as I could. That experience opened my mind to the possibility that, of the two of us, God was the one more invested in my success and in the tightness of our relationship.

I decided to stop working so hard and to rest more. I read a book about Galatians, called Glad Tidings, which gave a theological framework for my recent experience.

I can’t say everything I did that year in Ecuador was productive, but I did learn two new languages. One was Spanish as I taught music to kindergartners. The other was the new line of communication in which I started hearing God’s fatherly voice. It had long been muffled by my clouded perceptions and self-reliant prayers. For the first time, I began to understand that God is relentlessly creative and persistent in His attraction.

In the two decades since, I’ve been involved in ministry again, and have also taken multiple spills into sin. But the personal story that grounds my faith is a declining confidence that I have any of my own spiritual resources and an increasing confidence that God is more interested in me than I am in myself and loves me more than anyone else. The circumstances through which God has loved me have provided a different picture of who He is. I’m praying to be eternally curious and attracted to Him.

Ethan Bird
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  • Dan

    Inspiring, uplifting, sincere blessing.

  • LJ

    God bless you! Sounds almost identical to my missionary experience, pressure to be perfect, running away, no money, miracles, the works. I ran away to Taiwan. God rescued me, over and over again. I am now living and working here in Taiwan. A personal relationship with a God of Love, is an amazing thing. Praying for you to keep growing strength by strength.

  • Jennifer Jill

    Ethan! This was so encouraging and eloquent and honest and raw and so . . . so Ethan! I wish you’d write a whole memoir.

  • Kaiser

    Christianity is really the experience we have with our LORD. for each one different.

  • Adam Ferguson

    Thank you for sharing at an honest and vulnerable level. Awesome testimony. Blessings brotha