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As time passes and age creeps up, windows of possibility slide nearly closed. Time runs short. Hopes are not realized.
Parents who never turn out to be who and what we longed for most deeply. Children who never become what we hoped for so fervently. When death looms, as conversations become labored and brief, can these hopes be altered into different sorts of hope? I hear these pains and pastoral questions. How do I respond in a manner that is sensitive and honest, not naïve but nonetheless still hopeful?
Raised in a virtually secular home, she came to faith later in life. Over the years, she has prayed for her parents, looked for opportunities for deep conversations, hoped that her life was in some way a testimony, an invitation to faith. Now she watches as her parents shrivel before her eyes. That hope for an opening wilts.
I didn’t expect my parents to call me to one morning and say they had prayed the “sinner’s prayer” while watching a televangelist the night before. But I kept looking for a sign of openness on their part, a comment or action that would tell me they had some sort of faith. But there never really was any indication. I know there could still be death-bed conversions, but I also know my parents and the trajectory they are on. I don’t see it coming. It doesn’t even feel like its so much about “heaven or hell” as much as about who my parents are, their hearts, and who I am to them. What do I hope for? What do I say to God?
Every time I visit a saintly woman in her nineties, her son comes up. By almost any measure, any parent would be proud of this boy—now in his seventies—educated, prosperous, debonair. But this mother is worried for his soul. Decades ago when she tried to talk with him about this, he was dismissive and cutting. “Mom, I never believed! I just joined church because all the kids were doing it, to make you and dad happy. But it meant nothing to me.” Now he has mellowed, probably realized how deeply he wounded his mother. He doesn’t mock his mother’s concerns. He just studiously avoids the topic. His mother doesn’t know what to say. She prays for him more than anyone or anything else.
“My dad was always a hard-guy, not very good at being warm or affirming. You get used to it and don’t expect much more. Then right before he retired he was diagnosed with colon cancer. It threw him into a tailspin. I thought maybe this could be the catalyst I had always looked for. Maybe he’d become more gentle and vulnerable. When he was getting chemotherapy, I prayed so often ‘Lord, may this be chemo for the soul, soften him, open him, heal him.’ It didn’t happen. He beat the cancer, but he really didn’t change. Now he’s almost too old, too deaf, too weak, to talk with him about anything that matters. I made peace with who he is a long ago, even as I held out hope it might somehow change. That hope is pretty much gone now.”
An aging mother is pleased and eager to show me the program from her adult daughter’s wedding. I know for sure it is the daughter’s third wedding, possibly her fourth. I don’t want to ask. Mom is pleased because according to the program, the wedding, in faraway state, began with a prayer. This was a glimmer of hope that her daughter had some sort of faith. Personally, I wouldn’t want to read a lot into this, but of course I don’t say this to the hopeful mother. After decades of estrangement, of faith rejected, she grasps for the smallest things
What to say in situations in like these? Where is God in them? How to help parents or children when they realize that reconciliation is not coming—at least not as they had hoped? They pray. They try to reshape their hopes.
I try not to bring platitudes. Not to overpromise. I say things like, “God knows your parent better than you, and loves them more.” Karl Barth’s well-known, “God’s ‘yes’ in Christ can outwait our human ‘no’” seems helpful, if enigmatic. I was told that Barth pretty much refused to unpack the statement, to take it to its “logical conclusions.” Julian of Norwich offers “All will be well and all will be well. All manner of things will be well.” Or do I simply concede “I don’t know”?
“Keep praying. Keep hoping.” sounds a bit spent but what else to say?