Essay

Time Runs Short

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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?

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

7 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Wow, Steve. How often have I not faced this issue, not just in my parish.

  • Clyde says:

    Honest and reflective thoughts on a sensitive issue for many. Thanks, Steve.

  • James Hart Brumm says:

    God is truly in this place,
    where we battle, kin with kin,
    as we scheme and plot and chase
    more for us, a special in.
    While we struggle, flesh to flesh,
    Love, who follows all we do,
    makes the stew of our lives fresh,
    spins deceits toward something true.

    God is truly in this place!
    Where our pillow is a stone
    as we sleep with our disgrace
    and despair, there we are shown
    Hope has not surrendered yet.
    Good News, lovely, fearsome, odd,
    meets the troubles we abet,
    makes our lives a house for God.

    God is true wherever we
    meet the new day, flaws and all,
    wrestling with uncertainty.
    Still, we hear our Maker’s call:
    even when we do not know,
    even when faith cannot trace
    each point through life’s messy flow,
    our God truly shares our place.

    (Copyright © 2011, Brummhert Publishing)

    This was something I wrote five years ago, while reflecting on the story of adult Jacob and adult Esau meeting up again. I thought of it here, as I remember that God is in the midst of all that pain, all that messiness, sharing it with us, whether we confess God is there or not.

  • debmechler says:

    You have named the tension that many people visit, some dwell in constantly, and pastors bear with multiple parishioners in precisely the ways described. No wonder we need help, and respite. Thank you for your thoughtful piece. Thanks to you too, James, for rendering it so beautifully, honoring the mystery with your poetry.

  • Vic Karssen says:

    Nearly all of the people in our lives will disappoint us, at some time, and to varying degrees. Only God will not. We delude ourselves if we don’t make peace with the knowledge that we will disappoint them as well.

    —-

    It was straight forward and classic – grieving the sudden loss of my gentle, dry humored, 66 yr old father in 2000.

    I bob under and randomly surface -grieving my mom. Easy to love but not often easy to appreciate, Mom died May 24 after 4 years with Parkinson’s – and after a life of presenting as a saint at church and just this side of crazy at home.

    Thank the great Lord, in another life when we are face to face, we won’t recall or care about these crises of life.

  • Roger Gelwicks says:

    Thanks, Steve, for an article that touches the heart of so many people. It not only touches the hearts of Christian moms, dads, and children as they ponder the salvation and lives of loved ones. But it touches the hearts also of Muslim moms and dads, Hindu children as they weigh the fate of their parents, Mormon families, Amish families, Buddhist families and a host of other religious (whether Christian or not) families as they worry about siblings, parents and children. These kinds of thoughts (described in your article) weigh heavy on people of every background and religion. Christians aren’t alone in such ponderings, especially as it concerns eternity.

    Maybe the teacher of Ecclesiastes has a satisfying answer for those of every religion.
    “Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless.”
    Keep this in mind: The Teacher was considered wise, and he taught the people everything he knew. He listened carefully to many proverbs, studying and classifying them.
    The Teacher sought to find just the right words to express truths clearly.
    The words of the wise are like cattle prods—painful but helpful. Their collected sayings are like a nail-studded stick with which a shepherd drives the sheep.
    But, my child, let me give you some further advice: Be careful, for writing books is endless, and much study wears you out.
    That’s the whole story. Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty.
    God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad. “ (Ecclesiastes 12:8-14)

    If we believe in a good and gracious God, as most religions do, then our lives and future are in his hands, so be comforted.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Thanks to Roger, and everyone else, too, for responding. Thanks, James, also for the poem. Of course there are no simple answers or one-size-fits-all answers. I think the people asking and struggling already “know” the answers, but it doesn’t undo the ache. I also tend to think that most of the people I’m in contact with do trust that God is gracious. In other words, I don’t think the fear of “eternal punishment in hell” for a loved one is primarily behind their ache–unless in some unconscious, unspoken way. Instead it is about the disconnect, the apparent chasm between them and their loved ones. Christ reconciles all things, but often it just doesn’t look or feel that way.

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