Every couple months I try to gather my parishioners who are residents in our local retirement home for a time of fellowship. There’s no agenda except to be together. We enjoy some coffee and goodies (often Dutch pastries), share what’s happening in our lives, and spend time praying for each other and the church.
Time spent with these beloved saints is always a gift. I love being their pastor. They’ve experienced so much, seen so many changes over the years. Many of them have endured profound loss. And yet their faith has the resilience of a sturdy oak tree standing tall in the wide open prairie, bearing witness to life in all of its harshness and beauty.
When we were together recently, while sharing prayer requests, the conversation turned to concern for the faith of their kids and grandkids. One man, a retired pastor, asked for prayers for his adult son living up in the cities who is not a Christian. Another woman shared about a granddaughter who’s lesbian and who left the church because she didn’t think she was welcome anymore. “I don’t know what I think about her being gay, but I know I love my granddaughter,” she whispered. “Nothing can change that. And I want her to know how much she’s loved by Jesus.” Several others, with heavy hearts, shared about children and grandchildren who’ve walked away from the faith completely.
I was struck by how much this grieves them, how desperately they long to see the next generations come to faith. The heaviness in the room was palpable. Then Cal, who’d been sitting there quietly next to his wife, suddenly spoke up. “I need to share something with you all,” he said softly, tears beginning to well up in his eyes. “Many years ago one of my sons stopped going to church, didn’t want anything to do with God anymore. And it broke my heart. Bev and I prayed for him…everyday. Prayed that somehow God would draw him back.” He looked down at his hands folded on the table. “And then a few months ago….” His voice trailed off as the tears flowed uncontrollably. He waited to regain his composure, then started again. “A few months ago, my son started going back to church again. Found a church he loves, and he doesn’t miss a Sunday.”
I sat there and watched this man weep openly tears of joy for the return of his adult son to faith. “So I just want to encourage you,” Cal looked around the table. “Don’t ever give up. Remember the Lord’s promises. It’s never too late for them to come home.”
Cal’s words went straight for my heart. Parenting is so hard. As I struggle to raise my own children, to pass on the faith, so often I feel like I’m screwing it up. I worry that I haven’t done enough to lay a solid foundation. I worry about the choices they’ll make and what exactly the future will hold. I worry that they’ll be lumped into that haunting statistic of pastors’ kids who grow up resenting the church (and maybe even God). More than anything, I want my daughters to know and serve the God who loves them and calls them his own. But what are the guarantees?
Cal’s words remind me of something James K. A. Smith wrote years ago in a blog titled “Letter to a Young Parent.” Smith acknowledges that while parenting is a tremendous gift, the truth is our children will break our hearts. There is no avoiding it. “Somehow. Somewhere. Maybe more than once. To become a parent is to promise you’ll love prodigals….And it’s then that you’ll want to remember the promises of a faithful Father that trickled down his little forehead years ago [in baptism].”
Yes, to be a parent is to promise to love prodigals. It is to remember that we ourselves are prodigals. Maybe parenting, at its heart, is about older prodigals showing younger prodigals how to find their way home. And though we break our Father’s heart not just once but time and again, God’s promises remain. The baptismal font reminds us of this every Lord’s Day.
So to all you parents and grandparents out there who know firsthand what it’s like to have your heart broken, to all who lay awake at night worrying about a child or grandchild who is off in a far country, squandering it all away, may these words of my dear friend Cal find their way to your heart too:
Don’t ever give up. Remember the Lord’s promises. It’s never too late for them to come home.