Essay

Promising to Love Prodigals

By October 21, 2019 8 Comments

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.

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.

8 Comments

  • Lynn Setsma says:

    Thank you. I needed this today.

  • Rowland Van Es says:

    “…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” This is why we need to move the font to a more prominent position in our churches. All who are baptized are loved my God and God’s church.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Hey Brian,
    Really appreciated this report of your time with the elderly retirees.
    It moved me. I reflect on my adult children and their children.
    In Jesus’ parable of the Two Sons, at the end, the door is open, both to the Elder Prodigal and the Younger One.
    We are both. I choose to accept the Father’s gracious invitation to dine, trusting the others will come in as well,
    to whatever shape the church presents herself. Some churches are dying; God is always alive and active. . . .John

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    I’m of two minds about this. My son is not a believer. I would love him to be so. Already in high school, he was not a believer. But I cannot regard him as lost, or prodigal. I have to love him absolutely as he is. I don’t want to mourn for him or grieve for him. I want to respect his decisions for his life, and honor them.

  • Johannus Sociologicus says:

    All signs point to the continued decline of faith and participation by younger generations, so the loss of children and grandchildren from the church is likely to continue. Here’s the latest from Pew Research Center: “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace” (https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/). Homecoming is always possible. But this looks like an epidemic and it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. Coming to terms with the reality of structural changes is hard, but having a clear-eyed understanding of the underlying problem is the first step toward a solution.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks Brian, for a touching article. And thanks Daniel for your comment. It can really pull at the heart strings of a Christian parent or grandparent when a child or grandchild just doesn’t value that which holds such a high priority for the senior Christian. For the Christian parent, their faith is everything, but for the young adult it means nothing. That is hard. It’s like they have escaped to a far away land where parental values mean little. They appreciate their parents’ or grandparents’ love but not their religion. That’s the other side of the coin.

    I wonder if we, as Christians, give any thought to how difficult it is for these children to turn their backs on their parents’ religion. Their whole lives have been saturated with Christian teaching, at home, at church, at school. And now as adolescents or adults they are finally able to claim their independence and choose a philosophy they believe in. They do this knowing they hurt their parents. But they do it because this is what makes sense and is reasonable to them. For them, Christianity no longer cuts it. Yes, parents feel great pain, but so do these young people. It’s hard to go home, knowing your parents are weeping over you, some even badgering you. What may be a heartbreak for parents and grandparents, may be equally so for their children.

  • Brian,

    Thank you for this wonderful blog. As a pastor with children this really touches the heart. It also speaks to me when I think of all the young people who went to confirmation class with me and then quickly stopped attending church.

    Thank you. I will continue praying for all of them.

  • Katy Sundararajan says:

    Thank you for your care in writing and sharing this, Brian. These same things have been on my mind recently, and it is good to hear a word of encouragement from you and from Cal. What a gift to be a parent, and what a struggle.

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