For fifty years, Daddy preached the gospel. As a minister, he dedicated babies, married star-struck couples and performed funerals. His sermons lifted congregations to heaven. In the twilight of his life, though, this man of God worried he was going the other way.
“I’ve been a phony. I’ve done so many things wrong. I don’t know if God can ever forgive me,” he repeated again and again. Halfway across the country, I listened by phone to his laments. What could I say?
My own pastor told a similar story. His mother, a minister’s wife, was plagued near the end of her life by anxiety over her eternal destiny. “I just can’t hold onto God,” she said over and over. “I just can’t hold on.”
For others at life’s end, faith shines like a beacon. Reverend Everett Seymour spent his last two weeks in the nursing home where I worked. Gravely ill, he nevertheless spoke about God to everyone. “God bless you,” he told the staff, “you are doing such a wonderful job.” Pastor Seymour phoned people up whom he thought weren’t “tight with God,” asking them to visit him. One on one, he made one last effort to lead them into the fold.
You may recognize your parent in one of these people. Why is it that faith wavers for some, and soars for others? I don’t know. Nor do I understand while still others fall somewhere in between. In my dad’s case, I believe the Parkinson’s that robbed his body of function and strength also ate at his soul.
So how do we children deal with a spiritually anxious—or evangelistic—aging parent? In both cases, we listen. Hearing them out is the biggest gift we can offer. We acknowledge their feelings, positive or negative, and empathize. But we don’t stop there.
We speak the truth. The same truth they taught us as children so many years ago, in word, in deed, in song. God loves them. No matter what. My pastor responded to his mother who said she couldn’t hold onto God, “Mother, God is carrying you.” In my Dad’s case, as he neared death, the prayers, Scripture and hymns gave him the confidence that God held him tight.
How has your parent’s faith changed—or remained the same? How have you been able to nurture it?