by Richard Stuckwisch
The Parable of the Prodigal Son (St. Luke 15) strikes a chord and resonates deeply with those who hear it, not only because all of us have gone astray and gotten ourselves lost at times, but also because there are loved ones missing from our lives, from our homes and families, and from our congregations. We ache for our missing children, in particular, and struggle with both guilt and grief over their absence. If a small child is lost, we spare no effort or expense in searching until he is found and brought back home. Let us have at least as much zeal for those children of any age who have wandered away from the faith and gone missing from the life of the Church.
Distressingly, a great many young people do abandon God’s Word and the preaching of it as they advance through their teen years and enter adulthood. Indications are that well over half of those who are brought up in the Church will abandon it. There are many different factors that may lead a young adult away from the faith and fellowship of the Body of Christ. College students, flush with independence and busy with their studies and social activities, establish new priorities and simply fall out of the habit of going to church. Some young people have developed an apathy from their parents’ example, whereas others are hostile and bitter because of bad experiences with a congregation, a pastor, or some other professed Christian. Those who fall into temptation and get caught up in unrepentant sin are likely to flee the Word of God and to avoid the Body of Christ due to their troubled conscience and hardness of heart. Reasons and excuses are legion.
Circumstances vary, but here we consider what a concerned grandparent can do to encourage a wayward adult grandchild to repent and return to the life of the Church. The desire to do or say something may be great, but there may also be a real fear of alienating the grandchild and driving him away. Worldly attitudes not only contribute to young adults leaving the faith, but also make it harder for grandparents or anyone else to speak up. Notions of relative truth make insistence on the one true faith sound hopelessly outdated and naive. Spirituality is popular, but it is viewed as a personal, subjective and open-ended experience. Conversely, there is a common pessimism about organized religion and the institutional church, which are suspect almost by definition.
Young people may resonate with such faulty attitudes because of bad impressions they have been given by the churches they have known. Many of them have not perceived a connection between faith, religion, the church, and life. Instead they have sensed that the church norms they grew up with are chiefly concerned with dogma for its own sake and with superficial rules of behavior that hide rather than reveal the heart. They have not recognized sincerity or personal investment, but a focus on head knowledge, formulaic emotional expressions, and pietism in place of piety. All of that appears trite and hollow, and frankly it is. It certainly has no appeal.
Grandparents should not deny but acknowledge such hurts, disappointments and frustrations as their grandchildren have experienced and expressed. Denying these things is neither honest nor helpful. Rather, ask your grandchildren questions, and invite them to be honest with you about their thoughts and feelings. Give them a safe place to vent, and actively listen to what they have to say. Then respond to their real concerns with the true comfort of the Gospel of Christ, even if that answer is resisted, rejected or even ridiculed. It is important to speak the truth, to confess the Word of the Lord, for faith comes about and grows by the hearing of that Word.
Trust Christ and His Word, despite your own frailties and limitations. Rely on Him and on the Holy Spirit to do the divine work and achieve the divine purpose that only God can accomplish. There is no point in urging your grandchildren to give attention to the Word of the Lord if you do not have the confidence to speak it yourself. And there is no other strategy to fall back on. Your calling as a Christian is not to convince or persuade anyone to believe the Gospel by argument or cleverness, but simply to believe, to confess, and to practice the Word of Christ. Speak to your grandchildren, and to all of your neighbors, as God the Father speaks to you by His Son. Do so, not out of guilt, shame or fear, but in the joy and confidence of faith. Do not be ashamed of the Gospel, and do not be embarrassed to confess it to anyone. It is a living and life-giving Word.
Do speak what’s on your heart and mind. Speak candidly to your grandchildren, as appropriate in the context of your ongoing conversation and interaction with them. Talk to them about these things that matter to you. Speak with the passion of your personal conviction, but also in a spirit of gentleness and personal humility. Let them see that your confidence and courage are in Christ.
Along the same lines, be candid about your own doubts, fears, struggles, weaknesses and so on. Don’t suppose that you must protect yourself or your grandchildren from such genuine aspects of faith and life under the Cross. But then likewise indicate the comfort and strength that you have found in the Ministry of the Gospel. Share actual stories of the place and role that the Church and Holy Sacraments have had in your life, and in the life of your parents, siblings, spouse, and children. Let your grandchildren know that it’s not a canned or plastic faith that you profess, but one that makes a solid, full-bodied difference in the bump and grind of this fallen world. Your stories will resonate with them, not only because they are personal, but because of who you are.
As you think about yourself and the witness that you are called to make to your grandchildren, do consider the ways that you also are called to repentance in your own faith and life, and to greater piety and faithfulness in your own habits and routines. It may even be appropriate to admit some of those faults to your grandchildren, and allow them to see the fruits of repentance in your life. Would you ask them to adjust their choices and decisions without a willingness to change yours?
In any event, exercise genuine love, tender mercy, long-suffering patience, and ready forgiveness for your wayward grandchild. Despite how it feels, his rejection of the Church and his departure from the faith are not a personal indictment or rejection of you and your family. Don’t get angry or defensive in response, as though your faith and love were contingent on his. Do not condone or accept his sinful behavior, whatever all that may entail, including sins against the Church and Ministry of the Gospel. But do persist in caring for the person as you are given the opportunity. Maintain a connection and a relationship with open lines of communication about life in general. And demonstrate an active, unselfish interest in and genuine concern for your grandchild. None of that should have to be faked; nor is it a strategy for some ulterior purpose. It is simply to love.
Have confidence that the Lord Himself is with you in the relationship He has given you with your children’s children. You are not on your own in your conversations with them and in your efforts to care for them. Whatever inadequacies and weaknesses you perceive in yourself do not change the fact that God has called you to love and serve these particular neighbors. By the same token, respect the office and station of your grandchild’s father and mother. But do not for that reason hesitate to speak and confess the Word of God as you have the chance, even if his parents are of a different mind. Do so, not with hostility or animosity, but calmly, gently and patiently.
Take heart and be encouraged that the Lord loves your children and your children’s children even more and more faithfully than you do. He is not negligent or uncaring, nor is He powerless or unable to call them back to Himself. Though His ways and purposes are often mysterious to us, He is able to do far more abundantly than we can even begin to imagine. That is no reason to be lazy or negligent in our own efforts, but encouragement to speak and act with bold confidence. For He has chosen to work through His Word. So, too, pray and intercede for your children and grandchildren, as the Lord has commanded you to pray and has promised to hear and answer in Christ Jesus. St. Monica prayed for many years for her wayward son, Augustine, before the Lord brought him to confess the faith, to be baptized, and to become a bishop of the Church. It is not too much, but good and right, that you should likewise pray for your wayward grandchildren.
In the Parable, the prodigal son is brought back to himself and to his senses, not only by the dire predicament that he found himself in, which was part of God’s preaching of the Law in his life, but especially by the memory of his Father — of his Father’s household and family, of His grace and generosity. As you have opportunity to speak of these things from the Holy Scriptures and the Catechism, and from the experience of your own faith and life under the Cross, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ shall be at work, by His Word and Holy Spirit, to call home His lost and wayward children to Himself in mercy.
The Rev. Dr. Richard Stuckwisch is pastor of Emmaus Lutheran Church, South Bend, Ind.