“I’m not even sure there is a God,” said one of my children.
It was about the most hurtful thing a child could say to a chaplain dad.
The questioning reminded me of two patients I met during my rounds as a hospital chaplain. Both patients were pastors’ children.
The first child was a 10-year-old boy with cancer. He lay in his bed, using controllers to throw punches at the villains in his video game.
He gave me a cursory glance to see whether I was medical staff bringing needles or anything else that might hurt him. I had no such instruments, just a harmless Dalmatian marionette.
He shot me a dismissive look that referred me to his father standing at bedside. I took my cue and turned toward his pastor dad.
“My guess is that you’re finding a place for prayer during this illness?” I said, leading the conversation.
“Yes,” the father answered, while stroking the head of his distracted son.
We spoke a few more minutes about the support faith brings to illness until a phone call took him out of the room.
Left alone with the patient, I asked him the same question about prayer that I’d asked his father.
For the first time, he took a long gaze away from the video, over his shoulder and past me toward where his father was engaged with his phone call.
Making sure his answer would be confidential; he silently shook his head.
“Not at night or when you’re scared?” I pressed.
He did a double take toward his father and repeated his negative gesture.
A minute later, his father returned, and we cordially finished our visit.
Ready for some grown-up conversation, I caged my Dalmatian and went to see a woman with a high-risk pregnancy.
Upon realizing I was a chaplain, the woman discarded the common salutations to announce, “My father is a pastor.”
No pleasantries. No “How do you do?”
I inferred from her tone that her spiritual needs were met in her DNA. Her dad was her holy guy.
Responding in a half-mischievous tone, I said, “Oh, really? We’re both PKs (pastor’s kids). Can I have a seat?”
She studied me and decided it might be OK to talk.
As we spoke, it quickly became apparent her dad was not her holy guy. In fact, her new spirituality was such a radical change from her Evangelical home that I was sure her dad now saw her as a member of a cult.
There is an old scriptural proverb that says, “Start a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”
But what’s a parent do to do when your child no longer sees any wisdom in your faith?
There really are only two things you can do. First, accept that we cannot choose our child’s spiritual DNA. We can no more choose faith for our children than we can chose their love.
Second, take comfort in your own faith journey and recall the path God laid out for you. In doing so, your confidence will be renewed that God also will lay out a journey for your child, just as he did for you.
It’s hard, of course. It means letting go in far deeper ways than just letting your child drive off to college. You have to let go at your core.
Letting go doesn’t mean you approve of the route your child has taken, it simply means that you trust your child to the heavenly parent who gave you this child in the first place.
Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. Write firstname.lastname@example.org or visit thechaplain.net. You can also follow him on Twitter, username is “chaplain,” or on Facebook at facebook.com/norrisburkes.