Sadly, my wife and I have lost some good people in our lives recently. One of the funerals we attended opened up the opportunity for an eye-opening conversation I want to share.
At the funeral, I struck up a conversation with a man. While he was speaking about the deceased, he mentioned he was from Tennessee and how beautiful it is there. I told him how I had been to Tennessee and had driven through it recently, and that I agreed it is such a beautiful place. We shared pleasantries and I shared how I’m a missionary. The man has also worked in ministry most of his life. My wife eventually joined us.
Noticing our age and the line of work I’m in, he asked, “How do we get millennials back in church?” My wife and I were both caught off guard, being millennials ourselves and knowing the animosity his generation has towards ours. We shared that most millennials we know have left the church because 1. Going to church was just something they did, a subject they studied; it was never made real for them, and they just checked the boxes, and 2. Simply put: bad behavior of Christians. They were either hurt by someone in the church or did not see the church living up to its own teachings, much less the Gospel. And these are two things that are hard to come back from. It used to be that when Catholics grew up and started their families, they would come back to the Church to get married, to get their kids baptized, and receive the sacraments. But that is not the case anymore.
After we gave our two cents the real issue came out. This man has seven kids, one of whom has gone astray. He gave us the rundown of what he saw as the terrible life his son has led. When his son left for school, he surrounded himself with the wrong people and got into drugs. He was put in jail on a few occasions, which his parents had to spend much of their time and money on. He slept around and had a child out of wedlock. He has also left the faith, or at least the faith he was brought up in.
But the kicker, the thing that allowed us to see the filter this is all being seen through, is what this father was most upset about. He said that his son told him he now considers himself a “BLM Leftist.” My brave wife asked him what he considers himself to be. He replied, “I am a Biblical Conservative.” Hazard lights were flashing in both of our heads. (The fact that party politics has infiltrated and molded people’s faith is a whole other topic that we won’t expand on here.)
There truly was anger, sadness, and deep hurt in the man before us. His son has cut him off. He does not get to see his grandkids. And he and his wife are singled out because this son stays in contact with his siblings. But what my wife pointed out to me was that in the entire conversation, the man only told us the things he saw wrong in his son. Not once did he tell us how much he loves him or anything good about him. And he kept referring to him with labels. THAT is what he was most troubled about and where the true trouble lies. The man sees his son through labels. And now, his mission is to FIX his son, not love his son.
This man doesn’t seem to realize that HE may be the problem, not his son. His son has grown and has come to disagree with what he was taught. It appears that some social issues are important to him and they are at odds with his parents’ views. And now that becomes the topic of every conversation. It is the lens his parents see him through. He is not seen as “son,” he is seen as “BLM Leftist son.”
Sherry Weddell, author of “Forming Intentional Disciples” (if you haven’t read it you need to), has a saying that goes like this: “Never accept a label in place of a story.” This can be applied to the man at the funeral and his wife. Their son has a story that does not involve them. Things have happened in his life and in his heart that have taken him down a different path than the one his parents had planned for him. They are so overwhelmed by his labels that they can’t and won’t accept his story, unless it ends with him where they want him.
In the end, the man asked me for advice, so I gave it. It’s the best advice I have heard and I’ve given it often to parents who are at odds with their adult children. I heard it given by a priest to a mother on the radio years ago and it stuck with me. This mother’s son was in his late 20s or early 30s and he was living with her. The problem was that he went out drinking all the time and would come home drunk. She would tell him how he was living a horrible sinful life. He wasn’t going anywhere and he was just harming himself. She went on and on about what he was doing and about what she would tell him. The priest stopped her and asked her, “Okay, is it working? Is anything you are saying getting through? Has your son changed?” Her reply was “No.” The priest then said, “The next time your son comes home at 2 or 3 a.m., here’s what I want you to do. Fix him a sandwich. Then, sit with him and ask him about his day. That’s it! He knows where you stand. You have made that clear to him. You are wasting your breath and you are wasting time with your son. Now you just need to love him so he knows he’s loved and not a project.”
So often we don’t remember Jesus’ story about the beam in our own eye versus the splinter in our neighbor’s eye (the splinter we THINK we see) during real life situations. We want quick fixes to get people back on the track we expect them to be on. We forget that we are humans, not machines. We forget that we are built for relationship, for community. We are meant to bear each other’s burdens.
I told the man at the funeral that he probably just needs to give his son space and time to heal. I hoped that would give this father time to think things through, and realize that he is pushing his son further away from the Church through his own behavior. Time to allow Jesus to soften his heart so that he can accept his son’s story and put away the labels. It’s what Jesus did. He didn’t heal people, perform miracles, and dine with the outsiders just to show off his power. It was always to bring people back to relationship, back to community.
If we want to build and repair relationships, we have to be able to choose stories over labels. We have to see the person in front of us as God’s beloved, as God’s son and daughter, as our brother and sister. From there we are called to love our neighbor. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 tells us to “be patient with all.” Why not? Wouldn’t we want others to be patient with us?