Article Jun 17, 2016

How to honor an aging parent: 4 lessons learned

It was a sunny Sunday morning when I shifted dad’s car into reverse and slowly backed out of the driveway of my childhood home. My father, freshly showered and shaved, sat in the passenger’s seat; his clothes, photos, and boxes of Bibles and files filled every inch of cargo space. With the help of some neighbors, we had managed to get his TV into the backseat, too. A 10-hour drive stretched out ahead of us. My stomach churned and hands trembled, but I put on a brave face and a smile. “Here we go, dad. Isn’t this going to be great?”

Everything had been just fine in theory. I had been touring retirement communities for months, gathering information, talking with my dad about how nice life would be near the grandkids. I’d been crunching numbers and exploring senior care options. A realtor and I were working to get his house on the market. The rest of the family had been giving much needed help with the house and good advice along the way.

This was the best thing for everyone. This was the right decision. This was me being a good daughter.

The problem was, sitting there in that idling car, I didn’t feel like a good daughter. I felt like I was about to drive off a cliff with my father in tow.

How in all of heaven and earth was I going to do this? Me? The one who can barely keep her own four children fed and clothed some days? The one who does some of her best dancing right along sanity’s edge?

I knew good and well I didn’t have the capacity for this job, and yet here I was called to do it.

As I walk with Jesus and follow him into these places of personal inadequacy, I discover again and again the ever surprising truth that these are the moments of God’s great mercy to us—these moments when we fly past the limits of our own strength and find that the everlasting arms have been underneath us all along, sustaining us when we didn’t realize it, when we thought we were making the whole earth turn on its axis all by ourselves.

I wonder if you can relate to my story. Maybe you’ve been facing some of the same fears I have. If so, I’d like to offer you four insights the Lord has given me as I’ve been caring for my dear father.

  1. Trust God enough to say “yes.” God calls us to walk along paths we could never walk without him. What a beautiful thing it is when we open our arms and receive what he brings, trusting that he will care for us as we yield to him in humble obedience. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Exod. 20:12). For me, the call to honor my father meant moving him to be near me. For you it may mean something different. This clear direction from God’s Word gives me the strength that I need to trust God and say “yes” to him.
  2. Remember where you’ve set your hope. The day my father signed the lease for his new home and the finality of this decision set in, I started losing sleep. Three nights into my insomnia, I got up in the dark of the night and went into the living room. With my forehead on the floor—the posture of my best praying—I began pouring out all of my fear to God, calling each one by name. After that, I named all the things I knew about God from the Bible and my own experience. I called out in whispered tones the stories of God’s faithfulness to me. I remembered how he had carried me through troubled waters many times before. I thanked him for his steadfast love for me. As I turned my inward gaze on my sovereign God, my spirit remembered how very little of my father’s well-being actually depended on me. Peace welled up from somewhere deep inside as the Holy Spirit ministered to me in those dark hours of the night. My hope was not in myself; it was fixed and firm in the God who made the universe (Ps. 78:6-7).
  3. Pray continually. “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Rom. 12:12). As I am caring for my father, I am asking God for every single thing we need: a buyer for his house, compassionate and competent new doctors who will accept his insurance, help with his veteran’s benefits, wisdom to navigate the various government agencies who administer his retirement pay and on and on and on. Every answered prayer is a wonder of God, an opportunity to tell of his wonderful works in my family’s story.
  4. Follow the example of your gentle and humble Savior. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). Think of the beauty of Jesus’s words in the context of caring for a parent. Jesus sets the example of humble service and invites us to join him. As we are serving our parents, giving rest to them in the humble ways we can, our kind and humble Savior promises us rest for our very souls. What a sweet invitation he offers.

I have lived the last 20 years many miles from my father; now I live less than 10 minutes from him. God has given our family a sweet opportunity to enjoy my father in these years—to hear his stories, to learn from his experience, and to help bring him much needed joy and community.

The way we honor our parents now matters tremendously, both to the generation that came before us and the ones that are following after. May the Lord Jesus be exalted and glorified through us as we honor him in this beautiful and vital way.