Simultaneously, I’ve shared a few early visuals from our oldest daughter’s senior photo shoot — a reckoning for me of how little time we have before we’ll be posting our own dorm-room shots.
It’s a time of letting go and, for faithful parents, wondering if along with all the other tools we’ve tried to give our kids we’ve planted well enough the seeds of faith to carry them safely to the other side, both of college and into life eternal.
I recently read an article in the Knoxville Times that reported nearly 80 percent of Catholics who leave the church do so by age 23, and I’m assuming statistics for other denominations are similar.
The article highlighted the success of a campus-focused church near Texas A&M University at keeping students involved in the faith during college.
In grappling with this question as it relates to my own five children, I’ve often come up short, knowing that free will and God’s grace ultimately determine whether faith will be an important part of their future lives. And yet we’re not completely powerless.
It’s also been helpful to revisit what had kept me tethered to my faith during my own college years, when I no longer had my mother waking me for church Sunday morning. From a hindsight glance, I’ve pulled up five major factors that influenced my desire and efforts to stay close to God during those tenuous years when so many abandon their faith.
Consistency of my mother’s faith. Though my mother wasn’t a Bible scholar, she expressed her faith naturally and often. Whenever good things happened, God got the credit. And when not, she saw God there, too. Her optimism, along with weekly church attendance come rain or shine, provided a constant that I missed later whenever my own commitment slipped.
Impact of my father’s words. My father stayed away from church for more than 30 years, despite having spent several years in the seminary as a young man. But despite his apparent lagging on the outside, Dad would say things that indicated a strong faith still lingered within, and I took note.
The day I left for college, as he hugged me goodbye, Dad encouraged me to find the nearest Newman Center my first days on campus. Sensing the weight of his suggestion, I followed through, and often credit this decision with changing my whole life’s trajectory.
A while ago I heard about a study that found a father’s faith has even more impact — to quite a large degree, in fact — than a mother’s on children. This isn’t to discourage moms, but to encourage dads who are faithful: Your words and guidance matter.
A faith family to cling to. Dad’s words wouldn’t have meant much had the college I attended not had a campus church community nearby with youth-focused programs to keep me interested. This community served as a grounding point, a home away from home, and proved critical in keeping my faith relevant and important.
The planting of soul seeds. Without earlier, positive faith experiences to enhance my relationship with God, like the SEARCH retreat I attended my junior year of high school, I doubt I would have had such a yearning for faith in college. Those encounters with the living God awakened my soul prior to college, keeping the spark lit and burning in the years that followed.
Prayers from loved ones. Finally, but not least, as I looked back on my life and considered the many times I could have strayed beyond the point of no return, I marvel at how God kept me reeled in, despite my failings and sins. In doing so, I became aware that something beyond my own efforts had to have contributed to my staying close to God, even given the odds.
Indeed, when our children leave the nest and our influence wanes, we can still drop to our knees daily, as I know my mother did, and pray that God will pursue them in our absence.
Yes, our children have free will, and we must let them live and own their own lives. But in times of worry, we can’t forget that God loves our children more than we ever will, and our prayers for them will be warmly received, and answered.
And while we await the full unfolding of their lives, we can continue drawing ever close to God day by day, with the hope that someday we’ll celebrate the fruits of our fidelity together.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on August 29, 2015.]