Luke 15:103, 11b-32
“Why do grandparents and grandchildren get along so well? They have the same enemy – the mother”. (Claudette Colbert from Brown, H. Jackson,.Wit and Wisdom of the Peanut Butter Gang. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, Inc., 1994).
Today I want to spend some time talking about generational differences. How do we communicate across the generations? How do we teach across the generations? How do we form community with different generations? How do we do worship which speaks, teaches and empowers all who come, across the generations?
I believe that it is more than possible to do worship that touches and moves and is positive for people of many ages, but I also think that before we can make that possible, we have to start by understanding one another across those generations. This is not always an easy task. I have come to believe that we are all the ages we ever have been, meaning that while I stand before you a woman in my 40s, I am also still a person in my 30s, 20s, teens and even a child. We have all of those parts of us, so in one way maybe it is easier for me to understand a young person that it is for them to understand me. But at the same time our society and culture are constantly changing, so the world that we interacted with as children, the issues we dealt with as young people are very different from what today’s young people face.
This morning I want us to spend some time looking at and understanding some of those differences. But because I am limited by my own generation, I want to ask you for your help this morning with the message.
Towards that end, I want to start by asking you, in this fairly intergenerational congregation, what do you, personally, have a hard time understanding about people of a different generation? I’ll give you an example, to start us off. I don’t understand, have never understood some of the fashions of different generations. On the upper end, I think Polyester is extremely uncomfortable and don’t know why people wear it. On the younger end, I don’t understand why kids wear their pants so low as to show their underwear. I understand how that started – gangs wanted to have ways of hiding large weapons and these baggy pants do that successfully. But what on earth is the appeal for kids who are not in gangs? I don’t get it. What are things that You don’t understand?
Okay, maybe an easier question, what is something in your current life that you feel people of other generations don’t understand or have a hard time understanding?
The two Bible passages I shared with you today reflect those differences in generational experience and understanding. The book of Ezra talks about what occurred after the destruction of the first Jerusalem temple. The temple had been destroyed at least 49 years, but now, Ezra tells us, God was at work again and the people of Israel were finally able to begin rebuilding the temple. They laid the new foundation for the temple, and everyone was rejoicing. But the older people, and the priests who knew the stories of the older temple were also weeping. Their experience was different. On the one hand, here was a new generation, excited about what it could do, excited that it could build again, form community again, be a worshiping people again. But on the other hand, here too was an older generation for whom this new temple foundation brought memories of the past, of the glory of the temple that was destroyed, of their loss of that temple, of the loss of that space, community, and experience. Yes, a new temple would be built. But it would not be the same. It could not be the same. As some of the other prophets, Haggai, for example, recount, this second temple was nothing like the first. The young people had not been alive to see the previous temple, they were not alive to suffer its destruction. But for the older people, this new temple was a reminder of what could never be again.
For the older people, the new also reminded them that the temple was not the indestructible house of God that they had once believed it to be. With the destruction of the first temple, their entire understanding of their world had been wrenched from them and changed irreparably. No longer did they see their God as one who would, against any odds and at any price, live in the temple and save them from other peoples and their other gods. There was much here to grieve as well as to celebrate; much that a younger generation would not, could not understand.
In the story of the prodigal son, the misunderstanding between generations flowed in both directions. While Jesus is telling a story and does not go into detail about the feelings of those in the parable, we can imagine how we might have felt as each character in the parable. As a parent, what hurt would we feel if our child asked for his inheritance while we still lived, then took that inheritance and left. How could we understand that? What would cause a son to do that? As the younger son, what anger would cause us to leave in such a cold way? And how, as the younger son, could we possibly understand the father, his feelings, his potential actions as we crawled back to that father in shame, begging to be a hired hand? What total lack of comprehension we might have felt as the older son on discovering that while we had done exactly what we were “supposed to do” for our father, without any seeming reward, our younger brother, who had been hurtful, rude, and selfish, who had left the house and squandered away what father had given him, had then been given a party after returning home! Neither son could know, or could understand what it was like to be the parent; the depth of love, the depth of pain, the depth of rejoicing their father felt. The father in turn did not know the pain, the shame, the hurt their sons suffered from their own actions. Each was in a unique place, each generation suffered its own unique sufferings, each rejoiced and experienced its own unique experiences.
Those barriers of understanding often keep us talking and “hanging out” with those who are closest to us in age and experience, and that is understandable. We share with our peers a common history that makes conversation easier, that makes communication smooth. Talking to our own peers, there is much that is assumed which we don’t need to make explicit. There is much, not only in content, but in style of communication that makes it affirming and comfortable to share with those close to us in age and culture.
And yet, we have so much to learn from each other. God has created us to be born, to live, to grow, to die, and to do so in community with people of all different ages and experiences. We have been given a wealth of resources in those different ages, and different approaches to life. There is so much abundance here in this room because we are multi-generational, a bit multi-cultural, because we come from and with very different experiences and backgrounds. We can learn from our children what it means to really trust. We can learn from them what it is to be completely genuine and vulnerable. We can learn from people older than us that experience can teach wisdom, we can learn history. We can learn patience and perseverance. We can learn more than we imagine from people of all ages.
The book, Wit and Wisdom from the Peanut Butter Gang (see above citation) highlights some multigenerational wisdom, and I thought I would share with you some of these marvelous quotes, particularly about people of other generations, from children of all ages.
Katherine, age 13 said, “I can remember what flavor of ice cream my grandmother and I shared at Disneyworld, but most of the time I can’t remember what day it is. I guess it depends on what you think is important.”
Adult Harold Hubert said, “Children need love, especially when they do not deserve it.”
Kara, age 13 said, “Once you’ve lost your parents’ trust, it’s hard to earn it back.”
Adult Rebecca Richards said, “Oh, to be only half as wonderful as my child thought I was when he was small, and only half as stupid as my teenager now thinks I am.”
Shanna, age 14 said, “Parents should come with instructions.”
Adult Mignon McLaughlin said, “Likely as not, the child you can do the least with will do the most to make you proud.”
Jamie, age 16 said, “One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was their love for each other.”
Writer Pearl Buck said, “The young do not know enough to be prudent; and therefore, they attempt the impossible – and achieve it, generation after generation.”
Sarah, age 12 said, “You should be careful around those younger than you. It is surprising how much of an impact a word or action can make on them.”
Lois, age 11 said, “You always have time for someone you care for.”
Finally, I’d like to read to you “on Children” by Kahlil Gibran (The Prophet. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1995): “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far. Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; for even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”
God has given us each other in all our diversity as a gift. But God has also given us the free will to choose whether or not we will embrace this gift. It will take time and commitment to get to know those around us who are older, younger, different than ourselves. We may not quickly see or learn the gems of wisdom and experience we each have to share. But one of God’s greatest gifts to us is the gift of each other, across all boundaries and ages. It is worth the time and energy of getting to know people.
Coming back to your part in helping me with this morning’s message, I have one more question for you. If you could share something with all the other generations about your own generation to help them understand you, what would that be? What wisdom would you share?
Finally, to leave you with one more piece of wisdom from the peanut butter gang, “children are a great comfort in your old age – and they help you reach it faster too!” – Lionel Kauffman.