Bridging the Generational Gaps
Updated: Dec 13, 2018
All families have their problems. More than a century ago, Thoreau wrote, “Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.” I’m sure you’ve also seen such shortsightedness in youth. But, I have also seen as much generational prejudice among those of us who ought to be mature. Many despair about the future that will be in the hands of our youth. Such pessimism is, for me, an even greater cause for concern.
Some say our problem is that the family unit isn’t what it used to be. They point to the rising number of single parent households, or the changing portraits of the American family in popular media between the days of Leave it to Beaver (1957) and Modern Family (2009). But, I think that story is a little overdone. In fact, the rate of change in the makeup of American households has been decreasing now for years, and among America’s fictional fathers, from Ward Cleaver and Archie Bunker to Phil Dunphy, etc., one could find at least as many similarities as differences. Some change is inevitable, but I don’t think our generational problem has changed as much in the last century as some would have us believe.
I think the truth is harder: our real families have never quite lived up to our ideals. Not in the 1950s, 70s, or today. Even though it is a fact we often try to hide in public, real families of all shapes and sizes only get along with their fair share of difficulty and dysfunction, no matter how hard we try as individuals. And, if I’m not mistaken, this is the way it’s always been.
The Bible speaks of “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” But, that simple phrase glosses over a number of important details. Like the fact that Abraham tied his son Isaac up with ropes and laid him on an altar, apparently to perform some kind of sacrificial ritual (Genesis 21). Not exactly normal father-son bonding time in the mountains. Or, the time Jacob conspired with his mother, betrayed his brother, and tricked his father into giving him a fatherly blessing (Genesis 25). I trust my own kids will never resort to such extremes! That’s to say nothing of Jacob’s son Joseph and his notoriously jealous brothers. In the Bible, the first family of faith is portrayed in a surprisingly real and honest comedy of errors. It seems a miracle the faith was ever passed down through these generations.
But maybe that’s just the point: though well aware of who we really are, including all our generational and relational dysfunction, God is not ready to give up on us or our ever-changing families. On the contrary, God instructs his people to “recite [God’s words] to your children” and “write them on the doorposts of your home” (Deuteronomy 6). And, in just about the last words recorded in the final book of the Hebrew prophets, God exhorts his people to “turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents” (Malachi 4:6a).
Since our future does not belong to any single culture, era, or generation, the faith we hold dear must be handed down through changing times and handled (to our horror or delight) in new, surprising ways. Sometimes, that means education for our young and inexperienced. Other times, it means surrender, a shift in perspective or position for the elders to embrace. Like Moses, one generation can intentionally make room for another to take the lead. Or the twelve apostles, who not only laid hands, but taught and gifted others to take the torch from them. It shouldn’t have to be a violent takeover, but it always requires courage and wisdom for one generation to decide how to hold on and let go of God’s greatest gift: a faith that was never ours alone in the first place, in order to entrust it to a hope that was never ours to possess.
Families are hard work, and when I say that, I mean all kinds of families: not just taxable households, but extended families, neighborhoods, churches, and the communities they support. But, I believe our families are worth every effort. Part of what makes them difficult or sometimes disappointing is all the differences in perspective, the language barriers, and gaps between the generations. Nevertheless, it is possible, worthwhile, and a most rewarding thing for us to invest our time, resources, and prayers in overcoming the considerable obstacles between our generations, patiently participating in all their messy, discordant, and beautiful hopes for the future. In them, but not without them, as in the story of Abraham’s family, I believe we can begin to understand something of God’s love for us and boundless optimism.
“Turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents”