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At the end of April, we gathered my family and my wife’s family for an extended weekend of festivities. My wife, Amy, and I celebrated 25 years of marriage by filling up a rented farmhouse that gazed up at the Peaks of Otter of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The brilliant green Virginia mountains, the redbud, and dogwood invited folks to pull up camp chairs, enjoy the scenery and talk to one another.
One of the conversations or I should say the juxtaposition of two conversations still have me thinking about the relationships of different generations. One conversation was about how a younger generation of Amy’s family are taking over family responsibilities after the death of Miriam, the amazing matriarch of my wife’s family. Miriam’s granddaughter and family have moved into Miriam’s house and they are carrying on the tradition of hosting Sunday supper for the whole extended family. Several siblings have collaborated in the cooking and hosting to bring off this family rite that Miriam had overseen for thirty-five years after her children had left the nest.
Another conversation centered on the conflict between generations in the work place. It was fascinating for me to hear folks of different ages describe the often-fraught relationships especially between boomer and millennial generations. I’m sure that my Gen X generation is caught up in the competition as well. The conversation sent me to the internet where I found that there is more than a person could ever read on generational conflict, miscommunication and misunderstanding in the corporate world. Are the generations competing against each other to survive or are they learning to work together for the common good? I guess it depends on where you are looking.
A few days ago, while attending a college commencement, I bumped into a couple I had met when working with their church board. Their daughter was graduating and with them was an older woman who had come to enjoy the special moment. This older woman had been a part of the daughter’s life ever since she was baptized, serving as her community connection to the congregation. I have served several rural congregations who have developed mentoring programs for an older adult to mentor a young child from a different family. One church board that began thinking about the idea for the first time invited a Native American community leader to describe how his tribe utilized intergenerational mentoring among his people.
Intergenerational cooperation is at the heart of what it means to be church in the rural contexts where I have served. If this collaboration among the generations is not evident, or if it has been replaced with generational competition and divisiveness then the congregation is spiritually unhealthy or diseased.
Great time and energy is given to key moments in the human experience: birth, marriage, birthdays, graduations, weddings, anniversaries and funerals. Folks in these small scale religious communities trust that there is a good and natural cycle to life. There is an important flow with different stages of movement in the human life cycle. Each generation has a key role to play in this very human work. The older generation often mentors the younger generation through different stages of maturing and then relearns lessons that they see younger generations learning for the first time. Younger generations provide vitality along the cycle of life for the whole community and remind us all that energy, imagination and love are key for human beings created in the divine image. For all children of God, in whatever stage of life, attending to where one is on the cycle of life and attending to where others are on the same cycle is what it means to love God and love neighbor as self.
Wendell Berry describes the importance of this work like few can in his book, The Way of Ignorance. “The ancient norm or ideal seems to have been a life in which you perceived your calling, faithfully followed it, and did your work with satisfaction; married, made a home, and raised a family; associated generously with neighbors; ate and drank with pleasure the produce of your local landscape; grew old seeing yourself replaced by your children or younger neighbors, but continuing in old age to be useful; and finally died a good or a holy death surrounded by loved ones.”
What a great description of what it means to be a human being. To do our work well, we need members of every generation helping one another in the process. We will have to cooperate and collaborate should we want to finish our work in a good or holy way, surrounded by loved ones.
Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who pastors small town and country churches. He currently serves New Dublin Presbyterian Church in Southwest Virginia. His writing about the resilience of rural churches and communities includes the book Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and lives with his family in Bedford, Virginia, where from his front door he can be hiking the Appalachian Trail in 15 minutes.