by Linda Ryan
“Assuming that tomorrow will be the same as today is poor preparation for living. It equips us only for disappointment or, more likely, for shock. To live well, to be mentally healthy, we must learn to realize that life is a work in process.” — Joan Chittister, Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose and Joy *
There’s been a lot of discussion lately centering around aging and the church, specifically the role of older people running the church. When I saw this quotation in Sr. Joan’s book this morning, it was like a V-8 moment – a smack on the forehead that makes you catch your breath and think, “Yeah! That’s it!”
The quotation does, I believe, speak to those at both ends of the process of aging. To the elders it speaks of having gone through multiple changes throughout their life, including their place in the world, the neighborhood and the church. It’s been a more-or-less steady process of morphing (or sometimes total upheaval) from one state to another, sometimes imperceptible, sometimes with the force of a 9.5 earthquake. But the thing is that change is normal. It’s natural. It should be expected. We accepted it in our times of change, liking it or not, and sometimes wished the world would stop spinning because it was so much more comfortable being in a familiar place where we knew the rules and knew where we were. To the younger generations, it speaks to the changes that they will undergo. Some will have undergone changes already, but the ones looming on the horizon and as yet unknown, may shake them and form them just as the ones my generation have undergone. The answers that are so patently clear right now aren’t necessarily the ones that will still be so transparent in the next year, ten years, even in the next generation.
The world has changed so greatly in the lifetime of the Boomers. We grew up when television was still fairly new and color TV was cutting edge. We’ve lived through the technology revolution, room-sized computers becoming small enough to fit in the tiniest space imaginable, instant communication by internet, cell phone, and tablet, advanced medical tests that were (and sometimes still are) incomprehensible (and expensive) but which are capable of diagnosing things that even ten years ago were destined to remain unseen, unfelt, unnoticed and undiagnosed. We’ve seen the sexual revolution (and some of us took part in that!), the bridging (or continued bridging) of the gender gap, stock booms (and busts), the leaders we admired two years ago now are shown to be guilty (or merely accused) of gross injustice (or merely feet of clay), and what happens in Vegas is now fodder for the world’s media. No generation, I believe, has undergone as many changes as our has, although the Gen-Xers, Millennials and their successors may beat that record. I think that both parts of that statement bear remembering — we changed, they will change. The meeting point is the “is changing” between the generations.
The church has changed too over the course of our lives. Liturgies have changed, the Bible has been re-translated and re-translated again and again to speak to different groups and in different vernaculars, there has been an increased awareness of stewardship not just of individual time, talent and treasure but also of communal and global stewardship of the earth and all that lives, exists and is on it. We have come to a new understanding of and need for evangelism, not just because our numbers are dropping but because like the beggar who found a cache of food, we want other hungry people to find what we have found. It is a process. Nobody stays precisely in the same slot into which they were born, even in the church. The old quip of “But we don’t need evangelism because everybody who is supposed to be Episcopalian already is one!” doesn’t work any more — if it ever did.
So that brings me back to the process of change and where we are in it. The Boomers still have life in them, gifts to give and experience to pass on to those who are so ready to take over and change things themselves. The excitement of the next generations to get going with their church and taking it in new directions is exciting to us, even if a little intimidating. It is sort of like watching them start off on their first day of school, so eager to take the next step to growing up but wondering where their journey will take them.
The common denominator is change — changes that have taken place and those that will. For Boomers, we need to practice patience with those younger than us. We were anxious to grow up, get out on our own and take on the world to make it better for ourselves and our kids. The Gen Xers and Millennials are no different; they just have their own agenda, not necessarily that of their parents and grandparents. Their world is
different, so change has to be expected. Maybe it won’t always be comfortable and maybe not even what we consider wise, but definitely expected.
Life (and the church) is a work in progress. As surely as winter moves through spring and summer before arriving at fall and then winter again, change is inevitable. It might be a place to start in cross-generational discussions, not with one side haranguing the other about how it was or how it ought to be but where it has come from and where it could be going. If we become compartmentalized within our own generation we lose touch with something precious, something important. Each generation has something to offer the church; we just have to find where the common ground is and begin there to listen to all the voices and all the ideas, weighing them carefully, examining them from many angles, and coming to a common agreement — not necessarily an all-or-nothing command.
Be kind to each other, one generation to another. We’re all changing in some way, and for some of us it is painful, and that goes for both sides of the age fulcrum. Work together, learn from each other, trust each other’s motives are for the best that they can conceive, and tread lightly because we deal with people, not just ideas. Above all, expect change in all its forms. It will happen.
*ch. 13, ¶ 6, (Kindle ed.,) (2012) New York: Image.