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Generational voices

Generational voices

1 Kings 12:1-20

Solomon was dead and now Israel had come together to ratify the reign of the new King Rehoboam. Becoming King was not automatic; it involved approval from the entire nation. In this passage Israel had a request to make of Rehoboam and his answer would determine his success or failure in attaining the throne of his father.

The request that Israel had made of Rehoboam was both simple and complex. The simple part was the request to have their workload lightened. Solomon had been less than kind to his workers who were building things in his kingdom, notably the temple in Jerusalem. The people were asking Rehoboam to lighten up a bit, and there was the complex part. That was something about which Rehoboam figured he’d better get some advice before making a decision.

That was a wise move – at least initially. Most wise people don’t just jump into something, especially something as important as a new career, moving to a new place, or even instigating a new venture of some sort. Rehoboam first consulted the elders, wise people who had counseled his father and their response was to advise Rehoboam to comply with the wish of Israel and ease the burden. In the short-term this could slow progress but in the long run he would win the hearts of the people and they would be more willing to do more in return. Rehoboam took this under advisement and then went and sought the counsel of his contemporaries who advised just the opposite. Show strength right off the bat, tighten the reins and let loose an even worse whip to keep them in submission. Rehoboam chose to listen to his contemporaries and the results were disastrous to say the least. By the time the smoke cleared, the only tribe over which Rehoboam would rule would be Judah; the rest of Israel packed its tents and went home, severing the tie with the house of David forever.

Rehoboam suffered a real missed opportunity to keep the family together, as it were. Once he made that choice, choosing the immediate over the long-term, the immediate reaction was not the one he had wanted. It’s a reminder of some of the discussions going on today in the church between generations as to in what direction the church should go. One question before the church is how to attract and keep members of the younger generations, namely the Millennials and hopefully the Generation Zs that come after them. Everybody’s got an opinion and everybody wants a place at the table where they can express that opinion. Each has an idea of what they would like to see and what they would like to change. Do we hold on to tradition in both liturgy and in music? Do we modernize with praise bands and a more emotion driven form of worship or do we go with more creative, more “relevant” liturgies that aren’t radical enough to scare the older folks but which might seem a bit more contemporary to the younger ones? How do we blend the needs, desires, and hopes of multiple generations so that none feel that they are not being heard or that their needs, desires and hopes are unimportant enough for consideration. It’s a fine balance, one that can be very hard to maintain.

I think it’s natural for a generation of young people to question, to struggle against authority, to want to do things their way which, to their way of thinking, is the only and right way. They have wisdom about a world they’ve grown up in while the older folks have had to transition (more or less easily or gracefully) from a quite different one. Most parents seem to have the same wail, “My kids don’t listen to me! They want to do it their way!” I have a feeling every parental generation since Adam and Eve has said something similar– just as the Millennials and Generation Zs will say it when their turn comes. I also hear Millennials saying, “It’s our turn; listen to us for a change and don’t try to guess what we want or need. Let us tell you.” How can the generations come together and work out a plan where everybody wins and nobody feels like they are losers or haven’t been heard? Is that even possible?

What can the various generations like bring to the table of discussion? With the Silent Generation/Boomers, many have grown up in some sort of tradition, have been taught what was considered “right belief” and found that questioning was often actively discouraged. Many have come to the realization that life and faith come in shades of gray and not just solid yeas or nays. They’ve generally accommodated themselves to changes in liturgy and focus just as they have cultural and sociological changes in their congregations and their neighborhoods, sometimes more or less gracefully. But if they’re still in church it’s because they feel that this is the place they want and need to be, a place that accepts them and listens to them and where they can express their faith and their understanding in safety. Funny, that sounds a lot like what Millenials seem to want, at least to my ears. They have accumulated the wisdom that comes from struggling with a lot of things that the Millennials struggle with now – the Been There, Done That syndrome.

What the Millennials and Gen Zs can contribute are fresh eyes and a changed world. They’ve got ideas based on the world of computers, instant communications and a view to global problems that their parents and grandparents never had to consider. They seem to want tradition, maybe slightly adjusted to a more modern concept of sound bytes rather than florid Shakespearean (and King James) English, but with a firm footing in the past. I bet they’d like the church to reach out more to try to help solve the problems of the world like poverty, homelessness, hunger, abuse and mismanagement. They want to question and struggle with the answers in a supportive environment that allows them to bring disparate disciplines like theology and science together. Unlike the Christianity of their predecessors where missionaries were sent out to convert the unbelievers, they want to be part of the mission that helps bring clean drinking water to thirsty villages, build schools to educate the next generations of leaders in countries where poverty is so rampant and to help feed the millions who are starving — all in the name of Jesus but without insisting on conversion before assistance. And, I am pretty sure they want people and churches who really mean what they preach — showing God’s love, respecting the humanity of all people and demonstrating the gospel by the way they live, not just by flinging around Bible verses or forgetting the gospel message by the time they hit the front door of the church on the way out on Sunday mornings.

I wonder … what would happen if we could harness the experience and the tradition to the vision and the transparency? How can we make a safe, worshipful, loving, honest, giving place for everyone? What if we could listen, really listen, to all sides and do what Episcopalians pride themselves on being, namely a bridge church and a wide umbrella.

Perhaps Rehoboam is a good cautionary tale for us in these times and when it comes to our church. He did have a good idea, namely to solicit advice from two very different sources. In terms of our modern church discussions, perhaps that wisdom can be applied by having both sides at a round table, listening to each other and asking and answering frank questions. I think all generations have something to offer, something that would make the church poorer if they weren’t present. Instead of choosing one over the other (and potentially making a wrong choice like Rehoboam did), we could take the best of both, lighten the burden and still make progress.

I wonder too… isn’t it worth a try? Maybe this is one of those times to have what are called “difficult conversations,” conversations that touch on sensitive issues and tries to do so with mutual gentleness and mutual respect. Now the question appears, what is holding us back from such conversations? Pride? Stubbornness? Unwillingness? Feelings of entitlement?

I hope those conversations start soon and spread widely. I’d love to be part of them.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

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