By Charles Rush
February 27, 2000
Isaiah 11: 1-9
veral years ago, I was one of those people that were asked to go
to the White House for President Clinton's infamous coffees.
Now I am still a pretty simple man, so when this invitation came in the
mail, the very first thing I did... was to call my Mom. I'd never
been to the White House, probably never would go again... to talk to
the President. It's the sort of thing that my Mom wants to hear.
This invitation produced some generational rumbling in my parents'
home as I discovered the next time I went to visit. My father had
nothing but snide remarks to make about the President. "Son, ask
him how my wife can get in on a bond deal like Hillary did?"
"Ask him how to spell Whitewater". And so on. This comes
from a man that has a picture of himself shaking hands with Dan Quayle
at a fundraiser on his desk.
Now, my grandmother was also present. She is 92. My grandmother
kept saying, "thank God, he's not going to talk to that Brownshirt
Gingrich." A few years ago, I asked my grandmother why she is
still a Democrat despite the fact that it generally was a vote against
her personal economic interest. Her response was straight to the
point, "Because Franklin Roosevelt brought lights to
My father rolls his eyes at comments like this and says something
like "but what good have they done in the past 60 years?"
My brother, who lives on Capitol Hill, jumped in with a spirited
defense of liberalism, until my Grandmother cut him off.
"Andy", she said, "don't waste your breath. The fact of
the matter is political wisdom seems to skip generations." My
grandmother may not be right... but she is never wrong!
It is true on an important level that wisdom skips generations for
the majority of us. Teenagers rebel. That is their job. Parents only
get confused in their job when they want to have a significant and
friendly relationship with their children. A parent's job, as a
psychologist friend of mine, has pointed out, is to give their children
something substantial to rebel against. In due time, on their own,
they will find their way back home to substantial values that you can
really live by.
Mr. Holland's Opus
, contrasts two generations with poignant irony. Mr. Holland starts
off with a dream to become a musical composer. His passion is working
on a symphony that he began right out of college. But after he tired
of traveling the country in a band, and he couldn't find full time
employment as a composer, he became a Music teacher in the local High
His love for music permeates everything he does, leading the band,
the orchestra, even the marching band, plays, graduation performances,
the countless students he mentors towards proficiency.
He and his wife have a son. They name their son Coletrane because
the music of John Coletrane had so profoundly influenced Mr. Holland at
a pivotal part of his life. The son is born deaf. This was not in the
plans. Over many years, he learns how to sign and they have a
relationship but the relationship has some distance in it. The
relationship takes work for the father to learn how to communicate with
his son. His wife puts more energy into signing and often times has to
help the two translate for each other. More than that Mr. Holland
continues through his life just doing his job- he spends a lot of time
at night at rehearsals for the play, spends time early in the morning
with his students that need extra practice.
As his son begins to become a teenager, Mr. Holland's lack of
intentional creative imagination creeps up on him. There is a natural
distance that begins to develop between father and son. Son challenges
authority. Father is annoyed by son the slacker.
Add to this another dimension. It never occurred to the Father to
share music with his son, for crying out loud, the kid is deaf. So the
father, unwittingly, has never shared the passion that is the most
central to his life. Despite the fact that they occupy the same living
space, they have hardly ever shared the love of music together. The
kid internalizes this because he sees his father's time commitments
over the years. He sees how he invests in other students. He wants
some time too. He wants to be loved. It does not occur to the father
that he is doing anything wrong.
One day, Mr. Holland comes home from work grumpy and sad. He and
his son are arguing over the car, when the son says to him, "What
is wrong?" Mr. Holland signs back to him, "John Lennon died.
You wouldn't understand." The kid blows up at him, "You don't
think I know who John Lennon is just because I'm deaf." And
then the kid gives him the speech about how he has taught everyone else
in the world about music but not him.
By the way, Mr. Holland does figure out a way to communicate about
music with his son. There is time for the amendment of life.
But the moment is very sad and poignant. Very often the two
generations seem to have these built in barriers to communication and
relatedness. The very people that you most want to love and nourish,
you seem unable to connect with. Close in proximity, and for reasons
that you cannot even bring yourself to articulate, there is this
spiritual distance, a détente, an armistice but no deep
discussions. It causes the best of us concern. We are sure that
others are doing a better job of relating to their kids than we are.
We are sure we are alone on this front. If it makes you feel any
better, everyone else is about in the same boat too- or they will be in
It is unlikely that we are going to be able to transmit wisdom from
one generation directly to the next, although this does happen from
time to time. Most of these discussions have to wait for many years if
they take place at all.
No, most of the time, wisdom skips generations. And that is why
the vocation of being a grandparent is such an important calling. God
gives parents the possibility of becoming a grandparent as an
opportunity for healing... and as opportunity for pay back. The
common wisdom says that Grandparents and grandchildren have a common
enemy, a future fact that teenagers and young adults seem
constitutionally unable to grasp.
The great promise of grandparenthood is the possibility of passing
on such wisdom as you have been able to accumulate to the next
generation. For most of us, we don't really know what that is until we
begin sharing it with a 3-year-old. The good news is that 3-year-olds
come with a built in openness. They want to believe that we are wise
in fact. They need to believe that we are wise.
No question, the context for sharing this wisdom has changed in the
past 3 generations. But my sense is that the coming generations
actually have real promise for creativity on this front.
My mother grew up in the 30's. In my family, and probably in the
majority of American families, for a good portion of the summer the
kids were shipped out of Memphis to their Granddaddy's farm. What they
remember about childhood is following their grandparents around the
farm in awe of the wonderful simple things that farmers did on a daily
basis. They not only milked the cows, Grandma took the milk, made
butter out of some of
it, picked fruit from the trees, put it all together for a delicious
homemade fruit pie. Since the whole day on a farm is composed of the
chores that it takes to get through the day, the kids spent all their
time doing chores in the fresh air, getting gloriously tired, swimming
down in the creek, learning to saddle and ride the horse. Grandparents
had a natural trove of wisdom that consisted of aphorisms on rules for
dealing with the animals and prohibitions regarding snakes, coyotes,
and other wiles of nature.
In the midst of this routine, Grandparents were able to pass on
pretty viscerally the ethic of work that they lived day in and day out,
their ethic of conservation that found some productive use for every
left over ort and tittle. They passed on a natural appreciation of the
beauty of birds and the morning sunrise that greeted them every day.
They passed on their spirituality, which in that generation generally
included daily Bible readings with instruction and regular times of
prayer, and Sundays were simply never missed. [The Baptist paper that
came out when I was a child would feature elderly people who had a
record for perfect attendance at Sunday school. Each year they got a
pin in June. There would be ladies on the front page of the paper
named Thelma, aged 86, who was recently recognized at her church for 50
years of perfect attendance at Sunday school.]
My generation was really one of the first to have vacations in the
manner that we regularly expect them today. Our family took some
vacation every year, but a very large part of what we understood
vacation to mean was going to visit our relatives in Memphis. My
grandparents had the custom of taking the grandchildren, a couple at a
time to the river at Pickwick Dam, where we would fish for several
The days of the farm were over but in some ways this was the next
best thing, in other ways maybe even better. It was a chance to see my
Grandparents in the element of their choosing. Both of my Grandparents
worked but I don't think either of them found a huge fulfillment in
their work. It was just what you did to pay the bills.
Out on the water, you got a sense that this was where they both
wanted to be. My grandfather was a real handy man. He could fix
anything, a virtue that was held in far higher esteem in the South than
it is on the East Coast. Today, we just hire guys to come to our
houses and fix everything- it is almost a badge of success that we can
afford to pay top dollar and have all these workingmen answering to our
spouses. My grandfather's generation would have rolled their eyes in
disdain. Wimp... I can hear him now "Owns $23,000 in outdoor
lighting fixtures and can't figure out how to set the timer-
pitiful!... Absolutely pitiful!"
What I remember as a child is a mystery. It was being in the dark
rural night, hearing the sounds of the night that come off the lowlands
in Mississippi. I remember waking before dawn, eating breakfast still
asleep, fiddling with stuff by flashlight. I remember the chill of the
air taking the boat across the lake before dawn. I remember praying
with my Grandparents at meals and for a longer session before bed. I
remember falling asleep in the pew in some teeny Baptist Church in
rural Mississippi in the humid night air with the Cicada's chirping in
the background and the congregation singing hymns. I remember walking
around Civil War battle sites and hearing a story about our people and
our country, hearing it many times over many years, that told us about
who we were and where we came from. I remember my Grandparents telling
us things they wanted us to know about how to live our lives with
spiritual integrity. I remember my Grandmother letting her hair down
late at night in her nightgown, watching
My sense in this next generation is that we have more possibilities
to make a mystery like that take place but we are going to have to go
get our grandchildren. This generation is scheduled up to their teeth,
sports, tutoring, fun camp, sports camp, family vacation. It is
incredible. "The Far Side" recently had two kids with their
Calendar's on their bikes, scratching through date after date, finally
landing on a Friday in the next month to get together and trade pokemon
We are going to have to claim some time and nearly demand that our
children block us in for some time here, some time there. Perhaps, as
no other time in history though, we have the opportunity to take our
grandchildren with us on an adventure. We have the economic means and
the travel possibilities to make an adventure come true, not that it
has to be exotic in order for it to be important. It just has to be a
dramatic change from the uni-culture that increasingly defines
childhood for the entire East Coast, spreading through the television
to the whole country. We have a chance to explore our passion and let
our grandchildren explore it with us. What a terrific context for
passing on our wisdom.
Think about it for a minute... Where is your spiritual habitat?
Where have you been when you have felt that spiritual congruence? The
mystery of Being? The awe of being alive in our world? You have a
chance to not only go there yourself (more than the previous
generations) you can take your grandchildren with you. That imprint
will last. It will outlive you. For better and worse, it may be the
most important contribution you make to the family in that phase of
I heard about one Grandfather that kidnapped two of his grandkids a
couple days before a long weekend, just woke them up in the early
morning, got them packed, got them on the plane to western Montana for
a few days of fly fishing on one of the rivers at the base of the
Rockies and some hiking to boot.
Grandpa wakes the kids up in the morning, tells them they are doing
something special. "What?" says one of the kids.
"Skipping school", said Grandpa. The kid is getting dressed.
After a few minutes he says, "Grandpa, is this legal?"
I can only imagine the beauty of the mornings. He taught the kids how
to fish. What is important to remember is that this is when you can
work in a bit of discussion about morality, about how to live. This is
the time when you can model a few of the basic spiritual disciplines
like reading a short passage from the Bible that is genuinely edifying
as a thought for the day, or maybe another spiritual thinker. Maybe
most importantly, this is a time when it is important to pray or to
meditate with your Grandchildren. And it is very important that little
kids see their Grandfather's leading them. Don't just leave this to
the women. It is way more important than that.
The next generation is not going to develop values by osmosis. They
need to have them spelled out, modeled. This will be a challenge for
some of us because we don't want to cram religion in the throats of the
next generation since we choked on it when it was crammed in ours.
But neither does it seem to me a good idea to avoid the whole
subject and assume that they will get it on their own. I got very bad
instruction on how to play baseball when I was a kid, so when I became
an adult, I simply determined to read around a bit, talk to some other
people and teach my kids baseball in a healthy way. I'm sure it wasn't
perfect but it was a lot better than the previous generation. But to
omit teaching baseball because I had a bad experience? What a stupid
No, we can only model what we are already becoming, who we are
already becoming, what we are growing to believe is true and important.
And I know that for some of us, it may seem a little awkward at first
to pray, to read a thought for the day, to share on a moral and
spiritual level. We are not all that experienced in these disciplines
ourselves. But you are not done yet either. You are coming into a
fuller realm of being, hopefully a more rounded mature realm of being.
Share what you are learning, what you are coming to embrace and be.
Remember that your grandchildren are looking for you to fulfill this
role, expecting you to do it.
I wouldn't trust our children to shoulder this responsibility on
their own. In some ways, they simply can't because they are parents.
You will have an access and a rapport with your Grandchildren that will
be more intimate and more profound in many ways. And we sure as heck
shouldn't trust our wider culture, our schools, or even our churches to
teach our kids moral and spiritual values. They will grow up in a
world of dramatic cultural currents that will wend in many different
directions, the most beguiling often at odds with spiritual integrity.
Truth be told, it will be here that you will have the chance to pass on
that which you have also received, that you will be given a chance to
bless the next generation, that you will be able to give a full
expression to some things you were unable to do with your own kids.
There is hope for the future.
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