This generation is the generation which gives absolute priority to the personal and which tends in a remarkable way to withdraw into the self. This might surprise those who think of our youth as highly activist, sign-carrying protesters who stage teach-ins, sit-ins, walk-ins, and stay-ins all over the country and think of themselves in many terms, but never in terms of inwardness.” — Henri Nouwen in The Wounded Healer, 1972.
I begin with this quote that but for the vernacular of “sit-ins” could describe our current generation. It should come as no surprise, however, because that generation raised our Millennials and some of our older Gen-Z’s.
What he says later in the same chapter after noting a lack of parental guidance (especially the lack of fathers) also got my attention, “(Considering their inwardness) might expect a very quiet and contented future in which people keep themselves and try to conform to their own little in-groups. But then we must take into account a very deep-seated unhappiness . . . [because they] are convinced that there is something terribly wrong with the world in which they live and cooperation would constitute betrayal of themselves.”
This frustration, he says, leads to undirected violence which destroys without clear purpose or suicidal withdrawal which are signs of protest without a new-found ideal.
I expect that some will disagree that this accurately describes our current situation, but they are strikingly similar. I would argue that many of the issues are the same. They still orbit the themes of equality and the environment. For many, religion has gone in nearly the opposite direction needed. It was the 1980’s and 1990’s that brought us mega-churches and still today we have celebrity pastors who seem more interested in the good life or doctrine than in those things younger generations are concerned about.
The difficulty we are in today is the same difficulty we have always been in. There is a profound gap between the ideals of Christianity (which is the dominant faith in most of the United States) and its practice. Preachers may criticize greedy big business or the violence of the military or those in national politics, but the truth is that all those groups, especially the military, are more representative of our diversity as a nation than nearly any church one might walk into.
How, then, does this relate to one’s inner life? It is this. If we are to help each other, there must be enough depth and strength to lend assistance. Here are three thoughts.
First, stay connected to a larger body. Even if it is difficult. There are certainly reasons to cut ties and find a different group, but that is a short list. This is mentoring by example. Our radical emphasis on individualism, personal identity, and culture of taking offense has made being part of a diverse group more difficult than at any time in my life. We have nearly lost the understanding of the proverb, “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens another.” (Prov. 27:17).
Second, look into the eyes of those who are fearful, angry, or disenfranchised. It may be an impulse to immediately teach, correct, or quote scripture. However, unless one understands or at least sees the one being addressed any teaching or correcting is likely to miss the mark and may make things worse. And do not forget that the best teachers learn from their students as well.
Finally take care of your prayer life.. Doing this as we are firmly planted in a larger group while we look directly at those in trouble will keep us balanced. Nouwen was right when he said, “The Christian leader must be in the future what she has always had to be in the past; a person of prayer, who has to pray.”
This is not to suggest that any of us are superior to any other. Just the opposite When Jacob was fearfully going back to see his brother Esau, he spent a night wrestling with God. Every day after that he walked with a limp. And so it is for all who contend with God in a world where we do not always get along with each other.
We have roots and ideals as a church. The same is true of our nation. We will always fail at living up to them, but that does not mean that we do not try. It does not mean that we should not listen to each other rather than constantly pointing out each other’s weaknesses and failures. Get connected. Stay connected. Lift your eyes to look into the eyes of others. Pray. Make the world better.