Service: “To Learn the Future” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
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Let me give you fair warning; this lies in store for all of us, whatever your current age may be. If you live long enough – and it doesn’t have to be all that long; probably well before you are ready for it – children take over the world. There is no alternative; the whole cycle of nature is designed that way. What’s more, it’s a good thing. The succession of the generations is inevitable; stopping it isn’t an option, so why bother preaching about it?
The thing is, as with so much else in life, that attitude makes a huge difference in how we experience the inevitable, and attitude is something we do have choices about. Whether we are elders looking at the upcoming generation, or young people on the threshold considering our parents and teachers, the perspective we bring, and the judgments that we make or forbear to make, will determine the kinds of connection that we foster – in families, in religious communities like this one, and in society as a whole.
Begin with the recognition that apparently no age has ever felt adequately honored or held in respect by its successors. From Socrates to Broadway, someone is always complaining about the unsatisfactory behavior and attitudes of the youth, or demanding “What’s the matter with kids today?” The hard-won truths of one generation are the exasperating platitudes of the next. Please be assured that you are not a special case, on either side of this equation. Boomers, remember how uncool our parents were? How they stressed about boys’ long hair, and girls’ short skirts, when there were so many more important issues, like war, and famine, and civil rights? It’s tempting to think, Well, but with US it’s different; we didn’t have I-phones and Snapchat, and we weren’t dying our hair blue, for heaven’s sake. Teens, I promise you, your parents were just as impatient once upon a time with the adults in their lives as you are today – for equally good, and equally bad, reasons. Some of us felt forced into a mold that didn’t fit us; others felt bewildered in a world without guidance.
The poet Robert Frost describes his experience this way:
When I was young my teachers were the old.
I gave up fire for form till I was cold.
I suffered like a metal being cast.
I went to school to age to learn the past.
Now when I am old, my teachers are the young.
What can’t be molded must be cracked and sprung.
I strain at lessons fit to start a suture.
I got to school to youth to learn the future.
The dilemma is that we need each other, the past and the future, the young and the old. We need the wisdom and resources of elders, patiently holding things together while new ideas unfold, and experiments succeed, or fail, or a little of both. And we need the energy and vision of young people, who make things happen because they aren’t willing to settle for being told they can’t. We need the skepticism of age, saying, “I’ve never seen anything like that work before!” and the skepticism of youth, saying, “Why keep doing it that way when the result is not so good?”
The key, it seems to me, on both sides, is an old-fashioned word – and that is, honor. We need our seniors to honor the idealism and passion of those who don’t want to settle for their lives, but want to make a difference. That is a holy aspiration, and without it the inertia of corruption will consume us all. At the same time, we need our young people to honor the long and faithful journeys by which their elders have tried to serve the good and the truth as we understood it. We need to bless both: the labor that has been given, and the hopes that are just now finding voice. They are not mutually exclusive – at our best they are the legacy and the promise that make our communities enduring over time. We need to honor the experiences that shape us, both young and old, as together we try to make a world that has never been, but that might yet be.
Last Sunday, senior students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida were awarded their diplomas at the 2018 graduation ceremony – four of them posthumously, four months after a shooter with a legally obtained AR-15 semi-automatic rifle gunned down 17 people, including seniors Meadow Pollack, Carmen Schentrup, Nicholas Dworet and Joaquin Oliver. Their fellow student Delaney Tarr, also a member of the graduating class, wrote this in an essay in Teen Vogue the month after the murders:
We have been forced to grow up in the span of days. We have been forced to live what feels like an entire lifetime before the week even ended. We are high schoolers, though high school now feels like a distant memory.
But, I refuse to feel hopeless. Our childhoods may have been stolen from us but there are so many lives that can still be protected, and saved. Just because this has happened to many before us does not mean it must continue to happen to those after. The innocent young people that deserve their youth — my 12-year-old sister, or the four-year-old I babysit — shouldn’t have to live in a world of code reds and shooter protocol and closet hideouts.
That is why we are marching and making ourselves heard. Knowing that we can keep this from happening to even one more person is the only thing that makes me feel even a little bit better about living through this senseless tragedy.
We are in a place where we have the ability to speak out. We have social media, we have the news, and we have the benefit of coming from a school that has given us so many opportunities to learn about our country. We know the damage that organizations like the NRA do. We know the money that is flowing directly into politicians’s hands in exchange for more semi-automatic rifles in circulation.
With all of the power and platform being given to us, my peers and I will never be quiet. We will not be silenced by an oppressive government. We will not be silenced by corrupt individuals. We will be heard.
We are no longer just high school students, that much is true.
We are now the future;
we are a movement;
we are the change.
Is Delaney Tarr an exceptional young person? Yes and no. As she herself points out, she and her classmates have had an exceptional education in their rights and opportunities and obligations as citizens to speak out. Their organized and articulate protest is evidence of that preparation, bequeathed to them by a generation of teachers, parents, and elders. Yet their vision of schools without guns, and preparations for guns, is not unique; it is shared by many students and young people across the nation, who know that in this regard, their older generations have not served them well. Delaney Tarr is admirable, but she is not alone; like many of her cohort, she seeks to call us all back to our better selves; to imagine a better world, and ask, Why not?
In a moment we will honor the graduation of an admirable young woman raised in this community, who has overcome adversity and personal tragedy to achieve remarkable things. We will celebrate her, and send her forth to the next chapter in her life with our love and blessings. Let us commit ourselves, here in this covenant community of memory and promise, to honor both the wisdom of the past, and the vision of the future. Let us lift up the best examples of lives long devoted to service and to sacrifice for the common good, as well as the new willingness both to demand. and to be, the change that may help to heal our culture and our planet. May we learn from the past, that we may guard its treasures, and repeat its mistakes as little as possible. May we learn the future, so that its best hopes may kindle the fire of our shared commitment, and make us whole together.