Blessing or Curse: From Generation to Generation
Tonight two of my sisters and I are getting together for dinner in what has become an annual tradition celebrating all three of our birthdays, which fall within two weeks of each other. A week and a half ago, on her birthday, my sister Susan received the best birthday gift ever: the gift of her third grandson!
I have noticed a pattern in families: of all the possible dates in a year, family members are often born on the same day! For example, I was born on my paternal grandmother’s birthday, so we always had a combined birthday party together. Amazingly, my daughter Victoria, was then born on my father’s birthday, so they always had a combined party.
Now my sister Susan and her grandson will have a combined birthday party! Families are like this, connected and woven together in mysterious and inextricable ways. For better or for worse.
In the Hebrew bible, in the preface to one of the oldest parts of the Torah, the ten commandments, we read a weird and seemingly unfair verse: “…for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20: 5-6) Now although a God of jealousy and punishment is not in line with my own theology, I ask you, from your own family, do you not see the “sins” of one generation continuing from generation to generation? Consider alcoholism. We certainly see that pass down from one generation to the next. Or unfaithfulness in marriages, that too seems to get passed down from one generation to the next, until someone wakes up and breaks the cycle, that is.
But even in this dismal schema, blessings seem to be exorbitantly more powerful than curses, and have a longevity far, far greater. In fact, the blessings verse can be translated, to the thousandth generation or “for thousands of generations!” In other words, forever. So faithfulness can be passed down, and a passion for music, art, athletics. Determination, compassion, generosity, all those, when lived, can bear fruit for thousands of generations! The other day my husband and I were reflecting on the amazing people our young adult children have become. We are now blessed with a new generation, our grandchildren, and we see some amazing parenting going on on the part of our children. But you need not be a parent to shape the next generations. In our community of faith I see teachers and youth leaders, coaches and counselors, guides and mentors nurturing the next generations.
In fact, our community of faith just celebrated its 141st anniversary. That is why we are called the “First” Lutheran Church of East Greenwich, RI, because we were the FIRST Lutheran church in Rhode Island. Sometimes when I am struggling as a leader of this community, I sit alone in our beautiful, prayerful sanctuary, and pray. I feel strengthened by the many generations of those who sat in the pews before me, whose prayers can still be felt in this sacred space. I draw strength from the deep faith and prayers, from generation to generation…
But on occasion I also see unhealthy patterns repeating themselves in our community of faith as well. A must-read for leaders of communities or other organizations is called Generation to Generation by Edwin H. Friedman. He speaks of families as systems, which function in healthy, functional patterns, or in unhealthy and dysfunctional patterns. He says that communities, businesses, churches, etc. are really just extended family systems, and repeat these same patterns, for better or for worse. Even the most mature, healthy families have their little dysfunctions. But some are so dysfunctional that sometimes people have to leave the system if they want any chance at living a healthy life. Communities of faith are at higher risk, systems theorists say, because many of them are welcoming to all sorts of people, even to deeply dysfunctional, wounded people, who then in their own dysfunction, wound others. Systems theorists stress, therefore, how essential it is for leaders of faith communities to be healthy and highly functional. Or we might add, for leaders of families, businesses, and any other organization, to be healthy and mature.
In Native American tradition there is a saying that we should do everything we do, mindful of how it will effect the next seven generations. This has become a slogan for environmentalists, that we should not just function with ourselves in mind, but rather the generations which will come after us.
I ask you, what kind of legacy are you leaving behind? May our lives be blessings for thousands of generations to come.
Photos: the sister, at last year’s birthday celebration, Newport, RI; John, John Luca, and baby Liam John; Victoria and Papa; John, John Luca and Papa; Ted and Sylvie; First Lutheran Church of East Greenwich, RI; three generations; Ted and Sylvie