Over these few weeks, we have been looking at how the generations into which we are born, shape the way we think and feel and act. Regardless of how liberal we consider ourselves, everything we have learned has shaped us deeply. The language we learn shapes the way we think, the family we grow alongside shape the way we relate, the events we witness affect our character development. We are all, inescapably, children of our time.
Generations, of course, are a modern invention. There was once a time, so the story goes, that there were young people, middle aged people, and if you made it into your forties, old people. The cycle of history continued – with the age-old tensions between the generations. Everyone who thought their generation was different, was smiled upon patronisingly, told that every new generation thought likewise, and sure enough, when they grew up, gave the same patronising advice to younger generations.
But various things happened in the modern era. The industrial revolution, a new economics, a belief in progress. Every generation would come to have it better than the previous one. On and on and on and up and up and up. And then we come to the twentieth century. In the twentieth century, human beings devised ever more efficient means of annihilating one another. People were no more evil than previous people, but … had the capacity to end more lives. The two world wars are evidence enough … concluding with the advent of the Nuclear age. With the advent of nuclear technology, for the first time in human history, human beings discovered the way to wipe themselves of the face of the earth. In the twentieth century, humans become mortal. The human race, as a whole, now has the very real possibility that this generation will be the last to see life on planet earth.
However unlikely we might find this, even if we stick our fingers in our ears to the realities of Ecological breakdown, the fact is – the human race now has the capacity to destroy itself.
The Baby boomer generation, born in the wake of this technology, grew up in a different world. And, following soon after them, was a generation Ruth described as baby gloomers, because no one gave them a special name. And then, in the late 60s, comes generation X. The generation to which I belong! Although, like every other member of my generation, I am an exception to all that tries to label it. At least, I like to think I am – which is exactly what marketers like me to think…
I belong to the first generation of people in a couple of centuries, who are likely to end up less prosperous than my parents. My parents used up all the oil, the pension funds and cheap housing – oh, and that’s right – those previous generations also set the planet on fire, and at best – we look forward to an ecological future of living in everyone else’s ash tray. Well, humbug.
The result: a rejection of hope, of values, of right and wrong, of principles, of foundations, of certainties. We revel, instead, in uncertainty. It is all we have known – and so, in theory, we declare that Nothing is certain – that’s for certain.
If you want to understand the mind set of Generation X, watch the movie, Fight Club. It’s all there. “We are God’s unwanted Children.” “This is your life – and it’s ending, one minute at a time.” For a slightly less gloomy portrayal of Generation X, watch the Simpsons.
It’s frightening to think I belong to the same generation as Bart Simpson. It not only explains my own infantile behaviour (although infantile behaviour is a character trait of generation X – at least, according to Baby boomers who look down on them.) Bart is the character whose own picture of the future is always, gloomy, dead-end, despair – but far from feeling gloomy, he thinks it’s cool. That, in essence, is the Generation X.
Suffering and hopelessness, but no despair. Ok, it’s a pretty crude portrait – but that is the generation that I belong to! How does it translate into church life?
There’s a slight moral superiority that haunts generation x, not particularly self conscious. And that is a smugness, that we are at home with suffering. There’s no escape from suffering, after all. And we have little chance, unless we are particularly lucky and successful, as climbing our way out of it. We are single parents, semi-committed, serial monogamists. And Christian attempts to ‘fix’ our plight look pitiful, unreflective and naïve.
Still – for Xers, we are unlikely to get too passionate about that. It’s too much hassle. If the Baby Boomers faced some inter-generational conflict with their elders within the life of the church – albeit with respect and good humour – they would debate, stand and fight, challenge the status quo. Generation X are not about to stand and fight with their elders. They are more likely to shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes, and vote with their feet. Leaving the Baby Boomers to try and work out where they’ve all gone.
So – we come to mission. The generation that are missing from church have to be brought back – so we’ll bring them back by offering certainties and answers and effectiveness. We have the truth, and we will share it with you. If you want to see just how Baby Boomers are using Baby Boomer mentality to try and reach Generation X, just look at the advertising slogans of the Alpha Course. It will work, of course, in West London – where people of my generation are lucky enough to be doing as well as their parents and therefore…
For Baby boomers – you shouldn’t ever use words or languages or references that people will not instantly and effortlessly understand. If you give sermons, evangelistic talks, or simply engage in conversation with people, and use references that are not instantly familiar – you are thought of as a poor communicator. For a Generation X response to this example – let’s watch David Mitchell.
For Generation X, mystery has not been conquered. Yes, we’re atheists, but we’re not really committed to atheism. We are quite happy with uncertainty, and anyone who tries to solve it is unlikely to be taken seriously. We are quite happy with moral ambiguities – and anyone who tries to impose a sense of right and wrong is seen as playing power games. And, above all, we are resigned to the reality of suffering – and any attempt to do away with it is rejected out of hand.
And here, we get to the heart of Generation X. Okay, when it comes to actual suffering – we’re not well equipped to it, or particularly well acquainted with it, compared to other generations. But – in theory at least – it is there, we accept it, there is no brighter future, no myth of human progress, no technology that will save us, no moral improvement in the human race. No – contemporary science fiction moves and novels, are largely about how human beings will scratch a living from the world they have virtually destroyed. It’s a gloomy world with a gloomy future. So how do we cope with it? By becoming consciously ‘me’ centred. Not that I am the only person that matters. The great heroes of the last decade in the gloomy future, have not been saviours: Neo, in the Matrix, Will Smith in I am Legend, John Connor in the Terminator. These are not heroes who save the world – they are heroes because they can cope with what an unchangeable world throws at them.
They are popular because they tell me – I can’t save the world, I can’t make life better, I have compassion fatigue if I take the suffering of others too seriously.
No – all I can do, the only people for whom I can make a difference are those closest to me. I will deal with suffering and a gloomy world, by living inside a virtual reality where – other people and things only exist around me. I am at the centre. Unlike the previous generation – we will say – who disguised their selfishness – we are the Me generation, who revel in it! Of course, the further I descend into me, and my little world of self-help, the more helpless and miserable I become: Generation X!
Of course these things are caricatures and generalisations – but we spoke about that last week. These are the traits, by and large, of a generation. Interestingly, if Jesus was here today – he would be a member of Generation X. And you can hear something of it in today’s reading. Jesus starts talking about suffering, being mistreated by the authorities, and persecuted – a true Xer. But… Peter is a baby-boomer, who pulls him to one side side and says, ‘No – this suffering malarkey! That will never happen to you! Come on! Where’s your optimism? You’re the saviour of the world”
And what is Jesus’ response? “Get out of my sight, Satan!” And then he launches into an attack on all that the Xers hold dear. “If you want to be my follower, you have to deny yourself – not venerate yourself – you have to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”
Yes, there is the recognition of suffering – but also, the strategy of coping with it is turned on its head. Not – we all have our cross to bear. But you, decisively, take up your cross and follow me. Because any who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, will find it.
To reach Generation X, using Christianity as the antidote to hardship and suffering is never going to work. We are, perhaps, half right – in a diagnosis of the human condition. Okay, our own experience of suffering is likely to be fairly shallow compared to others in this world. But suffering and hardship are an inescapable norm, rather than an evil to be overcome. Portraying the kind of an all powerful God who does not reach into the horror of gritty, human suffering, is a repulsive figure, rightly rejected by Generation X.
But the God of Scripture is not one who is unacquainted with grief. Nor is it a God who tells us to pull ourselves together and cope deal with it by being self-centred. This is a God who says, ‘grasp the nettle, take up your cross and follow me.’ Not revelling in suffering full stop – but engaging in the kind of life, that deals with suffering by entering into its depths. Entering into the darkness and death of suffering, because you are following Jesus there.
That way – following Jesus transforms our experience of suffering, of darkness, of death. We sang last week about God who ‘sanctifies to you, your deepest distress.’ Not making some sickly virtue out of suffering – but calling you to inhabit the world as it really is, in all its messiness and chaos and unpleasantness – and, beyond imagining – finding God in that very place.
Suffering, is meant to be the absence of God. That is why the Baby boomers sought to overcome it. For generation x, suffering – still – is the absence of God, which is why we can now only rely on ourselves to deal with it. For Jesus, it is more likely to be comfort, wealth and happiness that spell the absence of God. So to the hippified generations of the mid twentieth century, he addresses us all, and says take up your cross and follow me.
To take up your cross – it is one of those phrases we have heard so often it loses its meaning. To take up your cross is rebel against your generation. Even in Jesus’ day – he said his own generation was wicked and corrupt. To take up your cross is to rebel against it.
To take up your cross is to risk ridicule, and contempt, and criticism, and gossip and malice and slander and shame.
To take up your cross is to run the risk of conflict with authorities – which so many of us like to think we do anyway. To take up your cross is to get specific, to get your teeth into something, to put your money where your mouth is.
To take up your cross is to count your life as zero, and invest your self entirely in following this Jesus.
To take up your cross is to empty your hands of all concerns but one, to empty your life of all motives but one: to love this God and follow where he leads you – trusting the outcome to him.
To take up your cross is to remove your virtual reality head-set, and absorb the shock of the world that really is there.
But taking up your cross is not an end in itself. To carry your cross is the way to follow Jesus. And it’s time we heard the horror and the offence of that afresh. To walk through the via Delarosa – facing ridicule and scorn and shame – from all the people who shake their heads, who tut, who know better than you, consider themselves wiser than you, for people to spit on you, hit you and do their worse to hurt you. Not because – Jesus calls us all to a ridiculous life of pointless suffering – but because if you dare to follow this Jesus to real liberation for ourselves and the world, we find ourselves and the world are changed.
Because the Jesus who foretold his own suffering, also foretold his own resurrection.
The Jesus who went into the tomb is the one who emerged from it on the third day.
The resurrection, is not a conjuring trick with bones, not a miracle you must force yourself to believe if you want to go to heaven.
Resurrection is what happens when we entrust ourselves to this Jesus – who says ‘follow me.’
Resurrection is the name for the remaking of ourselves in the world. Not a description of something super-human, but something truly human – as we become who God created us to be.
Resurrection is the promise of God to all who follow him wherever he leads.
Resurrection is the experience of countless saints, who have entered deep into suffering, and lived to tell the tale.
Resurrection lies at the core of the Christian faith – and if only we could present Christianity in those terms – it would make so much more sense to Baby boomers, and baby busters, and generation x and generation y.
But we can only present Chistianity in those terms, if we take up our cross and follow him! We all have a sense of what that means – and we’ll unpack it in more detail, next week.