In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god.
Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility— young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians.
-Daniel 1:1-4 (NIV)
Oh, in hindsight, I should have expected it. It’s certainly happened to other people. I guess I didn’t really think that it couldn’t happen to me; I just never really thought that much about the fact that it might. That it could. That it would.
I’m not even sure exactly when it happened, just that one day I noticed that it had.
What happened is that I got old.
Some of you who know me might be shaking your heads, saying to yourselves, He’s not old. Let me tell you, gently, that you’re saying that only because you’re older. I’m closer to 51 than I am to 50. Closer to 70 than I am to 30. I’m certainly not ancient, but I’m not young either. Sometimes I make noises when I sit down or stand up. I don’t hear or see as well as I used to. I don’t run like I used to. (Though that was never all that good.)
I’d prefer to say I’m middle-aged, but that strains even the most optimistic of predictions on my potential life span.
And along with some gray hair, a need for reading glasses, and the fact that cheeseburgers stick with me longer than they used to, something else has happened to me at this point in my life.
I don’t relate to younger people like I used to.
I find myself now mentally shaking my head and saying things like, “They’ll understand one day,” as I’m sure people did with me twenty or thirty years ago. I find myself a little shorter on youthful idealism than I used to be. I can officially say that I just don’t get most pop music. I sometimes even roll my eyes at what passes for fashion among the younger generations.
I’m really starting to realize that I just don’t see the world in exactly the same way as someone who’s half my age does. There are things that I assume, and they don’t. And vice-versa. Some of that has to do with living longer and going through different experiences in life. (I heard someone once say that a liberal is a conservative who hasn’t had to pay for college...) Some of it has to do with the fact that the world in which I grew up and the world in which younger adults have grown up are very different places. It’s not necessarily that I’m wrong, or that they’re wrong. It’s just likely that there are some things we’ll never see alike.
But even given those differences, I’m not willing to say that the future isn’t in good hands.
I had the privilege a couple of weeks ago of being with a group of college men and women from the campus ministry at Southern Arkansas University who came to Chicago instead of Cancun for Spring Break. (Excursus: “spring in Chicago” is an oxymoron. At least in March.) They came here to feed the hungry, serve the poor, visit the lonely, and instruct and encourage the church. We had some interesting conversations over the course of the week, and discovered that there were some things we saw differently. But we also bonded together over what we have in common: Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and a Father who calls us his children. How could I fear for the future seeing how these young men and women cared so passionately for the people who are especially close to God’s heart? How could I doubt that he will use them hearing them singing praise to him while they packed potatoes for hungry families?
I don’t always understand younger people, and yet the teenagers at my church sit still and listen respectfully while I help teach their Sunday morning Bible class. They’re willing to look past the fact that I’m old (at least to them) and out of touch. And more than sit and listen respectfully, they make insightful comments and ask good questions that show they’re really trying to engage with the word of God and take it seriously. Sometimes they even hang out with me when they don’t have to, and they pray for each other, and for me. And they, too, care about hurting people and want to figure out how to bless them and offer them the hope of the gospel. Often, they teach me more than I teach them. How can I doubt that the Holy Spirit is at work in their lives? How can I doubt that God has big plans for them?
How could I fear for the future when I know young adults like the ones who are part of my church? When they share with me their ideas and passions for what the church could be and should be, when I see in their lives and hear in their voices how much they truly want to follow the Lord and be his people in more than name? When I see how they serve and care and pray and worship, I have to be optimistic about what their role in the kingdom of God will be in the next few decades.
Don’t you know that there must have been lots of people in Israel during Daniel’s time who were pessimistic about the future? Conquered by a foreign king, the temple destroyed, the people uprooted from the promised land - how would they survive as God’s people? How would they, in the words of the Psalm, “sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land”? And don’t you imagine that they must have been horrified to hear about good Israelite boys learning the Babylonian language and culture to serve the very king who had destroyed them?
What the future showed, however, is that Daniel and his friends were just figuring out how to be God’s people in a changing world, in shifting circumstances. As it turned out, they didn’t give up anything of consequence. They were still pious enough to call an idol an idol, even if they used Babylonian words to do so. They were still God’s people, and God used them to proclaim his name to a foreign king.
What should we take away from Daniel’s story? How about this: To doubt the future generation is to doubt God.
Who cares if they don’t see things exactly the way we do? I’m not sure my generation has exactly proven itself to be infallible. Who cares if we don’t understand how God will use them? It’s enough to say with faith that he will, and to trust in him enough to work with them in building the future of the church and the world. Or, failing that, to trust him enough to get out of their way.
I’m optimistic about the future - of the church and of the world - because I see what God is doing among teenagers and young adults right now.
So maybe, as it happens, I’m not quite over the hill yet.