Beyond the Elders’ Wisdom

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The young must assert their vision and claim today

For a number of years I have advised students in my classes that they have a responsibility to think past their elders, teachers and leaders. I believe that each emerging generation is responsible for moving their society or group beyond its status quo, to see the new and the innovative, to envision a different future and move towards it.

Young leaders must think more deeply, higher, further and more broadly than their elders. Without that progression, societies, organizations, faith communities and cultures stagnate. We become “freeze-framed” in a particular space and time, and relegate ourselves to museum status. Not unlike medieval monasteries, we may be the keepers of valued truth and relics while also losing connection both to the culture about us and to God’s ever progressing revelation. Indeed we fall behind.

As well as thinking past its elders, each emerging generation must give birth to its own visionary leaders, prophets who clearly see what is shadowy or invisible to the rest of us: such leaders move communities and cultures in fresh directions.

Coldbrook church plan
In 1973 Charis and I began a church plant in Coldbrook, NS, meeting in this building, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union Hall. It was a wonderful time in our life, but a long way from Toronto and YSM.

I was a 27-year-old rural-oriented pastor when a friend introduced me to a group of young urban pastors, educators and poverty workers who viewed the world in ways I had not imagined. Like most Old Testament prophets they are mostly unknown beyond their circles. I’m thinking of people like Doug and Judy Hall and the community around Boston’s Emmanuel Gospel Center; the SCUPE consortium in Chicago; Gipp Forester in Western Canada and Dan Dryer in Atlantic Canada.

Collectively, they and others created a counter-cultural movement which re-visioned the place of the church in the inner city. While North America embraced all-out consumerism and a “me-centeredness,” they fostered a vision that was more grace-filled, generous and inclusive. Their insights and convictions changed how many of us engaged our world: we became more compassionate towards the homeless, the poor and marginalized; we became a more inclusive people.

My life was transformed. My focus shifted from rural to urban, and then deepened to truly see the urban poor, to question accepted truisms about poverty, to revisit what we meant by care of the poor, and then to recognize the centrality of justice.

But it began with young leaders who dared to see things differently. I believe that in spite of the many wrongs we see in our society, North America is in significantly better shape because those who influenced many of us dared to think beyond their elders.

Youth are not automatically smarter or wiser. Nor is something inherently faulty with elder-think: the wisdom of the elders is usually foundational for new wisdom and insight. Elders mentored me and taught me how to think beyond them. On the shoulders of people who precede us, we occupy new realities.

Sometimes older leaders say “The future belongs to the youth!”  What goes unsaid is “Leave the present to us.” Yet the young must assert their vision and claim today: otherwise their future is determined by people who will not have to live it.

That’s how God calls us forward: the great issues of my life will not be the great issues of my successors. But my successors and their peers must grapple with that reality and come to a fresh and maybe ground-breaking understanding of the world and what God is doing. They must do the work to choose a future that is fully theirs, and commit to a path that will get them there.

“As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,” youth must do more than simply claim their inheritance or manage their birthright: they must envision and create the future.  In the words of Lauryn Hill:

I hear so many cry for help
Searching outside of themselves
Now I know his strength is within me
And deep in my heart, the answer it was in me
And I made up my mind to define my own destiny

 – Blessings … Rick Tobias

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

Doing Their Part

Doing their part is a way for me to show appreciation for people I’ve met who have been influential over me (and often many others), or who simply are impressively committed, insightful or effective in pursuing compassion and justice.  

Carol Ann McGibbon

Carol Ann and I worked together in Saint John creating a community based ministry in the south end of that city. Later we attempted to create a program to Carol Ann McGibbon croppededucate urban leaders in Atlantic Canada.

Carol Ann went on to become the Program Director, a faculty member and ultimately the Executive Vice President of the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE). She has served at SCUPE for more than 30 years and has been responsible for training hundreds of young urban leaders and influencing urban ministries and community development activities across North America and around the world.

More recently she and David Frenchak have formed Educational and Leadership Design Consultants, Inc. While I could focus on Carol Ann’s involvement in designing curriculum for Community Development Degrees or her current work with Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary around “public theology” I like this story from her early years when she was trying to break into the Saint John Jail.

“One memorable moment was that first summer when a guard released about 15 women to go to the church service at Germain Street Baptist Church. He forged my signature stating that I had picked the women up, and when I arrived to get them, they were gone.

“The guards were smirking. They really disliked my taking the women out for nutrition, cooking and GED classes, or to church on Sunday. I panicked because if I lost one I could be tossed in jail and charged with being an accessory to escape. I drove to the bus station, the train station, and finally to church to ask the church to pray. The Pastor greeted me at the door laughing and saying the ladies were wondering why I was late. They knew the guards were trying to sabotage the program and both them and me.

“So they walked to church and were sitting in the pews waiting for me. It was a miracle.”

– Rick Tobias