With each year that passes, I grow in my appreciation of the relationships I have with friends of all ages, both older and younger than me. Phyllis LePeau offers a good word here about making those relationships intentional, particularly as we find ourselves in the position to bless (and be blessed by) children in our lives. We talk a fair amount at The Well about mentoring, but Phyllis takes the discussion to a new level by challenging us to consider a deeper level of intensity in these relationships. After knowing Phyllis for nearly twenty years, I can attest that her nurturing energy infuses all of her relationships — and I’m grateful for her example in my own life. — Ann Boyd
Andy and I had some concerns when our first child was born. Our children would be the fourth generation of Christians in our family. In situations like that, faith can become merely part of the family surroundings and culture — something that doesn’t sink deep at a personal or conscious level. It can just be background music. As people grow and change, they often leave their parents’ values and practices behind. Faith can seem unnecessary or optional. We wondered if that would happen to us.
Now that we have grandchildren, the same questions arise for the fifth generation — but with an additional twist. What role do we have, or does any older family member have, for children who are not our own but for whom we care deeply?
Our Family’s Story
Let me tell you the story of my own grandmother.
I did not know my grandmother well because she died when I was three. All I can remember is walking around her sick bed or taking her a drink of water. For years my grandmother prayed that her six children would come to know Jesus. On her deathbed, she begged my mother to tell her that she would see her again in heaven. But my mother was a brutally honest person and could not comfort her mother with these words. Although each of her children adored their mother, they rejected the Lord she adored. She died without seeing her prayers answered.
A few years later her son Frank, my uncle, was walking home drunk, as he often did. The family had given up on him as a hopeless alcoholic. But that night as he swayed with the effects of the alcohol in his body, the Holy Spirit came on him and he dropped to his knees. Miraculously, he gave his life to Jesus and stood up sober, never to drink again.
Some time after this, my parents were making plans for their divorce. My mother calmly wrote to my grandfather to ask if she could come home with the girls. He sent word to my Uncle Frank, who by this time had become a pastor, asking him to go visit my mom and dad. Uncle Frank did just that and led my parents to the Lord. Not only were they reconciled to God, but also to each other; their marriage was saved. My parents began their journey of praying for my sisters and me. Eventually, my grandmother’s prayers were answered as all six of her children became followers of Christ.
The New Extended Family
Elders in the faith have a special role. This can express itself in traditional family structures as with grandparents, but it can also extend past the boundaries of bloodlines and into larger communities of faith.
- I love watching Doris, a nursing school classmate of mine, in her friendship with Mary Jean. Doris has no children of her own, but she cares for Mary Jean as she would a daughter and treats Mary Jean’s children as if they were her own grandchildren. She prays for them, spends time in Scripture with Mary Jean and celebrates holidays, birthdays, and any day of the week with them.
- My cousin John and his wife Patti have never had biological children of their own but have blessed and are blessed by many children of others. Kids from different families call them grandpa and grandma or “extra grandpa” and “extra grandma.” Some of the families are immigrants from Central America. John and Patti have helped these friends with difficult adjustments to North American culture including finding jobs, improving language fluency, and making decisions about where to go to college. They have helped with college tuition and provided computers for kids’ education. They have spent hours of tutoring and many dollars to help their friends prepare for citizenship. In all these ways and more they have prayed for, supported, and loved these “grandchildren” as their own.
- A family in our church lost their grandmother in recent years. Though their grandmother will never be replaced, Andy and I have enjoyed the status of extra grandparents—loving them, praying for them, offering childcare so that their parents can take off overnight for rest and renewal. What a delight it is at church to have them run up to us, “Mimi and Poppo,” with smiles and hugs. We are grateful for the opportunity to let our grandparenting extend beyond the thirteen grandkids in our immediate family.
In such scenarios, investment in kids does and will bear fruit — spiritual, emotional, practical — for years to come. Whatever the specifics of the relationship might be, children benefit from the friendship, encouragement, time, love, and prayer of older Christians and grandparent figures.
I myself have benefited from relationships with older Christians, even as a mature adult. It is a goal, but not a difficult task, to spend time regularly with Jim and Ruth Nyquist — a couple about twenty years our senior. If a month goes by that we have not been together we invite them to dinner because we need a “Nyquist fix.” They are a source of fun, wisdom, prayer (with us and for us) and encouragement. They have loved and prayed for our kids for years — and continue by loving our grandchildren. Intentionally keeping in touch with older people in our communities blesses us and blesses them.
All these years later, I continue to carry two deep impressions from my grandmother’s legacy. The first is the high privilege grandparents — biological and “extra” — have to pray for their children and their children’s children.
I find praying difficult. I am a high-energy activist, and I love getting a lot done. However, it often hinders my ability to approach the Lord quietly and thoughtfully without my list of things to do taking over.
In our activist-oriented culture, I know I am not alone. Whether it is work, play, visiting friends and relatives, or getting chores finished around the house, our lives are filled with hubbub. Even in a supposedly reflective profession like the academy there are the constant demands of teaching, grading, providing office hours with students, attending or leading committee meetings, and coping with the pressure to publish—all of which can squeeze out time and energy to pray.
Whatever the pressures and demands on us, if we are going to have something to give the next generation, we have to take time to nurture our own spiritual growth. As young Christians, we may have been encouraged to meet with God daily in a quiet time. That is no less needed now that we have followed him for years or even decades. No less do we need the fellowship of others in the faith, the practice of offering service to those in need, and the habit of giving generously for the sake of the kingdom. These are needed for our own sake. How much more is that the case when children are in our lives?
I have found that praying prayers in Scripture for my grandkids helps to keep my mind and heart in focus. It also gives me hope for them. I often pray using Paul’s prayers in Ephesians 1 and 3, substituting the names of my grandchildren. I pray that God will give them “the spirit of wisdom and revelation so that they may know him better.” I also pray for each “that the eyes of their heart may be enlightened in order that they may know the hope to which God has called them…the riches of his glorious inheritance” (Ephesians 1:17-18). What could I long for more than for my grandchildren to know God better? To know the hope to which they have been called? I pray from Ephesians 3:16-17, that God “may strengthen [Cory or Haneul or Sonal or Luke] with power through the Spirit in their inner being so that Christ may dwell in their hearts through faith.”
My first impression from my grandmother’s legacy is that she prayed. She died without her prayers having been answered. But over the years the answers to her prayers increased a hundredfold. This fact can give great hope for those of us who are praying for and loving non-believing family members or friends.
From Generation to Generation
My second impression is that God’s transforming work in our family was passed on from my grandmother to her children and her children’s children. The Bible often talks of blessings and curses being passed down through generations, and I see this is true in my own family. Some time ago my sister gave us a collage of pictures of three generations of our family: our parents, our own generation, and our kids (the fourth generation had not yet arrived). Across the bottom she printed the words, “Great is Thy faithfulness to all generations.” Though my grandmother’s picture was not included in the collage, her life, her words, and her prayers passed on God’s love to her children and her children’s children and the next generation and beyond.
Psalm 78 (NIV) says,
I will open my mouth with a parable;
I will utter hidden things, things from of old—
things we have heard and known,
things our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their descendants;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord,
his power, and the wonders he has done....
so the next generation would know them,
even the children yet to be born,
and they in turn would tell their children.
We who have tasted the goodness of God, we who have experienced his great works in our lives and all around us — we have the privilege, the joy, the high calling to tell the next generation “the praise worthy deeds of the Lord.”
Some dear friends of ours model one practical way to pass on to the next generation the power and wondrous deeds God has done. When each grandchild reaches the age of twelve years old, Paul and Kathy give them a Bible with their name on it. The Bible is presented to the child at an occasion that is made special by this event. The child is told how important the Word of God is in learning to know and love God and his ways. Andy and I followed this example and gave our 12-year-old grandson his Bible and plan to do it with each of the kids.
Finally, I have been touched and my spiritual life and faith deepened by the stories of God’s faithfulness from Scripture, from my family, and from stories of others in my life. The same is true of our grandkids as we share with them stories from Scripture and about God’s faithful work in our family as well as to others.
We have no guarantees how each child will turn out. But we do know that we serve a God who hears and answers prayer. And we know that God is faithful as his truth is passed on from one generation to the next. I am deeply grateful that my grandmother prayed for her kids and thus for me and our kids and our kids’ kids. And I am grateful for the joy of praying for our children, our children’s children, and other children who have come into our lives, standing as a link to the next generation so they will know “God’s power and the wondrous deeds he has done.”