Yogi Berra was describing his own version of Einstein’s Relativity theory when he remarked, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
I thought of the future that used to be as I sat in a deep leather recliner at Eggbert’s cafe, waiting for a table on a Saturday morning, a pager in hand while sipping coffee. Sitting across from me separated only by a low table, was a very young girl, perhaps three years old.
She balanced her own Eggbert’s pager on her lap, the pager that lights up like a Christmas tree when it’s your turn to be seated for breakfast. She held it with both hands, looking down into the face of the device, both thumbs poised above, in the manner of a teenager preparing to text at warp speed. She was awaiting a sign of life, an electronic pulse of social interaction…she was trying to communicate with her pager.
That made me flinch, and I usually only flinch while eating raw sea urchins or when I see a tattoo on one of my kids.
I saw this kind of behavior once in college when I discovered my roommate sitting on top of the television watching the sofa while listening to a John Wayne movie. Now he is a school board member and a deacon at church. So there is hope for the little pager girl and for a generation of hyperactive thumbs.
We see what we want to see when looking back at another generation. When I see a tattoo, I think of a sailor with “Mabel” inked on a bicep. But my children think of something else. Batman, good coffee, a mission trip to Uganda. Which leads me to a recent conversation in our Bible study group.
“As far as I know, none of my children have any tattoos,” was how the older gentleman worded his comment in a way that implied that if they did, it would have reflected poorly on his parenting. Instantly, someone in our group asked the gentleman, “Do any of your grandchildren have a tattoo?” The question befuddled him, as if he had never considered that.
Every generation has a sense of what is acceptable, and when I look at my children’s generation, gaining on me like Secretariat chasing down a braying mule, I think of the generational riddle that older folks try to solve by observing superficial clues like tattoos, attire from Goodwill dumpsters, and bare feet in $300 loafers.
My generation was by no means easy to figure out. Churchill once said of it, “She is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Okay, he might have also been describing Mother Russia.
Come to think of it, Russia and three-year olds are the same. They are not aware of the device they hold in their hands nor what buttons to push. Soren Kierkegaard said of the young, “Your own tactic is to train yourself in the art of becoming enigmatic to everybody. My young friend, suppose there was no one who troubled himself to guess your riddle–what joy, then, would you have in it?”
Coming of age requires both intimacy and mystery, vulnerability and come hither enigmas, a longing to be one of a kind, yet gently folded into a community of unconditional love.
Which reminds me of the chimichanga I ate from Maria’s Taco truck last week. It became a part of me, yet I had no idea what was inside it. I just liked it and invited it inside my soul. And if someone from the generation before communicates via a pager or skin art, I am a house guest invited into the parlor of that person’s mind and it’s rude to pick up the chenille throw off the floor and drape it neatly over the wing back Queen Anne chair. Just let it be as Grandma Mildred often said.
Perhaps it is time for my first tattoo, the first line of George Eliot’s Middlemarch written in Old English on my right forearm. It seems much more practical than mismatched clothing. However, getting older means unwrapping the mysterious cloak, telling the world who we really are, people who sometimes didn’t get where we wanted to go, and we are naked, broken, and bleeding.
I’ve been revealed. I have fewer riddles and zero tattoos. And now I am being replaced by children with fast thumbs and fast phones, by the tattooed and mysterious, wrapped in the cloak of potential.
Maybe that is what grace is all about, impossible to describe with words, easier to say with children and old people who understand grace across time and space. Grace, that great cornerstone of the Christian faith, is received by the enigmatic and the revealed, the young and the old, the bumbling and the nimble, the broken and the bleeding. People who belong to one master creator, yet are somehow still marvelously one of a kind.
“Let these children alone. Don’t get between them and me. These children are the kingdom’s pride and joy. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.” Words of Jesus from Luke 18:15-17