My Oldest Friend: The Impact of Intergenerational Friendships

July 11, 2022

When I was a child, Bessie paid me 10 cents every Sunday to fill a repurposed milk jug with water from the church kitchen sink and carry it to her car. She claimed that the water at her house made her hair fall out. At 94 years old, she still drove herself to church each Sunday. In her later years, she carried a gnarled wooden stick, which she claimed had been her granddaddy’s cane. She frequently gifted me the plastic inserts from packaged cookies that her Great Depression-era frugality did not allow her to dispose of, and so they simply entered the landfill via the route of my trashcan rather than hers. She was adamant that her 80-year-old neighbor regularly doorbell-ditched her in the middle of the night. And most amusingly, she routinely told my grandfather to “never get old, honey,” and that it would be much more economical to have my grandmother take “ya’ behind the barn and shoot ya’” before the old age set in.

She always affectionately referred to herself as my “oldest friend.” There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Bessie was a character. But she also loved Jesus fiercely and had lived a steadfast life committed to Him despite many deep struggles and sufferings.

“I firmly believe that clustering… robs us from the richness of growing through the wisdom of our brothers and sisters in Christ who are walking in different seasons of faith than our own.”

Although my faith has been deeply impacted by many (Christian parents, several loving church families and Bible study groups, a Christian college education, and years spent pouring into the Scriptures), perhaps the truth of the Gospel has been most deeply rooted in my life as a result of many godly, gospel-centered men and women, like Bessie, who have walked both before and alongside me in my faith. However, I believe such growth is in jeopardy, as more modern and larger congregations have developed tendencies to divide up mentorship and Bible study—to group like with like—often distinguished by age. I firmly believe that clustering high schoolers, college students, young adult singles, new moms, married couples, and elderly widows and widowers robs us from the richness of growing through the wisdom of our brothers and sisters in Christ who are walking in different seasons of faith than our own.

The Scriptures give us many examples of intergeneration relationships of God’s people walking and growing in faith together. More particularly, I’d like to highlight a couple of biblical examples of women growing in faith together across generations.

Likely the most well-known example is that of Naomi and Ruth. As Naomi’s husband and sons die, she plans to leave the enemy land of Moab to return to her people. First, she tells her widowed daughters-in-law to stay with their people. Yet one daughter-in-law, Ruth, remains loyal to Naomi, adamant that she will return to Bethlehem with her. Throughout this well-known Bible story, as the two widowed women struggle together simply to find food to eat, Ruth comes to know the redemptive work of God. Naomi herself was not perfect (frequently blaming God for her misfortune)1, yet her life becomes a powerful testimony of God’s faithfulness. She experiences great losses in the time of the famine with the death of not only her husband, but also her family line. Still, we see God’s faithfulness in providing a kinsman-redeemer at the end of the book of Ruth. Though they were distinctly different not only in age, but also in culture, together Naomi and Ruth learn God’s faithfulness. The truth of the greater Messiah yet to come was highlighted more greatly as their faiths intermingled than each would have alone.

“The Scriptures give us many examples of intergenerational relationships of God’s people walking and growing in faith together.”

Mary, the mother of Jesus, was also sustained in her faith by the support of another woman. Mary had been “greatly troubled” by the news from the angel that she was to deliver the Son of God.2 It was to her older relative Elizabeth’s house that she hurried to as soon as she heard this news.3 Elizabeth, who was said to be barren, was also pregnant by the miraculous work of God, with a child who would become John the Baptist. When Mary arrived, Elizabeth rejoiced with her at the news! I can only imagine the mixture of emotions felt in that house: a scared, shocked, young, unmarried-but-pregnant teenager paired with an old, “upright-in-the sight-of-God” formerly barren, but now pregnant, priest’s wife.4 They were an unlikely pair indeed. And yet Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three whole months before returning home.5 This must have meant that Mary found deep solace in the faith and friendship of Elizabeth. Together, they could anticipate the births of both the Son of God and the prophet who would pave the way for Him. Together, they could trust in the promises of God and the prophets of the Old Testament that the Messiah would come, as they marveled that He was indeed already in their presence in utero.

After Jesus’ entrance into the world as both fully God and fully human, Paul continued to urge the new church to encourage one another and build each other up, even across generational lines. He writes that we should encourage elderly men as fathers, and “treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters…”6 God has specifically designed the church in such a way that we are family, in Christ if not in blood, and as such that we should walk along-side one another in faith. A symbiotic relationship exists; the Scriptures are particularly poignant that young people in the church need the counsel and wisdom of the more spiritually mature members of the congregation.

“Scriptures are particularly poignant that young people… need the counsel and wisdom of the more spiritually mature members of the congregation.”

Therefore, these intergenerational relationships are of paramount importance. Sometimes the truth spoken in the Gospels (as well as the whole Bible pointing towards the Gospel story) can seem like just a story. But the true joy of the gospel comes most alive in my faith, when I walk along others who have lived by the truth of this Gospel grace.

The gospel sank more deeply into my soul when I watched it lived out in the life of “my oldest friend” Bessie—a woman who clung to Christ even after she was born into the dirt-poor poverty of backwoods Kentucky, and later in her childhood as her father mysteriously disappeared only to be found murdered along the river’s edge; a woman who sang His praises through the disparages of the “Bloody Harlan” coal mining strikes of the 1930’s , compacted alongside the immense destitution of the Great Depression; a woman who knew God’s unfailing love for her even after the husband she had fled across the country with left her helplessly alone in a new place to raise two boys by herself; a woman who pleaded over many lonely decades for the Father to bring her home, and yet she still claimed Jesus was enough. Yes, walking in faith alongside dear old Bessie has brought the Gospel’s joy into bloom.

“If we as the church want to see one another growing richly in our faiths, then we must encourage and strengthen intergenerational relationships within our church family.”

The richness of the gospel prevails more deeply in my life when I have seen it lived out by my many, many beloved friends and mentors. How much more deeply the gospel sinks into my heart when I am walking with another believer, who for the past 30, 40, 50+ years of her life has been transformed by the news that Jesus, being the Son of God and yet completely human, lived the perfect life she could not live, died the horrific death for the sins she could not pay, triumphantly rose from the grave that she could not break free from, and now lives as a new creation that she could not have made herself to be. When I see the persistence of her repentance and joy of her faith in this incredible Savior, amidst the sufferings of this despicably broken and sinful world, no greater testimony exists to thrust me forward as I fully realize all that the gospel promises. If we as the church want to see one another growing richly in our faiths, then we must encourage and strengthen intergenerational relationships within our church family. We need more “oldest friends.”

About the Author
  • Mariellen Van Nieuwenhuyzen is an alumni of Dordt University and a recent graduate of the UC Davis School of Medicine. Originally a California farm girl, she is looking forward to establishing new community as she and her husband settle near Boise, Idaho for her Family Medicine Residency.

  1. see Ruth 1:20-21  

  2. Luke 1: 29  

  3. Luke 1: 36, 39  

  4. Luke 1:6  

  5. Luke 1:56  

  6. 1 Timothy 5:1-2  

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