As I write this, I’m feeling the kicks and jabs and squirms of my unborn son, my first child. The themes of “generation to generation” in this psalm take on new dimensions for me as I think about bringing my own descendent into the world in a few short weeks.
I wonder what he’ll look like, and which features will prompt people to share memories and associations about how “he gets that from so-and-so.” I wonder which hallmark family traits and behaviors he’ll carry forward, even as he makes his own unique mark on the world.
I am reminded too of a patient I saw recently in my work as a hospital chaplain. This man’s elderly sister gave his wife a small photo album filled with pictures from his early childhood—pictures the man’s wife had never seen. In fact, his wife told me she’d never seen pictures of him prior to age 10 or so. And now, here they were, several dozen black-and-white posed and candid photographs of a little boy, playing with siblings or cousins, perched on a front porch, holding a stick, riding a tractor with an old man. His wife didn’t know the stories behind the pictures, and time was running out for her to learn them from him. Who were these people? What circumstances led to them living and working where they were? What was life like for that man as a young boy? And, why hadn’t these pictures ever been dusted off and shared until it was almost too late?
Just as we often rely on older family members to clue us in to the “backstory” of our family members, so too we need the “backstory” of the covenant family of God, of which we are a part. Scripture is a living witness to that covenant family, full of the colorful stories of faith and failure and quirky personalities that characterize God’s people. If we are to find ourselves and our own traits in that family portrait, we need to know who came before us, so that we can envision the stories that we are invited to make part of our own story.
The psalmist references “things we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us” (vs. 3) and reminds us that the wisdom and knowledge that is familiar to us is only familiar because it has been passed along through deliberate repetition and intentional distribution. Without such intentionality, it can be easy for any of us to get complacent with the stories we carry, and even forget to pass them along. We can begin to assume “everyone has already heard that story” or “we all know that already,” but the reality is that the next generation, and the current generation, will not know the stories of faith unless they are told and retold. The psalmist’s words also prompt us to remember and not forget that the stories we’ve inherited are not just for us, but are meant to be shared and spread to all who are trying to find their place in a larger narrative.
There’s a powerful “so what” at the end of this passage, too—“so that they should set their hope in God” (vs. 7). Maintaining the stories that shape the identities of God’s people is not meant simply to remind people of where they came from, but also of where they are going. To hope in the living God is an active and forward-looking enterprise, not a nostalgic pastime. When we read stories from Scripture in our church settings, for instance, we aren’t simply recalling where and who we came from as people of faith, but we are also being shaped to recognize God’s presence now, as God leads us forward into ever new chapters of discipleship. The stories of who and what we are continue to unfold, tying our yesterdays to our tomorrows in the vast expanse of God’s movement through human history, God’s “glorious deeds… and wonders” (vs. 4). I can’t wait to tell my son about it.