Tallying Family Values

We live according to our values and priorities, and, as Greg McKeon has observed, “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”

Our family has a list of values. They are:

  • Faith.
  • Hospitality.
  • Joy, Celebration, and Fun.
  • Strong, Healthy Bodies.
  • Creative Expression and Intellectual Pursuit.
  • Simplicity.
  • Togetherness.
  • Appreciation of the Natural World.

How do we know when we’re living according to our values? It is hard to measure something like “togetherness,” and I didn’t think a scoring system was proper. So I derived a few true/false statements that could help me have confidence we were hitting the mark. We are living according to our values if:

  • We have peace at home.
  • We are secure in one another’s love.
  • We are not in a hurry.
  • We are well-practiced in saying no to the nonessential so we can say yes to the essential.
  • We establish sustainable rhythms of work and play.
  • We challenge one another and know it is safe to take certain risks.
  • We make the lives of those around us better through service.
  • We honestly evaluate how we are doing and make course corrections as necessary.
  • We celebrate small wins and big accomplishments.

I wrote these things down at the start of 2017. We had been in Waco for six months. While most of our values were pretty clear, it was helpful for our family to write them down and to think about what I wanted to pass along to my children as the years passed. The true/false list helped as well, not only when evaluating how we’re doing, but also when making decisions.

Living our values and our priorities begins with our family, which is why “peace at home” is a critical marker for how we are doing. “Peace” involves each person and the entire unit. We have to evaluate how we are doing physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. And peace begins with me.

One of the questions I ask each week is this: “Is your family happy and thriving? Can you help them in any way?” This requires that I act as a peacemaker. Peace isn’t just the absence of conflict. The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. Peace, in the Jewish and Christian traditions, suggests completeness and wholeness. As God’s agent, I am called navigate conflict peaceably and seek the good and right in all circumstances. That’s not always easy.

If we have peace at home, we’ll be secure in one another’s love. We will know that we are loved. And from that place of security, we can find courage to be the people God has called us to be.

We go through seasons where we are busy. To be busy is acceptable. To be in a hurry is not. We want to be good stewards of the life we have been given by God; we want to use our talents in a manner that is pleasing to God. This relates in obvious ways to the next two evaluative statements. We have to say no to many things so that we can be free to say yes to the best things. We also have to take a wide angle view of life, seeing that there are many seasons we pass through, and therefore we must build in rhythms of work and play. We begin small, week by week. We practice sabbath. When it is time to work, we work hard. When we grow tired, we plan for a break.

My two children are different. Both, in their own way, have moments when they try to play things safe. They need to be nudged, pushed. So does Molly. So do I. Therefore, we encourage one another to take risks from time to time, to do something creative, to open ourselves to the possibility that we will fail. We remind one another that it is safe to fail, for there is no failure that will cancel out the love we share and the love we know that is ours in Christ.

Our faith leads us to value service, and we want the world to be a better place because we passed through. Therefore, we remind one another that we are helpers, and pitch in when we can in ways large and small. We do good works. We are also generous with our resources, including our money.

I apply this principle to myself first. I’m a servant of my wife and my children. I want them to experience joy and success and the good things life has to offer, and I am willing to give of myself in order to increase their chances of growing, thriving, and finding success.

We don’t always get it right. So when we are missing the mark, or when we outright fail, we begin anew. God’s mercies are new each morning. We learn from our mistakes and correct course. We start over, if necessary. For this to work, we have to be honest. An old proverb says, “When the horse is dead, dismount.” If our present course is the wrong one, we face it together, and change direction.

When we do get it right, we celebrate. Whether it is a small victory or or a big win, we party. Celebration is a discipline; joy is something you can grow. I want my children to experience life at home as a place of happiness, encouragement, and fun.

Whether you are a married or single, have a big family or no children at all, you might find it helpful to define your values, to think about how to live a life you intend. Your children may be grown. You may be old. But there is still time left. Live your days well.

The Devastating Effect of Book Burning

Burning books is an inefficient way to conduct a war, since books and libraries have no military value, but it is a devastating act. Destroying a library is a kind of terrorism. People think of libraries as the safest and most open places in society. Setting them on fire is like announcing that nothing, and nowhere, is safe. The deepest effect of burning books is emotional. When libraries burn, the books are sometimes described as being “wounded” or as “casualties,” just as human beings would be.

Books are a sort of cultural DNA, the code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know. All the wonders and failures, all the champions and villains, all the legends and ideas and revelations of a culture last forever in its books. Destroying those books is a way of saying that the culture itself no longer exists; its history has disappeared; the continuity between its past and its future is ruptured. Taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory. It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.

– Susan Orlean, The Library Book

Must Secularism Increase?

On a recent flight I finished reading Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in Distracted Age, which is a really smart book that addresses ways modern American evangelicalism has been shaped by the forces of a rising secularism, and outlines how Christians can respond.

Noble’s analysis draws on the philosophical work of Charles Taylor, who in his mammoth, classic work A Secular Age examines our movement in the past five hundred years or so from living in an enchanted world where most people took God’s existence for granted, to now living in a disenchanted world, where thoughts of God are almost unnatural. Modern life places us in a “default mode” where God is obscured. Taylor calls this “the buffered self.” Modern rationalism, materialism, and scientism form in us ways of thinking that marginalize, if not outright exclude, the spiritual.

As Noble explains the challenges “a secular age” presents for the church and Christian witness, he makes an offhanded remark: “Rather than reverse secularism (which I don’t think is possible until the Lord returns), our task is to identify the harmful outcomes of secularism and reject them.”

While I agree with the task Noble identifies, my larger question is this: Must secularism increase? If it cannot be reversed, can it be checked? And if it can be checked, is it then possible that it could, in fact, be reversed? Theologically speaking, is our only eschatological option one that sees Christianity becoming further embattled (as Noble seems to suggest)? Or is it possible for Christians to realize, once again, that we have the resources to be patient, to wait on the Lord in the midst of the grandest of cultural and intellectual challenges?

Taylor’s observations in A Secular Age show us that the world over a five hundred year span has become less religious, at least in a formal sense. And much of our intellectual and cultural undertakings are now conducted without an acknowledgement, or even a quiet acquiescence, to God or “gods.” But it should be remembered that it took us centuries to get here. Ideas have coalesced in such a way as to cut out the realm of the spirit from public and intellectual life. It has not always been so.

And it may not be so forever. God is steadfast, faithful, and constant, and Christians have all the time they need to continue working out our collective calling as disciples of Jesus. Who is to say what America, not to mention global Christianity, will look like in another five hundred years?

It may be the case that our epistemology, or way of knowing, may shift in such a way as to make room for the concession that there is more to reality than the material. This premise, if accepted, may shift the paradigm, exposing cracks within the prevailing hegemony that dominates intellectual life. And whether by a slow, rising tide or by the in-breaking of a torrent, our way of thinking and experiencing reality may shift. Suddenly, it may not be secularism that is Christianity’s greatest challenge, but rival spiritualities.

In either case, the calling of Christians will remain constant: to continue giving faithful witness to the reality of God as revealed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not only in our preaching, but in our habits, demonstrating holiness in heart and life.

An Ethos of Commitment

I recently heard David Brooks, author and op-ed columnist for The New York Times, say “we need to move from an ethos of individualism to an ethos of commitment making.” He then said that the four big commitments, to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community, have been minimized by our overwhelming focus on the self. He suggested a correction to this trend would be a tremendous boon to our public life.

A shift from individualism to commitment making would, I think, also result in a necessary and corresponding movement toward an other-centered ethic over and against a self-centered ethic (Tim Keller makes this distinction here). Individualism is not altogether evil; its virtues should be remembered and certainly not abandoned. For a person to have a sense of uniqueness, to form convictions, to assert independence, to value freedom, to champion liberty, and to become self reliant are good things.

However, an understanding of self largely framed by the pursuit of self-determination and self-gratification can lead to narcissism. An ethos of commitment making, conversely, continues to hold fast to the value of the individual, but the higher  commitment is defined by service to others. An ethos of commitment making retains individuality but leads to a healthy form of self-renunciation, not self-abnegation. This is a form of collectivism, not sheer tribalism.

To start a family, to pursue a vocation (which differs from a career or job), to live deeply into a philosophical or religious tradition, and to participate in a community for the sake of the public good requires sacrifice. It requires putting aside the self and thinking first of those around us. The self remains. But it is the commitment to others, to something outside of ourselves, that guides us.

There must also be the creation and cultivation of liminal or transitional spaces, times and places when one passes through a defined middle stage, a moment of leaving behind one way of experiencing life and moving on to another, newfound state of being. What would that look like? What does it look like now?

Between spouses, there is often the middle stage of engagement, a preparation for the commitment of marriage. For prospective parents, there is the waiting involved in pregnancy. Vocation is more challenging. It is most definitely not the moment one declares a college major. It is also not always the case that one’s job or career is identical with one’s calling. But the moment one sees their role as an educator, businessperson, bricklayer, or architect, this not only has value for the self, but for the community. Vocation, in whatever field, has implications for more than just the person who has determined their calling.

A commitment to a philosophy or faith is clarified when it is distinguished by a public profession or identification with the particular convictions or beliefs of a system. A person may also choose to blend together a unique confluence of ideas. Whatever the  commitment, there is then the next step, which is the challenging work of further developing and working out ideas in both theory and practice. Many of these kinds of decisions occurred, for me, during my college and graduate school programs, places where I was exposed to different ideas and became cognizant of distinctions between traditions. I made choices, at times with intention, while at other times I was drawn.

Grounding oneself in a broader tradition is a lifelong work that involves the embodiment of the best of that tradition, as well as using the internal resources of that tradition to critique, improve, and refine the contribution said tradition makes, broadly speaking, to humanity as a whole. It involves thinking, feeling, and action. It also involves failure and growth.

And as for a commitment to a community, there is a need for stability, active neighboring, and time. Communities are built on shared resources, trust, and history. Communities depend on a “we.” They are not just a collection of individuals.

I resonate with Brooks because I have received, by virtue of my heritage, an ethic that is other-centered. I have been formed and raised as a Christian. While the gospel message preached in the United States, particularly in revivalist traditions like I experienced in Baptist life, has been highly focused on personal, individual decisions to place faith and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord, that is not all there is to the Christian gospel.

A historically well-rounded and theologically robust account of the Christian faith easily leads to both self-renunciation and service to the world, a way of life that is not only about me and God, but me, God, and my life. This is the calling of the disciple. Jesus told his followers to take up their cross, lose their life in order to find it, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

The Christian tradition, as time has passed, has become my own. First, it came to me by way of a profession of faith, a public declaration that I did have faith in Christ, testified to publicly through the act of baptism. I was converted. Once I was not a Christian, then, by faith, I was. From that one commitment, others have followed. I became a Christian, but then I continued the process of becoming more like Christ. That commitment has influenced and shaped every other commitment. My commitment to Jesus, and my broader commitment to Christianity, has informed and enriched my commitment to my spouse, family, and community, and has been a source of strength and direction for my vocation as a Christian educator, pastor, and writer.

Consider again the four areas of commitment named by Brooks: marriage and family, vocation, philosophy or faith, and community. In which of these areas have you set down firm anchor points, ties that bind you to others? What are your commitments? In what ways do these commitments require you to put your self aside and sacrifice for those around you? What resources are you drawing upon to ensure that you remain faithful to your commitments?

How, in other words, are you being spiritually formed?

Remaining true to our commitments is contingent, in part, on how the narratives, practices, and communities we participate in contribute to the formation of our character. Make commitments. Then, situate your life within an environment that will feed, fuel, and foster those commitments not only for the good of yourself, but for the good of the world and to the glory of God.

Prayer is Reciprocal Exchange

Praying together and praying for one another is in Paul’s mind one of the most important ways Christians utilize the spiritual connections they have with one another in Christ. The language he uses to describe the activity of praying with and for suggests that in his mind it is a strenuous and vigorous effort. The synagonizo compound combines syn with agon, a Greek word that comprises a larger “agon motif” in Paul’s epistles. It is a motif or cluster of synonyms all built around the athletic imagery of ancient Greece and Rome. All of the terms that comprise the motif in Paul’s letters “suggest the thought of exertion and maximum endeavor.” Prayer for Paul was not a passive folding of the hands in a serene posture of worship but an active exertion of maximum effort in collaboration with other Christians. He viewed it as a legitimate engagement with him in ministry and often requested that his coworkers in ministry pray specifically for him as he prayed for them (2 Cor 13:9; Eph 1:16; Phil 1:4; Col 1:3, 9; 1 Thess 1:2; 5:25; 2 Thess 3:1-2). Paul’s prayer relationship with his churches and coworkers was a reciprocal exchange of ministry effort that produced mutual spiritual benefit for all involved. Paul prayed for his churches and coworkers and he asked them to pray for him.

– Stephen D. Lowe and Mary E. Lowe, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age: Spiritual Growth Through Online Education, 158. Emphasis mine.

One of the ways I have encouraged fellow Christians to support their ministers as well as their fellow congregants is to pray for them, and I have often asked friends in ministry to pray for me. The most meaningful gift I have received from those I have served with and alongside has been their prayers, for in the knowledge I am being prayed for I have found encouragement, a sense of shared commitment to God’s calling, and a deepening love. When someone tells me they are praying for me and then follows through, I experience incredible joy.

Lowe and Lowe write that prayer is an effort of “reciprocal exchange” that builds up all parties involved. It not only results in God strengthening and guiding the minister, but the strengthening and guiding of the whole body of Christ. Prayer unites the thoughts and actions of the body of Christ, heightens sensitivity to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and deepens commitment to Jesus, his calling, and his way.

Pray for those in your fellowship. Pray for your pastors and leaders. Invite others to pray for you. Through prayer, God builds you up and strengthens those around you. This is so not only for your benefit, but for the world’s sake, and, ultimately, for the glory of God.