For the Many Good Things

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Thankfulness is a feeling. It’s also a discipline, habit, or choice. You can be thankful without feeling thankful. You can express thanks because it is right. But the giving of thanks is sweetest when you feel it and choose it, when you perceive that an expression of gratitude is proper, and, without hesitation, you say the words, make the gesture, bow your head low, and wonder at the fullness of joy that has flooded your heart.

This year has been one of transition and change. Molly and I are in new roles and new jobs. Our children have grown and changed. We continue to be blessed by friends and neighbors, and to experience the ongoing wonderment that comes as relationships deepen and change in ways that only do more to sweeten and enrich the lives we have been given.

We’re celebrating Thanksgiving with my side of the family this year. It has been a while since our group has seen cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents. The kitchen will be busy tomorrow, the house will be filled with good smells, and before the day is through I will have eaten far too much. I’ll have watched more football tomorrow on television than I likely have in the preceding two years combined. I’ll delight in small things, like telling silly jokes or playing a game or assembling a puzzle with a niece or nephew.

For the many good things this year has brought, and for the many more good things to come, I am thankful.

If you’ve been a reader of mine for years, or for only a short time, I hope you will take stock of things for which you can be thankful. Number a piece of paper from one to ten. Then, fill in the list. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 exhorts us to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Some circumstances are more conducive to the keeping of this command than others, some things are easier for us to be thankful for than are others. Nevertheless, there are always things, small or great, for which one can give thanks.

We can give thanks for things like our next breath, or the cognitive capacity to philosophize concerning whether present circumstances warrant the giving of thanks. I don’t want to take the former for granted, and I don’t want to miss the significance of the latter.

As human beings, we have been given some capacity to evaluate whether or not we find a thing praiseworthy or good. Sure, there is a subjective element to such a judgment. But, as a believer in truth, I think there is an objective good there that can be discovered, rooted ultimately in God, the giver of every good and perfect gift. If you chase thanksgiving far enough, you’ll find yourself in praise.

So I’m thankful this year, once again, for the usual things. I’m thankful for faith, fellowship, and for Jesus. I’m thankful for family, church, community, employment, and good health. I’m thankful for coffee and books and the natural world. I’m thankful for those nearest to me, who for these next few days will be my family, but I am also thankful for those who are “far.”

As years have passed and settings have changed, I’ve been amazed to reflect upon the many friendships that have been made, how many wonderful people I’ve had the privilege of knowing. While I’m thankful for “things,” I’m most thankful for people. Which is amazing, because at one time of my life, I can recall not liking people all that much. God has changed me. There has been a mutation, and for the better.

I’m thankful for being thankful, for feeling and choosing thanks, not only because it is commanded, but because thankfulness is in and of itself a good, a doxological reaction, an offering, a blessing in response to blessedness, a sign. Good gifts point to a Giver.

Give the Giver thanks this Thanksgiving. Give glory for the glory. It’s what you’re made to do.

Caring for Everyone

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The object of our pastoral care is all the flock, that is, the church and every member of it. We should know every person who belongs to our charge. For how can we take heed unto them if we do not know them? A careful shepherd looks after every individual sheep. A good schoolmaster looks to every individual student, both for instruction and correction. A good physician looks after every particular patient. And good commanders look after every individual solider. Why, then, should the teachers, the pastors, the physicians, the guides of the churches of Christ not take heed unto every individual member of their charge?

Christ himself is the great and good shepherd and master of the church, who has the whole church to look after and yet takes care of every individual in it. In Luke 15, he tells us that he is like the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to seek out the one who was lost; or like the woman who lights a candle, sweeps the house, and searches diligently to find the one coin that was lost, and having found it, she rejoices and calls her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her. Christ tells us that there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7, 10). The prophets were often sent to single men. Ezekiel was made a watchman over individuals who must say to the wicked, “You shall surely die (Ezek. 3:18-19). Paul taught the people publicly and from house to house (Acts 20:20), which refers to his teaching particular families. The same Paul warned every man and taught every man, in all wisdom, that he might present every man perfect in Christ Jesus (Col. 1:28). Christ explained his public parables to twelve on their own (Mark 4:34). Every man must seek the law at the mouth of the priest (Mal. 2:7). As pastors, we must give an account of our watching over the souls of all who are bound to obey us (Heb. 13:17). Many more passages in Scripture assure us that it is our duty to take heed unto every person in our flock.

Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor [affiliate link], p. 48-49

Richard Baxter was writing in the 1600s. His words still hold. Pastors are to take heed unto every individual in their charge. Ministry should be personal as well as public. As Howard Hendricks would often say, “You can impress people from afar, but you can only impact them up close.”

I’ve made it a habit in ministry to keep lists of names before me, whether it be members of my youth group or families in my care, or students I’ve met attending classes on a nearby college campus, or congregational members that I’ve wanted to keep before me in prayer. As a teacher, I now keep my class rosters nearby. And I’ve made myself available for one-on-ones of the planned and the “pop-in” variety. Believe it or not, I set out about ten or so dates a semester where students can sign up for “Lunch with Brother Ben.” The majority of those dates do fill.

Baxter’s vision is active, more intentional, not only visiting pew by pew but house to house, coming to know people not only in congregation but where they dwell in the broader community. His notion of shepherding not only requires walking the distance from pulpit to church doorway, but down streets and across fields. He envisions parsons who go to the people, not wallflowers who wait for congregants to come for instruction and counsel. A good shepherd not only counts the sheep, but knows each by name. He lives where they live, sees what they see, and experiences what they experience, so that he can serve as is fitting for people and place.

This old vision for pastoral work needs to be cast yet again, for, as Baxter notes, this mode of ministry is scriptural and, therefore, does not go out of style. Our moment is replete with influencers but sparse of shepherds. We scroll past hundreds of peddlers of inspiration or advice each day, but scarcely come face to face with a person who, having come to know our name and needs, can counsel us in the way of wisdom, who can help us walk by the Spirit, who can instruct us in the Scriptures, and who can comfort us with the gospel of Christ.

God is still calling forth people to serve as shepherds. But if more such servants are to be found in our midst, that call must be answered.

Disordered, But in a Different Way

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Not long ago, it would have been taken for granted that social order in our free society is a function of our capacity to restrain and govern our most intense longings. Human beings are moved by passionate desires for things like pleasure, status, wealth, and power. But these intense desires can deform our lives if we don’t subject them to some structure and moderation through marriage, schooling, work, religion, and other binding commitments. Disordered lives are a product of rushing in recklessly, so that sex or children come too soon while responsibility comes too late if at all.    

But a lot of contemporary social science, like this important new report, has come to be quietly premised in a different understanding of disorder. Rather than seeing the drive to have children as a force to be channeled and domesticated by marriage, for instance, we have come to see both the desire for marriage and the desire for kids as endangered and in decline. And more broadly, the challenges to America’s social order now seem less like exorbitant human desires driving people’s lives out of control and more like an absence of energy and drive leaving people languishing and enervated. These are very different kinds of social problems that call for different sorts of responses. We can all perceive the shift from one toward the other in this century, but our cultural and political thinking has been slow to catch up. 

Yuval Levin, at The Dispatch, “The Changing Face of Social Disorder

Human life is dynamic and fluid, always changing, and the challenge before the sages, intellectuals, and leaders of any age is to accurately diagnose the societal ills of a given moment and to propose and activate solutions that work.

What’s wrong with American society today? What’s wrong with the West? For that matter, what’s wrong with the world?

Yuval Levin argues that our problem is not an excess of societal energy and the failure to channel it, as it may have been in the recent past, but cultural lethargy.

And strangely enough, that lethargy yields results that are both good and bad, with the positive aspects being easiest to observe, and the drawbacks most elusive.

Teen pregnancy is down and divorce is down. Out-of-wedlock births are down. Abortion rates are down. Fewer teenagers are dying in car wrecks. But that’s because teens aren’t dating. Teens are staying home more. People aren’t connecting. Fewer teenagers are obtaining a driver’s license. Marriage and fertility rates are down, too, but that’s because marriage is delayed, and having children is delayed, and sometimes, marriage and having children is discouraged.

Levin writes, “If social dysfunction is essentially a breakdown of discipline—if the core social problem is unruliness—then American life is getting better. We should want fewer people suffering the consequences of disorder, and it’s a good thing that more people’s lives answer to their own choices and preferences.”

But that can’t be it. This definition is incomplete. Levin states, “that case is ultimately unpersuasive because the greatest virtues of a social order are not functions of its ability to restrain commotion or even to empower choice but of its capacity to enable human flourishing.”

A healthy social order doesn’t just counter what ails it. A healthy social order offers reasons for hope, worthwhile aspirations, and a vision of the good life.

Levin states:

The pathologies of passivity are more fundamental challenges to flourishing because they strike deeper and earlier than the dangers of unruliness. Habits and institutions of restraint can work like sculptors of the social order—selectively chipping away at our wild, boisterous pursuit of happiness to shape it into more beautiful forms of energetic human action. But what if we fail to act on our longings to begin with? What if there is nothing to restrain, and so no raw material for the sculptor to work with? The right to pursue happiness won’t do us much good if we don’t exercise it.

Levin’s article is lengthy and worth a read. In the end, his focus is on public policy prescriptions and political leadership. He concludes that rightly understanding our maladies is only a starting point, a way to grasp our moment in order to better argue about and identify productive avenues for moving forward, ways to lift us from our malaise.

Policy won’t be enough. We’ll need a story and a cause powerful enough to inspire, challenge, and invite us to rise to our moment, to work and to build.

I think the way forward will necessarily involve the religious sphere. Faith leaders will need to step forward and offer the wisdom of their traditions in the moral, intellectual, social, and ethical dimensions of life. To offer it, they’ll need to mine it, to understand it, possess it, and embody it. As a Christian leader and minister, I certainly see the role I have to play in my family, workplace, community, and local congregation.

I have a calling to teach, equip, and inspire leaders to become active, to be workers and builders, connectors and collaborators. The local church can be a powerful catalyst for transformation and change, not only in the lives of individuals, but in the broader social fabric of a community. An entire community need not be converted for a leavening effect to be felt, for an entire neighborhood, town, or city to experience uplift and positive change, all because a small group of dedicated individuals commit their lives to God, to serving and loving all people, and praying that the kingdom would come, not only for the sake of the faithful, but for the sake of the world, all to God’s glory.

It is now becoming my prayer that God would not only bring forth more workers, more dedicated Christian leaders, but specifically more pastors and preachers, people who will teach, shepherd, equip, and send the faithful into the world within the life of local congregations. We not only need pastors and preachers who will fill the pulpits in established churches, but also those who will plant new communities, who have been given evangelistic and apostolic gifts to break new ground and to gather in new believers, and to help those they serve do a new work in our time.

The previous age may have necessitated Christian leaders who would redirect disordered energies toward marriage, family formation, and the maintaining of a healthy communal life.

But the next generation of Christian leaders may need to dedicate themselves to the work of exhortation, urging us to get moving while painting a picture of what a flourishing life before God might look like. They may need to help us move toward a land of promise while walking through a wilderness, and to learn to trust God for our daily bread.

Max Garland’s “In the Meantime”

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The river rose wildly every seventh spring
or so, and down the hatch went the town,
just a floating hat box or two, a cradle,
a cellar door like an ark to float us back
into the story of how we drown but never
for good, or long. How the ornate numbers 
of the bank clock filled with flood, how 
we scraped minute by minute the mud 
from the hours and days until the gears
of time started to catch and count again.
Calamity is how the story goes, how
we built the books of the Bible. Not 
the one for church, but the one the gods
of weather inscribed into our shoulder
blades and jawbones to grant them grit
enough to work the dumb flour of day
into bread and breath again. The world
has a habit of ending, every grandmother 
and father knew well enough never to say,
so deeply was it stained into the brick 
and mind. We live in the meantime
is how I remember the length of twilight 
and late summer cicadas grinding the air
into what seemed like unholy racket to us, 
but for them was the world’s only music.

Max Garland, “In the Meantime”

Garland writes, “My grandparents loved to remember the drowning of our western Kentucky town in the 1937 Ohio River flood. I inherited the newspaper images—a Jersey cow on a second story balcony, people rowing down Broadway. That flood became intermingled with the one I learned about in church, Noah’s flood. In fact, history and childhood religion more or less flowed together in an ongoing story of calamity and grit. But honestly, I probably wrote the poem because I liked the sound of the words ‘the river rose wildly’ and wanted to keep that sound going as long as I could.”

This poem connected with me because of its invocation of the Bible and accompanying religious imagery, including the notion that our theology is not only comprised of abstract thoughts about ethereal realities, but is also born from our experience. There is a dialectic, always ongoing, between what is written, what is revealed; what is taught, and what is lived.

The Moral Significance of Having Children

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The birthrate in the United States has hit its lowest level since 1979. Some chalk this up to the pandemic. But others speculate that “the economy, immigration rates and lacking pro-family policies are possible reasons.”

We’ve probably also heard silly statements similar to this one.

Economic conditions, lack of geographic stability/a shifting global population, environmental concerns, and government policy can affect family formation. But are these symptoms? Or is there a deeper malaise?

Is there some other reasons we do not wish to have children?

In A Community of Character, Stanley Hauerwas wrote an essay, “The Moral Value of the Family, and said:

Like it or not, one of the most morally substantive things any of us ever has the opportunity to do is to have children. A child represents our willingness to go on in the face of difficulties, suffering, and the ambiguities of modern life and is thus our claim that we have something worthwhile to pass on. The refusal to have children can be an act of ultimate despair that masks the deepest kind of self-hate and disgust. Fear and rejection of parenthood, the tendency to view the family as nothing more than companionable marriage, and the understanding of marriage as one of a series of nonbinding commitments, are but indications that our society has a growing distrust of our ability to deal with the future.

Family formation is a moral responsibility, and it is a setting for significant moral formation. Hauerwas stresses the necessity of inter-generational ties, the importance of elderly persons in the lives of young parents and children, and the fact that families teach how to care for those we do not choose, “those we find ourselves joined to by accident of birth.” The family also teaches us how to practice hospitality and the welcome of the stranger, and through the telling of family stories we find ourselves incorporated into a history that preceded us, and that will continue beyond us. We are bound not only by birth, but by time.

Hauerwas challenges us to reclaim family formation and childbearing as a moral responsibility, where older parents pass on wisdom to younger parents, and where all family members pass on what is good and true about human existence to successive generations. Rather than passing off children to “experts,” it is time we care for children as families.

Hauerwas concludes the essay:

In closing, a brief mention of what I think religious faith has to do with marriage and the family. It is not merely that the Judeo-Christian tradition keeps people on the straight and narrow sexual path necessary to sustain marriage. On the contrary, I begin my classes on marriage with the observation that both Christianity and marriage teach us that life is not chiefly about ‘happiness.’ Rather, the Hebrew-Christian tradition helps sustain the virtue of hope in a world which rarely provides evidence that such hope is justified. There may be a secular analogue to such hope, but for those of us who identify with Judaism or Christianity, our continuing formation of families witnesses to our belief that the falseness of this world is finally bounded by a more profound truth.

Christianity provides a hope that goes beyond the state of the economy, the environment, migration concerns, or government policy. And, it provides the resources to help individuals work toward economic health and justice, creation care, stability and hospitality, and public policy that benefits the common good.

I have often reflected on the challenges of parenthood. Molly and I were not “ready” for children. I do not think anyone is ever “ready,” for even if we think we are “ready,” we will change. Our conditions will change. Speaking personally, part of the change rendered in me is the discovery of a love that binds and compels, that draws and drives, a deepening concern not first for my own interests, but for the interests of those who have been gifted into the world by God.

As Hauerwas observes, the world seldom provides reasons for “hope.” It is rather effective in providing reasons for despair. My hope, then, must be rooted elsewhere: in God and God’s coming future.

If you are considering marriage, be wise, firstly. But, I encourage you: get married. Make a commitment. With God’s help, keep it. And if you are married, even if you don’t think you are “ready,” please be open to welcoming a child into the world. Why? Because, with God, we have an everlasting hope.

Laubach: A Walking Prayer

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One of the best ways to pray is to take a vigorous walk, talking to God in rhythm with the steps, thus:

“Lord, use my prayer–to help these people I am passing–to look up to Thee–to be hungry for Thy voice–to long to do Thy will–to hear Thee speak–to obey Thy voice–to do Thy will.”

There is no more exhilarating way of taking exercise than a walking prayer. When your brain is weary, go out into a crowd and waft prayers in all directions; let them trial you like a bridal veil, after people as they pass you. You will get the sense that something delicately gauzy, like soft morning light, floats after those for whom you pray. If your experience duplicates mine, you will feel a strange power developing like some long unused muscle.

Frank Laubach, Prayer: The Mightiest Force in the World, pgs. 85-86. Published 1946.

Frank Laubach (1884-1970) was an American Christian missionary and champion for global literacy. One of his most famous teachings was to encourage Christians to purposefully turn their thoughts toward God for at least one second of every minute of every day, thus keeping God front-and-center in all of life’s activity.

He was also a strong advocate for global peace, and for prayer. His book Prayer: The Mightiest Force in the World, contains numerous “experiments in prayer,” or ways of praying during the course of an ordinary day. He encourages his readers to keep a notebook handy, to observe results, to record answers. His instruction is often as simple as to pray the name of Jesus in each encounter. Laubach had a firm conviction that prayer activated the power of God in the world, that our prayers, somehow and someway, were woven into the unfolding of God’s purposes for the world.

Ellul’s Religious World

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Never have people believed as much, everything and nothing. The modern world is above all else a religious world. It is loaded with religions–communism, Maoism, nationalism, revolution–all are purely and specifically religious attitudes. The modern world is not really secularized, in spite of all the absurd ballyhoo based on a whole series of misconceptions, and on an extremely superficial analysis. This is essentially a world of the sacred. The political enemy is “damned.” Wars are ideological wars, that is to say, wars of religion. Social movements are sacred. Revolution is an act of God. Technology belongs to the domain of the sacred, and science even more so. The most that can be said is that modern humans have completely desacralized the natural environment, they have transferred all the sacred to the cultural and the social. One need only observe the entranced state of those who talk revolution, or the complete irrationality of discourses on politics, irrespective of the specific question under discussion. The modern world is overflowing with myths. It is constantly producing myth, but they are no longer the same myths as before, and they no longer come by the same process. This contradicts the superficial view that humanity, attached to ancestral forms of myth, is being demythologized. We are caught up in the development myths (and those of underdevelopment), in the myths of self-management and growth, as well as in the myths of fascism and imperialism. World and humanity are crammed with faith, with religion, with belief, with mythology.

Jacques Ellul, Essential Spiritual Writings, p. 40

Right on, Ellul.

These words, sourced from Hope in Time of Abandonment, were written in 1972.