Pastors & The Ordinary Joys Of Family Life
Aaron Renn sent out yesterday the new edition of his e-mail newsletter, The Masculinist, which focuses on issues having to do with men and the church. Subscribe for free here.
In this issue, he writes at length to criticize pastors who, in his view, make marriage seem awful by over-emphasizing how hard it is. Renn criticizes the Southern Baptist pastor Russell Moore for his recent book The Storm-Tossed Family (which, by the way, was named Book of the Year by Christianity Today). Renn writes:
Many times in life there are things we get intellectually at a surface level but we don’t really understand them until we experience them for ourselves (e.g., having children) or until something triggers a deeper comprehension. I always understood the pattern of how pastors interact with families, but it wasn’t until reading Moore’s book that it really clicked for me. He helped me to understand why pastors write about marriage the way they do.
An interviewer on a Fox News radio podcast asked Moore why he wrote the book. He answered, “Because so many of the conversations I have behind closed doors with people are often in a varying sense of crisis as it relates to family.” There it is.
If you think about it, pastors tend to deal with families in three main situations: weddings, baptisms, and crises. The first is marriage at its most naïve and idealistic. The last is marriage and family at its low point, whether it be a death, infidelity, divorce, a troubled child, etc. This is an unrepresentative selection of the experience of marriage and family to say the least.
In a sense, pastors are part party planner, part trauma surgeon. Only they do their trauma surgery on the people whose party they planned. No wonder their writings and sermons tend to warn against naïve idealism and describe all the problems that may lie ahead.
Pastors constantly have to deal with truly terrible family situations. Moore writes, “I have counseled hundreds of couples in the wreckage of marital infidelity over the course of my ministry.” Think about that. This one guy has personally had to deal with hundreds of couples suffering through the trauma of infidelity – and that’s just one of the many crisis situations Moore along with other pastors has had to deal with on a regular basis.
That has to take a toll. No wonder he is so keen to warn people about the pitfalls that await them.
Pastors usually only get to see the incredible joys of family at the specific times of weddings and baptisms, whereas they get to see almost all of the seriously bad things that happen. As a result, they tend to be focused on the bad by the very nature of what they do. This gives them a warped perspective on the family and perhaps this accounts for the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of family life in their books.
The bad times in family are real and it’s definitely appropriate to warn people about them. My stepmother is dying of cancer as we speak, for example. So I am not opposed at all to realtalk about marriage.
But these books and sermons are incredibly unbalanced because of what they don’t talk about: the downsides of singleness and the joys of marriage and family life.
Renn isn’t picking on Moore. He says that lots of pastors preach like that. He adds:
Probably nothing Russell Moore could write could do more to sell people on pursuing family than posting pictures like this:
That’s a great looking family. And I’m sure there are tons of incredibly positive moments they all have to share. I’m guessing there’s a massive amount of joy in Moore’s household that we could have heard much more about.
I wish I could give you a link to this issue of The Masculinist (#28), but it’s not on a website. Do subscribe — it’s free, and there’s always good material in it.
Renn’s critique of Moore’s book (which I haven’t read, so I can neither agree nor disagree with it) reminds me of readers of this blog who say that I’m too focused on what’s going wrong in church and society, and not enthusiastic enough about what’s going right. That’s a fair criticism, but it might well speak to my limits as a writer. Yesterday and today I’ve been in bed, flat on my back, in pain, because I threw my back out Sunday night. Last night, I took a warm bath, and read some P.G. Wodehouse. The utter delight of Wodehouse! He makes you happy to be alive. I can tell you in vivid detail how much my back hurts, and where it hurts, but I couldn’t explain to you why reading Wodehouse made me forget all that, and produced a general feeling of complete agreement with the cosmos. There was self, in the tub speaking reading Wodehousian dialog in a whisper, just to hear those words.
Silly? Of course! But of such moments are a happy life made. When I was a young man, I anticipated that if I was to have a happy life, it would consist of mostly peaks. Now that I’m in middle age, I am grateful for the peaks, but mostly my happiness consists of a hobbit-like gratitude for wife, kids, books, the food, the fire in the hearth, good company, and so forth.
Renn’s piece also reminds me of my days as a newspaper movie critic: it’s a truism of the profession that the greater the film, the harder it is to write about. That is, it’s easy to pick out why a film goes wrong, but when everything works, it can be difficult to say exactly why. There are no foolproof formulas for great movies, or for great marriages.
I think, though, that Renn understands why Moore and other pastors focus on the negative: because the laity don’t go to their pastors with stories about how wonderful their marriages are. In fact, I can’t think of a single time that I took any pastor of mine aside to tell him in any detail how good things were going within my family. I’ve only gone to them when I have trouble.
I think it also must be the case that pastors must feel obliged to prepare unmarried people for the fact that marriage isn’t all romance and good times. We live in a culture in which people think they can walk away from obligations, especially marriages, when times get hard. It must be the case that pastors don’t want men and women to be surprised when their marriages go through periods of darkness and struggle.
Similarly, maybe they’re also trying to fight the broader aversion to unpleasantness and pain in our culture. Renn criticizes examples from the work of other pastors who talk about the male role in marriage as being a suffering servant. I see where Renn is coming from, but at the same time, becoming a husband and a father taught me to be especially grateful to my dad for sticking with a job he hated because he was committed to doing his duty to support my mom and us kids.
My childhood in most ways was an advertisement for family life. My happiest childhood memories were the habit my sister and I had, when we were small, of crawling into our father’s lap every night for maybe half an hour, and talking to him, or just watching TV with him. He smelled like Marlboro tobacco and Community coffee (black, with two drops of Sweeta). Almost every night we would do this, until we were too big to fit in the recliner with him. I’m a professional writer, but I would be hard pressed to convey what those ordinary nights in our dad’s lap did for Ruthie and me. It conveyed to us comfort, warmth, and security. This is what home is supposed to feel like.
In fact, it would be fair to say that everything I’ve thought and done since leaving home, in the sense I mean here, has been an attempt to return to it.
In my own family’s life, the deep joys have been in moments like that. I can make a list for you of all the things that have gone wrong in my marriage and in raising the kids, and I can analyze them pretty well. But how can you make young people who have never been married or had kids understand how fulfilling it is to sit in a recliner with a kid in either arm, and just talk with them about their days?
I’ve told this story here before, but it bears repeating: my sister Ruthie was younger than I, but she married much earlier, while she was still in college. I didn’t marry until I was nearly 30. By the time our firstborn came, almost two years later, Ruthie had two kids, and had been a mother for six years. A couple of weeks before my wife gave birth, Ruthie phoned me to check on us. I was lying on the floor of our basement living room in Brooklyn when she told me something close to this:
“You and Julie are about to lose your lives. Things will never be the same for you. You won’t be able to go out whenever you want to, or stay out as late as you’d like. You’re not going to have as much money to spend on yourselves as you do now. Those days are over. I’m going to tell you something that you aren’t going to believe now, and that’s okay, but you are going to discover that it’s true. There is nothing you can do out in the world that will bring you as much joy as staying home playing with your baby on the floor. Something changes when you become a mom and dad. You’ll miss those old things, but not so much that you would trade being a parent to get it all back. I’m telling you the truth, but if you don’t believe me now, just wait. You’ll see.”
She was right. As I write this, I think about the time right after we moved to Dallas, and a terrible stomach virus rolled through our family. Matthew was five, and upchucked all over his bed one night. Julie was in bed with Lucas, who was still an infant, so I got up to get Matt situated on the couch. I put a blanket on the floor next to the couch, and laid down to be close to him if he needed me.
A few minutes later, he rolled over and yacked all over me — head, neck, shoulders, a real baptism.
If you have never been married and a parent, you will find that story horrifying. But if you have, then you’ll believe me when I say that is one of my most cherished memories of my children’s childhood. Why? Because it’s funny (in retrospect), and because it was one of those times that really told me what it meant to be a daddy. My father did the same thing for me as a kid. Daddy is the man you can upchuck all over, and he won’t get mad at you, but will clean you up, clean himself off, and lay back down next to you, because he loves you and wants to take care of you.
A beloved child is the one who pukes all over you when he’s sick as a dog, and you still feel that it’s a privilege to care for the poor little guy, and relieve his suffering as much as you can.
Now, how do you convey the joy of being yacked on to a reader? How do you explain why there’s nowhere in the world you’d rather be than in your chair by the fire, with a kid on each arm, listening to their stories, and telling them some of your own? Come to think of it, here’s an excerpt of a column I wrote ages ago in the Wall Street Journal (link not available) when Matt was a little boy, and I was learning in Brooklyn what it meant to hold your young son in your own arms, and tell him stories about his grandfather:
So that first week after Matthew’s grandparents left, we followed Pawpaw’s adventures hunting squirrels so his family would have enough to eat during the Depression. We joined him in the rodeo, riding bucking bulls and wrassling steers. We followed Pawpaw into the Coast Guard, and rode out a hurricane in Mobile Bay lashed to the wheel of his 40-foot cutter. Then Pawpaw piloted a dinghy in rough seas, outmaneuvering a shark to complete a mission to change a buoy’s light bulb.
Then I told Matthew about the things Pawpaw did when I was little. Once I saw Pawpaw catch an egg-stealing chicken snake by the tail and crack him like a whip, snapping the varmint’s head off. I told my boy about the hunts, when Pawpaw took me into the swamp and showed me how to stalk whitetail bucks and other game. I told him about how when the Mississippi River flooded, Pawpaw would set lines in the backwater for catfish but often snared snapping turtles, alligator gars and fat black water snakes instead.
You can imagine how thrilling this is to a little Brooklyn boy. But the other night, when Matthew’s deep breathing told me he was asleep, it struck me that I hadn’t thought about these things in years. Here I was rediscovering my father’s life through telling stories about him to my own son (a startling number of which end with the cooking and eating of a wild animal). As a child, none of this seemed extraordinary to me at all. It’s how most men lived in West Feliciana Parish, and indeed some version of this rural saga is how a great number of Americans lived until a moment ago.
Truth is, it’s more pleasurable to me in the telling than it was in the living. I was a bookish kid who longed for the big city. Though I idolized my dad for his courage and omnicompetence, I always knew I would find the meaning of my life and vocation elsewhere. But telling these stories to my son about my Southern boyhood, I’m discovering a poetry of place I hadn’t noticed before, or at least resisted.
Here’s a photo of my dad and me, from 2007; he died in 2015:
I’m going on too long here, because … well, because it makes me happy to think about the good times with my dad, and with my own kids. The thing is, if you’ve read my books Little Way and How Dante, you know a lot about the hard times between my dad and me. The reason they were so hard was because the good times had been so good. The joy of marriage and family is inseparable from the pain in them, or at least the possibility of pain. I hope for the sake of my wife and kids that I have learned both good things from my father’s example, and have also learned what not to do. Of course, my kids will say the same thing about me when they have children.
Back to Aaron Renn’s point. How can pastors — and how can we who aren’t pastors — make marriage and family more attractive to the young and unmarried? I’m not asking how we can hide the bad stuff from them; I’m asking how we can convey to them that the good can be more substantive than the bad, and that even the hard parts can be part of the good?
I knew all this theoretically before I had kids, but my sister was right: there was no way to really get it until I learned from experience. I wish I could help other young men understand that
a) marriage and fatherhood are hard, but
b) if you lose your life by putting your wife and kids first, then the life you will gain will be better than you can possibly imagine, and
c) there is no guarantee that things will work out for you and your spouse, but it’s worth doing anyway
Your thoughts, readers? What advice would you give to pastors?