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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. [1]

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 [2] (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:

Russell Moore and family

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 [1] — 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?

 

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59 Comments (Open | Close)

59 Comments To "Pastors & The Ordinary Joys Of Family Life"

#1 Comment By Franklin Evans On December 19, 2018 @ 12:56 pm

Jeff,

Back in the bad old days of Usenet newsgroups and modems on dial-up landlines, I participated in a newsgroup called alt.callahans. For those who don’t know, newsgroups were a sort of email repository — with threads very much like we have here on Rod’s blogs and comment sections — marked by the subject lines people chose for their posts.

The group still exists, as far as I know.

Anyway, it was an early experiment in virtual reality. People were informed of the ground rules — very simply put, respect others as you would want them to respect you (ahem) — and we all participated in a version of the Saloon with most of the trimmings. It was there, for example, that I learned that YMMV stands for your mileage may vary, not you make me vomit. Ahem.

It was a place to share ourselves with others in the same spirit and context of Spider’s writing. It was unmoderated and unfiltered — I learned there how best to deal with trolls, and spammers learned to stay away after seeing the corpses of some of their fellows — but the thing that still gets me is in how it was the exception to the rule that online “community” cannot truly exist as a real community.

Spider wrote and writes fiction. He chooses science fiction as his storytelling context. The Place, as we called it, proved that fiction is not just a reflection of reality. It can be a true representation of reality, and especially when it inspires people to see each other as real.

I’ve known clerics in service to congregations in several sects and traditions. The ones who I consider most effective in their service lived their lives demonstrating the sanctity of real community, with their integral contribution to its strength, celebration of its benefits and participation in healing its injuries.

#2 Comment By E. J. On December 19, 2018 @ 2:12 pm

njoseph: YES. To pretty much everything you said.

In regard to pastors and self-disclosure, I don’t think a pastor needs to talk about his family much for his attitude toward them to be clear. Frankly, there are plenty of narcissists who talk a lot about how great their families are, etc. Talk doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

I think my current pastor is a great example of how to approach this. He doesn’t talk about his family much from the pulpit (he made a deal with his son, when his son was still in grade school, that any time he used him as a sermon illustration, the son got $5). But it’s obvious to everyone that he deeply loves and cares for his wife, and her feelings about him are also clear to anyone who observes them for very long. They work as a team, and he makes a point of setting aside time to be with her, and with their (grown) kids, despite an insanely busy schedule. That speaks more than long personal anecdotes from the pulpit.

#3 Comment By Heidi On December 19, 2018 @ 3:03 pm

I have no advice or comment for the pastors, but to you Rod, I can say this. I, too, have been barfed on by a beloved child. At the Christmas dinner table. Down my neck and into the front of my shirt. It was, indeed, a type of baptism. Three children in five years was a baptism by fire, of sorts, and the barf lowered the temperature of the intensity of the early days to a decades long smolder that will warm my heart and soul until my last breath.
A very Merry Christmas to you and your lovely family and may your back feel better soon.

#4 Comment By elspeth On December 19, 2018 @ 5:47 pm

Before I comment to the substance of the post, I wanted to address your point about Wodehouse:

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.

This isn’t silly at all! P.G. Wodehouse was a masterful storyteller whose stories capture the imagination, make you think a bit, and make you laugh at the peculiarities of human nature.

As to Renn’s point, he makes a good one, actually. Marriage has not particularly hard for us either, and has often been fun. The challenges have usually been the normal stuff of life; multiple little ones and the attendant physical and financial demands, etc. We weathered those without losing the good will between us.

Unfortunately, we’ve learned as my husband has counseled several men over the years, that a lot of couples don’t weather those storms without losing the good will between them. I suppose those are the couples pastors like Russell Moore see most often, but the fact that they bother to get help rather than bail is a hopeful data point, not a bad thing.

I don’t know how you make an institution which demands self-sacrifice look appealing in a culture where fuzzy feelings, perpetual pleasure, and daily happiness is viewed as our reward for simply being born.

It’s a conundrum.

#5 Comment By a millennial On December 19, 2018 @ 9:36 pm

Rod—

I have seen you in the past acknowledge that you have no experience with fundamentalist Christian movements, and therefore cannot anticipate or perhaps even fully understand the way some of the phrases you use to describe the Benedict Option resonate negatively with people from that background. I believe there may be something similar going on with your writing about the “joys” of family life. For example, your anecdote about your son’s vomiting… I assume it was meant to invoke some feeling of positive sentiment or admiration in the reader. But that’s not what it invokes for those with a different background. I felt alienation. You see, my mother too has a (much milder) vomiting anecdote—one that she trots out every time she wants me to shame me for causing her to experience the martyrdom of motherhood, and berate me for being An Ungrateful B*tch. When you say you do not resent your children for their vomiting, it is as believable (and makes as much sense) to me as if you were to say that you do not resent your unicorns for farting rainbows.

I have heard enough anecdotes to accept *on faith* that finding joy in parenting is part of the human experience for some. But it is nothing that I have ever experienced through my own family or the families of close friends. Therefore, the only times I have ever considered family formation myself has been precisely when hearing those “marriage is so difficult” lectures that you and Mr. Renn so decry. At least I understand the content of those speeches, so I can move to the next step of considering whether I have the virtues they recommend for family life. I know nothing of “family joy”, so how do you expect me to act on the basis of wanting it?

#6 Comment By VikingLS On December 19, 2018 @ 10:00 pm

I got married in my mid thirties. We’ve been married 10 years. I found the loneliness of single life a lot more difficult than the occasional compromises and disagreements I have had being married.

The advice I would give.

1. DO NOT CHEAT. It’s not going to be worth it.

2. Find someone who shares some of your interests. It’s going to be hard to spend any time together if you don’t have things you both like to do.

3. Presume the things you don’t like about the person you are marrying, if any, will not change after you marry.

#7 Comment By VikingLS On December 19, 2018 @ 10:05 pm

“Siarlys, yes, kids grow up, but most pets shuffle off this mortal coil in about the same time frame. And beware humans! They can soar above the angels, but also plumb depths that shock the devils”

How are your pets doing in school?

I have had pets most of my life. While there is something somewhat parental about pet ownership pets don’t have to be ready for independent lives as human beings.

#8 Comment By Nelson On December 19, 2018 @ 10:57 pm

I don’t have much to add other than I feel the same way. The key to a happy life is spending time with family and enjoying the Hobbit-like niceties of life. Avoid cable news and talk radio like the plague. And to live your life as Christ teaches, even if you know you will never be worthy of redemption.

#9 Comment By JG On December 20, 2018 @ 12:16 pm

Rod,

It is on a website. The archive is here: [3] and this issue is here: [4]