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By Matt Reagan — 12 months ago
“Romance is the privilege of the rich, not the profession of the unemployed,” wrote Oscar Wilde. “The poor should be practical and prosaic.” I can partially relate to this sentiment.
While I am not, in any estimation, to be numbered among the financially poor, I may be considered more impoverished in the currencies of independence and time. I am a father of five. My wife is currently recovering from COVID-19, and we are rounding out our second extended quarantine of the last two months. And in the last few days, two of our children’s stomachs have decided to expel their contents.
Our world orbits around need; and needs call for a more practical and prosaic season of life that all but excludes the possibility of romance, right? Quality time — undistracted and full of energy — seems like the privilege of the bourgeois.
But is it? Should we pause romance in this season? Should we simply acknowledge that we are shoulder-to-shoulder, not face-to-face, as we battle for the kindness and cleanliness of our kids?
Why Romance Is Worth Pursuing
I don’t believe we should pause romance in the demanding and chaotic world of parenting. Consider at least three reasons why.
First, delight in beauty is the sustaining substance of life. The battlefield of child-rearing is not for the faint of heart. Without consistent moments to be refueled together by the beauty of God in his creation (I’m thinking Psalm 19-style sunrises and sunsets, rich flavors, unforgettable melodies, and especially the divine image in each other), we will succumb to fatigue and forget why we’re raising the children to begin with.
Second, children need their parents’ affection for each other. God created parenting to be a completion of joy, an overflow of it. It is a Trinitarian image, whereby the mutual delight of the parents spills itself into creation. To quote thirteenth-century theologian Meister Eckhart (speaking in human terms and however imprecisely), “God laughed and begot the Son. Together they laughed and begot the Holy Spirit. And from the laughter of the Three, the universe was born.”
The nourishing and cherishing of Ephesians 5 doesn’t simply transfer to your children. “No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church” (Ephesians 5:29) — I am convicted as I type. Spouses (with a special emphasis on husbands) are called to invest deeply into one another, with the nourishing and cherishing of one’s own body, implying more than mere functional living or co-laboring. “Cherish,” after all, is not a prosaic word. It is infused with deep delight, the kind of word husbands search for to express their affection in a poem or song.
Practical Advice for Married Couples
So, let’s get practical (but not prosaic). What might romance look like in the season of survival on the Serengeti that is parenting?
What follows is a list that mingles my own successes, failures, sin, and idealism, ranging from the mundane to the magical. Okay, mostly mundane. Most of it lives miles from a gondola in Venice, but placed on the battle for the souls of your children, every intentional face-to-face moment really helps. Take what helps.
1. Wake up together.
Most husbands need less sleep than their wives, but trying to coordinate either sleep or wake time can be good for your marriage. For us, it’s been wake time most recently. We get up most mornings before the kids are stirring. Yes, it’s dark. It feels like the middle of the night (because it is) and our eyes are bleary. But the world is quiet and we rehearse the mercies of God out loud to one another, and of course to him, as we paraphrase the Psalms. We directly thank him for the undeserved gift of one another — boom, romance.
2. Take a few minutes to connect.
This must be intentional, and it usually can’t be during dinner. Dinner is a wonderful opportunity to shepherd your children, but in most larger families, it is likely too chaotic to be a face-to-face moment with a spouse. The moment I’m speaking of is right after the kids are in bed. The reason it must be intentional is that you are likely drifting into a trance of fatigue, and some form of unwinding seeks your attention. But so does your spouse’s soul. And to turn to one another, without the television on or the phone in hand, and simply say, “Tell me about your day,” is fresh wind for your marriage. I might even recommend a few fun questions to pull from a hat in order to engage one another with more intrigue and substance.
After ten o’clock on most nights, my wife loses much of her filter to weariness and goes into full sass mode. She throws playful jabs my way and laughs until she cries, and I tend to amplify her delight with my over-the-top responses. It would probably look to the outsider like two middle school kids flirting, but it is an ironic display of marital safety and affection that is probably indispensable in this season. I would be hard-pressed to overstate the value of humor as a means of romantic connection.
4. Write to one another.
Even if you say you’re not a “words of affirmation” person, you are more than you realize. Your spouse is too. And when the words are written rather than simply spoken, they affect us powerfully. I think it’s because those words reflect deeper thought, deeper consideration, and deeper investment of time than something more spontaneous. That’s why a text message stating affection is good, but a sonnet is better. Or even a limerick if you’re not into iambic pentameter.
5. Get out into creation.
The heavens declare the romantic heart of God. The sun exclaims the joy and love of the Bridegroom (Psalm 19:1–5). A breeze whispers his gentleness, and the autumn leaves remind us of the beauty of Christ’s death. It doesn’t take the reservation of an Airbnb in Montana to engage the created world together. We sat on the back porch for a few minutes this week and marveled at the sudden bright yellows of the leaves behind the house. Consistent peeks outside or regular walks around the neighborhood, especially hand in hand, can bring peace to chaos. Speaking of hand in hand . . .
6. Show physical affection.
Keep holding hands in public. Or start holding hands in public. Half-mindlessly rub her back while you’re sitting on the couch. Don’t let the heckling of your teenagers keep you from a spontaneous hug in the kitchen. There was a moment, likely when you were dating, when the brush of your now-spouse’s hand was electric. The same desire, albeit without the giddiness, still resides in you. Touch is connection, and connection between two desire-laden, God-imaging souls is at the heart of romance.
7. Recall the wonders of God in your family’s life.
This is a clear command and practice in Scripture (see Psalm 136), and it is a poetic moment when practiced well. It ought to be a normative part of your prayer life, but we find it helpful to also formalize the practice. Each year on our anniversary, we pull out a journal and jog our memories about all the big events and sweet moments of the previous year. It is a connecting moment of sentiment, laughter, and gratitude.
8. Get away and dream.
This is a privilege that not all parents have the resources to enact. It requires willing babysitters (often family because of the sizable commitment) and sometimes money. We went three years without a night away at one point. And again, it doesn’t have to be in some exotic bungalow in Fiji. But one of our fonder marital memories was a simple switching of houses with my parents for a night so that we could come out of the winds and talk uninterruptedly about what the Lord might have for our future.
9. Play music.
I don’t mean that you need to turn your family into the Von Trapps. If anyone in your family can conjure a melody with voice or violin, all the better, but I am here referring to a simple song in the background. Whether it’s a hymn (Indelible Grace gets a lot of air time in our household), a soundtrack, or a beat to dance to, music awakens the soul. It allows easier access to emotion and meaning in the mundane moments. Use the gift of Spotify or a phonograph.
10. Speak the delights of God to your spouse.
While this is an admittedly shoulder-to-shoulder activity (since your collective gaze is elsewhere), it is akin to watching a sunset or a play, only with deeper relational weight. After all, you are fostering the romance between your spouse and the true Bridegroom. To speak the wonders of God’s holiness, his fatherly delight, and the wonders of his love, is to kindle the soul. So don’t just memorize Scripture. Memorize it in order to tell her of the dimensions of the love of Christ, and so fill her with the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:19).
Life, even the life of a child-chasing parent, is magical. And marriage, even the mostly shoulder-to-shoulder kind that is stretched to its limit by fatigue and chaos, is still a picture of Christ and the church. Ask your heavenly Bridegroom for eyes to see that afresh and the energy to enact a bit of intentional romance.
By David Mathis — 1 year ago
“God gave us plurality because he’s a big fan of humility.” I was struck by how often Dave Harvey mentions humility in his new book The Plurality Principle on building and maintaining church leadership teams.
It’s not a new thought that a plurality — a team of pastor-elders, as opposed to just one — both requires and encourages humility. But what I did not expect is how often Harvey would sound the refrain for the pride-crucifying, humility-cultivating power of team leadership.
Harvey, like many of us, has seen and heard a lifetime’s worth of pastoral shipwrecks in recent years. Some of these leaders were formally peerless in their churches and ministries, but many others had fellow pastor-elders in name, and functionally little accountability, operating with special privileges and a long leash. In the end, too often one man was at the helm, when it could have been a team, and in time, the church, its witness, and the pastor himself came to suffer because it.
“When difficulties arise, do the elders suspect themselves first, not others, and serve others first, not themselves?”
“All Christian community tests our humility,” Harvey writes, “but being part of a leadership team is like sitting for the bar exam” (127). Then he observes, “Humility must be learned over time as individuals both suspect themselves first, not others, and serve others first, not themselves.” Suspect self first. Serve others first. That’s insightful, and a watershed of good leadership in the church: When difficulties arise, do the elders suspect themselves first, not others, and serve others first, not themselves? And what will determine which way the pastors will go?
“Humility is the oil that lubricates the engine of plurality,” writes Harvey. “If you want to know the foundational secret that lies beneath great teams, meetings marked by unity, personal elder care, and lovingly accountable relationships, it’s this: humility” (98).
How Plurality Humbles
Unlike the world’s vision of leadership as self-actualization and the accrual of privilege, a Christian vision of leadership has God, not self, at the center. Pastor-elders are not in it to build their own sense of confidence and self-worth. Rather, their calling is to make additional sacrifices, to bear extra burdens and costs, to point our fellow church members Godward in Christ.
Our need for humility grows the more we are surrounded by other people, especially when yoked in a calling to lead together. While humility is first and foremost a creaturely virtue in relation to our Creator, many of the great texts on humility come in the context of community (Philippians 1:27–2:5; Ephesians 4:1–3; 1 Peter 5:5–7).
Consider four ways, among many others, that team leadership humbles us.
1. Teams expose selfish desires and unholy ambitions.
The apostles warn us of the dangers of “selfish ambition” (Greek eritheia). James writes, “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16; also James 3:14). Paul lists selfish ambition as one of “the works of the flesh” alongside “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, . . . dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19–21; also 2 Corinthians 12:20; Philippians 1:17; 2:3).
“Selfish ambition,” or “self-seeking” (Romans 2:8), is tragic in any human, and any Christian, and all the more in Christian leaders. And it is a special threat for lone rangers. Who will smell it out, and can challenge it, even in its subtle forms? Teammates. Men who are peers, of the same standing and similar perspective, and can tell when directions and decisions are self-seeking, rather than church-seeking.
There is often a fine line between putting self forward and the willingness to serve in visible, celebrated positions of leadership. Good pluralities (teams not just in name but in function) tend to expose such selfish desires and unholy ambitions and challenge them before they become deep-seated. As Harvey writes,
If you’re new to working with a team, you’ll soon see how often plurality uncovers and forces you to deal with the heroic dreams and fleshly desires you have for ministry. . . . To serve as part of a healthy elder plurality, a pastor must know his role, be willing to come under authority, learn humility, traffic in nuances that are neither black nor white, and be willing to think about his gifts and position through the lens of what serves the church rather than his personal agenda. Leading in community puts us under the spotlight. (29–30)
2. Teams encourage the right kind of disagreement.
Disagreements are inevitable in the church, and in every sphere of life. The question is not if they will come, but when and how. Healthy teams encourage the right kind of disagreements to happen early and often, in the context of trusting, regular relationships. Better to first hear the opposing perspective in private, from a brother and peer who manifestly loves you, than publicly, or from a tense call or letter, after a rash decision has been implemented.
It is humbling to hear a brother you admire and respect disagree with you. Then, it’s additionally humbling to realize you were short-sighted, or wrong, and to admit it. Leadership pluralities encourage healthy disagreement, in the right time and context.
3. Teams show us the joy of not doing it all.
It’s one thing to admit, as a leader, that you’re human and can’t do it all (in theory); it is another to go about your daily and weekly work as if you can indeed do it all. Teams play out that humbling truth before our eyes, moving it from theory to reality in our own heads and hearts.
For team leadership to thrive over time, writes Harvey, “Each man must believe that he needs the other men.” And seeing our need for each other, lived out before our own eyes, serves to dispel pretenses in us that we deserve the credit for ministry successes.
4. Teams try our patience, and produce better results.
Team leadership is typically not efficient, but it is effective — which is how God wants his church to be led.
“Team leadership is typically not efficient, but it is effective — which is how God wants his church to be led.”
When the “senior pastor” is essentially the church’s CEO, decisions and next actions can happen very fast. Teamwork, on the other hand, takes time. We need to synch schedules, have conversations, provide rationale, answer objections, write drafts, add appropriate nuances. Team leadership is typically not efficient.
But apparently, God isn’t all that interested in efficiency in local-church leadership. Which is worth pondering carefully in our day, when other organizations in society emphasize efficiency, not without good reasons. Yet not so with the church. The clear, unified testimony in the New Testament to plurality of leadership in the local church signals that Christ is more interested in effectiveness than efficiency in his body. Again, Harvey writes,
God loves unity, so he calls us to a team — a place where we must humbly persevere with one another to function effectively. God loves making us holy, so he unites us to men who will make us grow. God loves patience, so he imposes a way of governing that requires humble listening and a trust that he is working in the lives of others. God loves humility, so he gave us plurality. (99)
Harder, and Better
Teamwork in ministry is a precious gift. Surely, thousands of solo pastors around the world long for fellow elders and do not yet have them. May God be pleased to answer their prayers and steady their hands. There is grace too for a lonely calling.
Those of us who do enjoy the priceless gift of teammates, it can be all too easy to take them for granted. Team leadership is not always easy. Often it doesn’t feel efficient. Fellow leaders can feel inconvenient. At times, it may seem like leading alone would be better.
But leading together challenges and chastens our pride. It costs us personal comforts and convenience, but the gains for the church, and for our own long-term joy, far surpass the discomforts.
By Kelly M. Kapic — 1 year ago
John Owen (1616–1683) agreed with the ancient idea that happiness is a good and worthy goal, although what he had in mind is far different from what we tend to assume about happiness. We often link happiness to entertainment or comedy, and thus to distraction from the frustrations of everyday life. The ancients, in contrast, equated happiness with virtue and being as fully human as possible. Aristotle, for example, encouraged his readers to instill good habits in their children, to give them a depth of character that would equip them for life and for contributing to the polis (their society). Owen, working within his distinctly Christian tradition, naturally envisioned happiness against a much more God-oriented background.
Like Aristotle, Owen derived his understanding of happiness from his view of the world and our place in it, but, of course, his starting point was very different from Aristotle’s. Owen knew that God himself is the source and goal of our happiness. As Owen puts it, “It was from eternity that [God] laid in his own bosom a design for our happiness” (Works of John Owen, 2:33), which is nothing less than communion with God. Communion, for Owen, constituted true, deep, and life-giving happiness.
The triune God of life and love made us to enjoy fellowship with him, to love our neighbors, and to live in harmony with the earth. Communion, as interpersonal activity, is our mode of engaging God and the world as we were designed to do. We will need to understand this construct of happiness if we are going to rightly understand why Owen, in perhaps his most recognized book, would emphasize an exercise that sounds so negative — mortification! Sin is that which disorders, disrupts, and destroys our communion, so learning to deal with this threat is a necessary component of happiness.
Mortification and Communion
Owen’s little book On the Mortification of Sin grew out of a series of sermons he preached while serving as Dean of Christ Church and Vice-Chancellor of Oxford. His preface mentions that he was also working on his volume Communion with God, but because that was unfinished, he hoped this smaller contribution would satisfy readers in the meantime. I point this out because readers too often detach Owen’s writing on “putting sin to death” from the larger theme of communion with God, and that produces all kinds of problems, like reading the book as an exercise in moralism — not at all Owen’s intention!
The theme of mortification animated Owen’s pastoral heart because killing sin is a necessary tool in our pursuit of communion with God. Owen’s approach does not imply any sort of legalism or negative self-concept, although some have read him that way. On the contrary, he knew that, while God’s love for us, his people, is never contingent upon our faithfulness, our experience of communion with God can be helped or hindered by how we deal with our sins.
Ignoring or downplaying our sins tends to harden our hearts and deaden our awareness of God’s presence, activity, and comforts. We must, therefore, constantly remind ourselves that mortification matters, not to keep an abstract law, but to pursue our very life in God and with our neighbors.
Start with the Spirit
“To mortify” means “to put to death,” which is what we must do with sin. Even here, however, a careful reading of Owen shows that he begins not with a principle of death, but of life — what John Calvin and others called “vivification,” making alive. Although this particular book of Owen’s concentrates on the problem of sin, it constantly presupposes and points back to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, who makes us alive. Only through the Spirit can “the deeds of the body” be mortified (Romans 8:13; Works, 6:5).
Consider the difference between Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and John Owen’s volume Mortification. Franklin wanted to cultivate virtue, show self-control, and live in an upright manner. He even created a list of virtues and decided to take one at a time: his plan was to concentrate on one virtue, master it, and then acquire the next. In this simplistic vision, he expected to end up truly virtuous, having conquered the weaknesses in his character. It’s no surprise that Franklin found this plan far more difficult than he originally anticipated.
Like Franklin, Owen was concerned with cultivating virtues and self-control, but the Puritan’s vision is fundamentally different: instead of merely relying on willpower, Owen looks to the presence and power of God’s Spirit. Owen doesn’t disregard human agency — as we will see, he takes our actions fully seriously — but he knows we need God’s activity in giving us eyes to see, ears to hear, wills to stir, and energy to move forward. Owen rejects false dichotomies between divine and human agency: by definition, communion is mutual, with God working and us responding. This experience of communion differs from his view of union (which God alone establishes and which doesn’t waver), but that is a discussion for a different time.
How the Spirit Works
How does the Spirit work in us? Positively, he fills our hearts with life, light, and love. Only by God’s power can Christians kill sin and grow in obedience. Without these gifts, our efforts quickly devolve into self-righteousness or legalism or mere failure. Negatively, the Spirit attacks our sin, like a fire that burns the roots of a tree and kills it utterly.
The Spirit convicts us of sin, not because he hates us, but because he loves us: he wants to free us from sin’s destructive entanglements that would enslave or suffocate us and destroy our communion with God, our neighbors, and the earth. In this way, the Spirit of creation is also active in this work of re-creation. Further, the Spirit constantly points us away from our own sin and back to Christ, thus fostering communion with our crucified and risen Lord (Works, 6:19).
When the only book people read by John Owen is his little volume on Mortification, they can easily miss this larger background. But he wrote far more on the glory of Christ and on the person and work of the Spirit than he did on sin. If we forget this, we will miss Owen’s deeper themes, which provide the basis for us to fight sin with all our strength and passion. He was not interested in promoting obsessive levels of meticulous self-criticism, but a burgeoning communion with God.
Renewed, Deeper Humanity
Owen’s teaching about the work of the Spirit and of Christ does not undermine our agency, but rather establishes it. In Owen’s words, the Spirit “works in us and with us, not against us or without us” (Works, 6:20; emphasis original). Our actions have consequences, not because they make God love us more or less, but because they either promote or hinder the liveliness of our communion with the living Lord.
Nor does being spiritual mean we stop being human — on the contrary, as Owen shows, the Spirit renews and deepens our humanity by redirecting us to its source, God himself (see his Discourses on the Holy Spirit). Thus the Spirit works in and through our wills, our affections, our minds, and even our bodies. When we respond to and participate in what God’s Spirit is doing with us, we mortify sin and deepen the quality of our humanity. Divine sovereignty and human agency are not at odds.
Our era avidly pursues shortcuts, efficiency, and instantaneous growth. That, however, is not how most of the world works. Growth happens slowly, and the formation of human character takes effort, patience, and perspective. Those who read Owen on mortification often feel exhausted by it because, this side of glory, the threat and attack of sin never stops. Thus we must never stop. He famously provides believers with an either-or admonition: “Be killing sin or it will be killing you” (Works, 6:9). There is no other option. Left alone, sin will grow like mold, and the damage quickly becomes very difficult to repair. You are no longer cleaning surfaces, but having to rip out walls — far more painful than if you had noticed and dealt with it earlier.
Or, to use an analogy from Owen, sin is like weeds growing in a garden — unattended, they will take over and choke out the beautiful flowers and fruits. A good gardener always pulls out the weeds even while cultivating the good fruit. The Spirit plants and produces fruit in our hearts, and he also gives us the power to pull out the invasive weeds attacking the garden of our hearts and lives. We are invited to participate in this work of the Spirit.
Exposed and Healed
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once made a distinction between the “psychologist” and the “Christian.” While I would never want this quote to be taken as grounds for belittling the field of psychology (we all owe a great debt to scholars in this discipline), Bonhoeffer’s comment illustrates why we need Owen’s book on mortification. He writes,
The greatest psychological insight, ability, and experience cannot comprehend this one thing: what sin is. [Secular] psychological wisdom knows what need and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the ungodliness of the human being. . . . In the presence of a psychologist I am only sick; in the presence of another Christian I can be a sinner. (Life Together, 94–95)
Owen is a trained Christian physician of the soul. When we sit on the couch in his presence, he will tell us the truth about our condition. If you are like me, you may find you are more manipulative than you realized, more arrogant than you wanted to admit, more greedy and self-absorbed than you would ever want anyone to know. But Owen exposes these sins in us, not that we might wallow in our guilt, but to show us forgiveness, to show us our liberation in Christ to a happier way of life — a life of freedom before God as we confess our sins, resist them in the power of the Spirit, and rest secure in the Father’s love.
Owen’s exposition of mortification, read carefully, will not ultimately make you sad, but profoundly and durably happy. It gives us tools for honest, energized, and relationally oriented Christian living. It fosters communion. So I recommend this book to you, dear reader, in the hope that you will learn from this Puritan master — not because the process will be easy, but because it can be healing in all the best ways.