Missing tools

If anyone refrains from reproof and correction of ill-doers because he looks for a more suitable occasion, or because he fears that this will make them worse, or fears that they will hinder the instruction of others … in such case their action seems to be prompted not by self-interest but by counsels of charity. What is culpable is when those whose life is different and who abhor the deeds of the wicked are nevertheless indulgent to the sins of others, which they ought to reprehend and reprove, because they are concerned to avoid giving offense to them, in case they should harm themselves in respect of things which may rightly and innocently enjoyed by good men, but which they desire more than is right for those who are strangers in this world and who fix their hope on a heavenly country.

Augustine of Hippo, City of God, Book I, Chapter 9

I wish my seminary class on pastoral care giving had spent several hours on this passage alone. I wish the hours I spent during Clinical Pastoral Education included training and coaching about moving into and through conversations like the ones Augustine envisions.

We spend so much time in clergy education working on our listening skills and bedside manner, and very little equipping us to enter into hard conversations that are necessary for the salvation of souls.

In the mainline church, of course, we are hampered in having such conversations because so many of our seminary professors and clergy find talk of salvation, heaven, and hell as missing the point.

Developing skills in listening and learning how to be an empathetic and compassionate presence are good things, but if these are the only tools in our pastoral kit, we are missing something fundamental to the work.

Do we need God?

Working at a business school, I get the opportunity to pick up out-of-date textbooks for free  from time-to-time. I was reading my newest introductory marketing textbook earlier this week when I was reminded of some basic marketing concepts and assumptions.

At its base, marketing is process by which people create and exchange products that satisfy felt needs.

When a need is not satisfied, a person will do one of two things — look for an object that will satisfy it or try to reduce the need. People in industrial societies may try to find or develop objects that will satisfy their desires. People in less-developed societies may try to reduce their desires and satisfy them with what is available.

As I was reading the book, I thought of Augustine’s famous line that we are restless until we find our rest in God. If Augustine is correct about the need — a human need for communion with God — then my book seems to suggest that people will respond to this need in a few different ways.

They might seek God, but they may be prone to substitute something else for God if the cost of seeking God is too high. They will be satisfied with cut-rate products that are cheap and convenient over top-shelf products that are costly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer may have said we need costly grace, but cheap grace still has a big audience.

People might also try to reduce their felt need for God by various means. You can numb the pang. You can deny the need exists. You can learn to get around with pain.

This kind of thinking quickly takes us away from theological thinking. Marketing conceives of human beings as a bundle of needs and — as I did above — reduces God to a product that can satisfy those needs. This strikes me as dangerous territory for Christians, but given the world we live in, I would propose — at least as a topic for further discussion — that learning how our culture thinks and talks about human beings is necessary for the church if it wishes to engage with the world with the good news.


Three voices depending on God

Amy Holtz writes a moving post about the depth of darkness and finding the light.

And one day I came to the conclusion that regardless of all the love that others were bestowing on me they couldn’t give me peace. They couldn’t love me in the way that I needed most. I had been looking to others for my help. Only God could help me in the middle of the night when I woke up in a sweat and pure panic. Only He could give me the words to say when my kids cried asking when Daddy would come back. Only God could meet my most basic needs. So, I stepped out in a place with God that I’d never been before: total dependence.

Her words remind me very much of Henri Nouwen in his book Reaching Out:

There is much mental suffering in our world. But some of it is suffering for the wrong reason because it is born out of false expectation that we are called to take each other’s loneliness away. … No friend or lover, no husband or wife, no community or commune will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for unity and wholeness.

Or in the words of Augustine:

Thou hast prompted him, that he should delight to praise thee, for thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee.

Three voices saying singing similar melodies. The accents are different and the key changes, but I hear echoes — harmonies — in these three voices.