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Life is easier with a list of prescriptions. We live in a complicated world where voices assail us from every direction trying to persuade us of what is good, true, and beautiful. This cauldron of bubbling anxieties often overflows in my pastoral encounters as parishioners exclaim in exasperation “What major should I study in college? Should I break up with her? Should I accept this job offer?” The list goes on and on.

The pastor has the unique privilege of wading into the existential and particular while simultaneously pointing towards an ultimate and universal. The pastor walks the thin and sacred line of living in both the lives of those around her, while also pointing towards the strange new world found in the Scriptures.

And yet, the answers that my parishioners seek are rarely spelled out in Scripture. After all, Paul never wrote a letter to my friend on the pastoral wisdom of ending a relationship that has been on a steady decline for months. While we might wish that Paul anticipated the problems we face in our daily lives in modern America, perhaps the gift of Scripture is its inability to prescribe our response to every conundrum we face.

In IV.3 of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, he tackles questions of vocation and offers wisdom that is both frustrating and faithful. He writes that the dynamism of the Spirit ensures that Christian faithfulness is enacted in an “endless multiplicity” while simultaneously proclaiming that because Christ is one Lord there cannot be an “ultimate disparity of individual forms.”

There is a foundational unity that undergirds Christian faithfulness, but we will never pin down how that faithfulness will play out in our changing world. If Barth is right, then pastors ought to first address the foundational question of what constitutes Christian ethics grounded in our one Lord. Step back and consider the vast ocean of what it means to live a life in Christ, and the waves that batter the boat might become more clear and comprehensible.

Stanley Hauerwas articulates a similar idea when he describes the Christian life as primarily a task in learning to see. He writes that the foundational question that must precede the question of “what should I do?” is the question of “what is going on?” Before Christians learn how to live they must first understand the story they belong to. This requires a fundamental reorientation where Scripture shifts from being an ancient puzzle that provides a guide to our modern problems to an invitation into a new way of seeing and comprehending the world. Scripture must not be reduced to an ethical consultation packet, but the means and end to living as creatures whose lives are constituted by a good God.

As pastors, we do a disservice to our parishioners if we begin our pastoral care by answering the practical questions that people pose to us. When we do, we bypass a fundamental step of discipleship which is the costly work of transforming desire. Beginning with the questions of “why” and “for what purpose” invite people into lives of faithfulness that habituate them into ways of living as a cruciform people in a broken world.

The greatest gift we can impart to our congregants is the gift of reorienting them to a new world with as many possibilities for faithfulness as there are people who make up the world God so loves. If we can offer people a vision of living as dynamic creatures constituted by the ever moving Spirit, then they can begin to resist a creatureliness that is controlled by self-imposed binaries that reduce the Christian life to a task and a chore.

A canonical way of framing this concern would be through elevating Paul’s pervasive language that we are made alive in Christ through the Spirit over the practical wisdom that is found in books such as Proverbs or James. Life in the Spirit, the entryway into a joyful freedom that comes through knowing who we are and who we belong to, is the means by which we make sense of the everyday questions that confront us.

The practical wisdom that helps us make sense of the ordinary and meaningful decisions we face on a daily basis must be filtered through the lens of a crucified savior and a sent Spirit who transform us into a new people. Of course the pastor seeks to help people with the big and small questions that arise in ordinary life. But we do so through misdirection by beginning first with questions of perception and purpose. If we fail to do so, we condition people to be calculated servants rather than joyful pilgrims.

Saint Antoine de Saint Exupéry writes, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Our first task is not to answer yes or no to the questions people bring to us, it is to make them desire and yearn for new eyes of faith that allow them to see their lives and the world as God sees them.

Header Photo by Julia Volk

Ben Davison

Ben Davison is a Lake Fellow in parish ministry at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.

One Comment

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    Very thoughtful and helpful essay, Ben. A number of my students have grown up in purity culture, where they learn that sex is BAD outside of heterosexual marriage, and that women are responsible dress modestly to protect men. Last week they read the Song of Solomon and they were amazed by this totally different biblical view of sexuality. So much of Christian sexual ethics is rooted in the OT belief that a woman’s virginity is a financial asset to her father. I wish more church youth groups would help young adults think about what makes for a healthy, mutual relationship.

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