Reading Sen. Ben Sasse’s recent book The Vanishing American Adult reminded me of a chapter I read about the home life of Martin Bucer, a 16th century pastor and leader in the Protestant Reformation. Though his lifestyle was not that aberrant amongst the other reform leaders, it is still jarring to read about: Martin and his wife Elizabeth, an ex-nun just as Katherine Luther was, had eight children plus three miscarriages within the first 10 years of marriage. In addition to raising their own children, the Bucer’s regularly opened their home up to two additional groups: young aspiring ministers in the emerging reform movement and French refugees.
At one time, Bucer wrote to his friend Margaret Blaurer to apologize and explain why Elizabeth had not written her recently: “In this letter he writes that his wife has no time to write any words of her own because, besides the two Italians they already had in their home, four exiled Frenchmen and two Germans have now been added as well.”1
In another letter to Margaret, Bucer explained that Elizabeth did not have time to write due to caring for the children and household, but, he added, she didn’t really like writing anyway. This letter, rather delightfully, includes a post-script written by Elizabeth who saw the letter before it was sent: “I don’t mind writing at all, if only those hungry stomachs and the small fry would give me a little time. Good night! Pray to God for us. Now I have to go to the kitchen.”
Their home was not the only place in which the Bucers were busy, however. Martin also pastored St. Aurelia’s Church for many years, which posed enormous pastoral challenges due to the diverse nature of this particular congregation. In addition to the work at the church, Bucer was also a key leader in the broader Strasbourg church, working with other area pastors to advance the reform movement in the city and in south Germany and Switzerland more generally. That, of course, also meant that he maintained extensive correspondences with a number of pastors across Switzerland and Germany, including Margaret Blaurer’s brother Ambrose, and that he frequently traveled to other cities to quell disputes.
Taken as a whole, then, the Bucer family had a remarkably busy, strenuous life: Martin and Elizabeth routinely hosted large numbers of people, with the bulk of the labor involved with that hospitality falling on Elizabeth. Martin also wrote sermons every week in addition to many letters, Bible commentaries, and other writings as well.
In the past when I’ve discussed these stories with friends, I’ve tended to bracket the telling of it with some disclaimer along the lines of, “This sort of work-rate is not normative and it is probably not what normal Christians should aspire to.” Sen. Sasse’s book has me rethinking that though.
Throughout Sasse’s book he calls on his readers to attempt hard things personally and to equip their children to do the same. There is joy to be had in hard work done well, Sasse reminds us. Reading it not long after I read Brett and Kate McKay’s “Call for a New Strenuous Age,” I couldn’t help thinking about my own expectations for work and the expectations I hear from so many Christians in my peer group.
We live in a world where we define who we are basically from scratch. Anything that infringes on our freedom to do so is dismissed or treated with suspicion. One of the functions of living in such a society is that we develop a kind of neurosis about personal identity. Indeed, this insecurity about their identity can almost become part of many people’s identity. You’ve heard the old joke about how an evangelical is anyone who spends time arguing about who is an evangelical? Well, something like that happens in our society for many, many people. We dedicate a great amount of time and money to figuring out who we are—and all the while we typically feel quite uncertain about the process.
We have, thus, developed a number of ways of coping with this mixture of insecurity and exhaustion that seems to be a quintessentially modern experience. In the secular world, therapeutic concepts have become dominant, ideas like being gentle with oneself, practicing self-care, and so on. In less reflective evangelical circles, these same concepts are drug into the church with some thinly veiled attempt to Christianize them. Thus “being gentle with yourself” or “forgiving yourself” becomes “showing yourself grace,” or something similar.
Much like our non-religious peers, these concepts become a kind of crutch for us, an excuse for our lives, a thing we can point to in order to justify our lethargy and sense of being overwhelmed and uncertain and paralyzed. Thus we come to a point in the church’s history where, on the one hand, the needs for Christians and churches are enormous, and on the other the actual resources that Christians are willing to expend are minimal because we feel ourselves unable to do more.
Contrary to this trend, the example of someone like Bucer shows us a life that is strenuous but also full of intrigue, drama, excitement, and peril. Yet when we actually come to it, it’s not just Bucer’s life that should help us see that. It is any life. Lewis said you have never met a mere mortal and he was right—every person you meet will one day be a splendor or a horror and so there are no meaningless days, no little people, no inconsequential work. N. D. Wilson makes the point well in Notes from the Tilt-a-whirl:
I love the story. I love being in the story because there are beetles and my wife and my children with wide eyes and ticklish ribs and dirt that smells and hands that blister and wasps and moths and every-flavored wind. I love seeing the story because it shows me who I am and how far I need to go. Because it knocks me down and waits to see if I’ll get up. Because we are always standing on a cliff’s edge, and the danger is real. The choices in front of you never go away. Scene after scene is given to you and the teeming universe in the audience waits for your reaction, for your line, waits to see if you’ll yell at the fat-faced child who spilled the milk, or if you’ll laugh and kiss a cheek. What kind of father will you be in their story? The hump on their back that will always haunt them, the one who gave them damage to overcome? The one who’s too busy? The one who drinks? The one who cheats?
Walk the cliff. Watch yourself walk the cliff. The ocean is always there, devouring.
What will your character do when the petty things happen, when your car betrays you in the cold? When the pipes freeze? When God knowingly places ice on the sidewalk beneath your feet? When the sun sets beautifully while you needle your wife? Do you laugh at the jokes and love the lovely? Are you too important to be amused at your own finitude? Are you unaware that your bowels move daily? How lofty are you?
Depending on the circles you run in amongst younger evangelicals, I think you’re apt to run into one of two messages: The former will be therapeutic, it will counsel rest, knowing your limits, saying “no” to things, setting boundaries, and practicing self-care. It will say, “I know you are exhausted, so don’t take on more than you already have.” It will seem safe.
But it kills the soul.
It traps you in a narcissistic world of your own problems and jilted ambitions and broken dreams. And it pulls you downward and inward, which is precisely the direction Lewis imagines a person descending as they are pulled into hell in The Great Divorce.
The latter will be something like what I take Sasse and Wilson to be saying and what I think someone like Bucer would say as well: Stop looking in on yourself so much. Instead, throw yourself into good work. Get married and have children. Volunteer at the crisis pregnancy center. Start a business. Help out with the refugee classes. Teach a Bible study. Adopt a child. Start a school. Write to your congressman. Open up your home to strangers. Lose your life.
If that sounds familiar, there’s a reason for that. A man once said that anyone who wishes to keep their life will lose it. But those who lose their life for His sake will find it.
Walk the cliff. Look at the ocean. Don’t flinch.