How does a popular podcast that investigates events in small town Alabama teach us about how we, as Christians, can be an effective encouragement and counselor to our peers? One just needs to listen to the first few minutes of the recently released S-Town (Serial and This American Life) to find out.
In order to set the scene for the podcast’s focus, host Brian Reed borrows language from the practice of antique clock restoration. According to Reed, clock restoration is exceptionally difficult, simply due to the age of an individual clock. In that time, countless problems with the clock have likely arisen, and countless individuals (expert or not) attempted to solve those problems. One cannot simply consult an owner’s manual or ask the clockmaker himself, long since dead, what he or she had in mind. Instead, the restorer must rely on indicators called ‘witness marks.’
According to Reed’s description, witness marks can be anything from holes, to color disfigurations, to minor notches left in the casing. By looking intently at these marks, the restorer is able to gain a greater picture of how the clock was intended to work. From there, they are able to do the work of restoration.
The connection between the clock restorer’s use of witness marks and the work that Reed sought to accomplish in his podcast are immediately obvious to anyone listening through any given episode of S-Town. Just as the clock restorer must be careful to conduct his or her painstaking work of studying the history of the product in order to accomplish the most accurate restoration, the story-tellers behind S-Town do the necessary work of studying the complete history of their subjects in order to reach their conclusions.
In both examples, the result of the work is far from a cold set of facts or a lifeless time-keeping mechanism. Instead, a beautiful work of art unfolds, leaving its audience utterly captivated. Key to both narratives, of course, is the careful understanding and guidance derived from those easily missed witness marks.
The imagery of witness marks and antique clock restoration weaved throughout S-Town offers listeners a greater understanding of the universal human condition. Like the people explored in the podcast, no single individual can be painted with broad strokes. As fallen creatures, all of us bear the marks of sin, and our hearts are naturally bent away from our Creator’s initial intent. Beyond the universal marks of sin are the dents and scratches left by the many and complicated events that have shaped us into the people we are today.
The goal of restoration we, as ministers, all desire for our students (and ourselves) is not as simple as it initially seems on the smooth surface.
As we seek to counsel our youth through their sin and struggles, the skills vital to the clock restorer are essential as we learn to see and follow the guidance offered by the witness marks of the human heart.
Love and Observe.
Like the subtle details of any investigation, the witness marks upon which the clock restorer relies are easily missed by the untrained eye. Despite their inconspicuous appearance, they can provide tremendous detail to those who know what they are looking for. The key to success for the restorer, then, is the incredible ability to observe the evidence that sits before them.
As parents, pastors, and friends, we must be careful to observe the subtle clues available in any counseling situation. Those clues are essential if we are to intimately understand those we seek to help. That intimacy is beautifully reflected in Paul’s relationship with the Thessalonians in I Thessalonians 2:1-11. Paul compares his love for these people to the love a nursing mother gives to her children. He goes on to liken his affection to the Thessalonians to that of an exhorting Father.
Paul loved his people in part because he knew his people, just as parents know their children. It is because of that knowledge that he was able to guide and encourage them in the specific ways they needed. For us, this means that any helpful counsel we hope to offer our students first requires a genuine love for them. And in order to love them as we ought, we must also seek to get to know them as Paul knew his people. This requires careful observation
Observation is a skill acquired almost exclusively through unbiased listening. Each individual will reveal subtle clues to help us understand who they are beneath their facade. As we dig deeper in any given relationship, details of a person’s past will eventually come to light. Struggles that were once unspoken will be voiced. And patterns of personal sin, once hidden, will inevitably surface.
Rarely are the problems initially spoken as basic as they initially appear. And rarely can those problems be fully addressed by quickly quoting a Bible verse at someone. Healing and restoration take time. And throughout the process, we must observe. Like a skilled restorer, we must look for the witness marks, as hidden as they might initially be, in order to start gaining a more accurate understanding of the unique and hurting people before us.
Observe and Wait…
Restoring a clock requires many hours of painstaking work. It should be no surprise that helping a fellow image bearer of God work through his or her various struggles will also be a very long process. So often, it is easy to forget the critical practice of patience.
As a youth pastor and as a parent it is easy to forego patience, and instead hastily guess the mindset of those around me. After all, aren’t all teenagers selfish, shortsighted, etc? And isn’t it safe to assume that my toddler’s perceived disobedience is always a case of willful insubordination? We must ask ourselves if we are being hasty in assuming the motivations of those under our care, for the sake of offering them (and us) a quick fix.
With time, we can grow to better discern certain patterns in those who are close to us. Passages such as Proverbs 18:13 are necessary reminders in light of this tendency:
“He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.”
As we seek to master the necessary skill of observation, may we also be patient with our kids in their willingness and ability to reveal. It takes time, trust, and relationship to uncover the root of any given struggle. If we are to truly speak in an edifying manner, we must be willing to give others our time to fully understand the situation at hand.
Since the clock restorer can never enter into the mind of the clockmaker, even the most skilled restorer is doing a bit of guess-work. Thankfully, however, we do not face a similarly maddening task as we seek to encourage our fellow believers.
In Romans 8:1-2 Paul speaks the truth that heals, that gives us what we need to overcome any struggle this life brings:
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the Law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. “
Here, we find the beautiful refrain that must be repeatedly sung in any counseling endeavor. We who are in Christ have been set free from condemnation so that we can now live in tune with our original God-given purpose. Whatever counseling solution we seek to offer our students then, is ultimately tested by this standard: Does your counsel lead this person into deeper understanding of just how much they are loved by Christ? In this knowledge, we will begin to see true restoration in our students. They will bear the image of their Maker.
People are messy and problems in this fallen world are terribly complex. There will be times we feel as if we are looking at a dissembled clock with countless missing parts. Regardless of the complexity of the problems anyone faces, we know how the end product was meant to work.
In this reality, I rejoice. For while I may still feel my own inadequacy every day as a pastor, parent, and friend, I know that Christ is fully adequate to do what was promised. The disheveled mess around me is ultimately a work of art that will one day reflect the beauty of Christ. Just as witness marks tell the story of a clock, so will our marks of sin, wounds, and struggle tell the story of Creation’s fall redeemed.
(Just a heads up in case you listen to S-Town; it’s awesome but there’s a lot of profanity.)