Young parents worry too much about parenting techniques. Research shows that the obsessive policing of nap times, screen time, soccer practices, and organic diets might not alter outcomes much. So we can breathe. But maybe not too easy. A recent study identifies three factors that make an enormous difference in the life of a child: a two-parent home, a community that values education, and parents who turn in their census forms (Davidowitz, “The One Parenting Decision That Really Matters,” The Atlantic). I’ll admit I only guessed two of three correctly. Census forms? Today I’ll consider the other two: parents and education. One thing they have in common is that neither offer much instant gratification. They take time. So do most things that matter.
I attended 5th and 6th grade at a school around the corner from our house. Nearly every day when I walked home an old man would ask me what I learned. I never knew what to say. In full disclosure, I was never a strong student so my silence might have been genuine. But every kid finds themselves in such situations: it’s impossible to know what all was learned in one day of school. If my neighbor would’ve asked what I found objectionable, I could’ve produced a list. Misspelled, of course, but a list nonetheless. It’s hard to know what we are learning while we are learning it.
The same is probably true for marriage. If you asked a married person to name the thing their partner did that day that really blessed them, they might stand in silence, curious what exactly they are supposed to say. Any married person can detail that day’s frustrations. A great marriage is best seen through a panorama shot of the past, and not a zoomed lens on the moment. This is one reason I recommend that spouses never speak negatively about their partner in public; a minor frustration for us becomes a permanent memory about our spouse for others. We move on, but our friends continue to think our spouse is a loser.
Our journey of faith is no different. It’s easier to talk about our frustrations and disappointments in the moment, but over time our joy and gratitude pile up. Most of our best work takes time and it takes patience. There is no instant gratification. Ministry is about doing the hard thing in the moment to receive the better thing in the future. James says, “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (3:18). The quick thing is easy and divisive. The good thing takes time. Planting seeds requires discipline and patience, just like marriage and education.
Every choice is really about the future. Jesus promises “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29). Anxiety and fear rob us of moments that are better spent working for the future. One day we'll look back with gratitude for what we’ve done. Focus on the things that matter most.
And go ahead and return those census forms.