Goodness, Revisited

by Dr. Charlotte Kroeker

In one of the first churches I served as musician were two sisters described by the pastor as “without guile.” They were retired from professional positions and applied their skills to whatever needed doing at the church. Tasks were done with grace and dignity. They were very quiet. One might not notice it was they who had accomplished a task, only that it was done. A Bible study or discussion group? They were there to learn and savor. They loved music. Anything for the music program! No one told them to be good. They just were. Goodness flowed from the people they had become.

One of the joys of working in church music is experiencing the inherent goodness of people who have spent their lives immersed in Scripture, prayer, beautiful music, and the wisdom of the hymns and Psalms of the church. You want to be around these people. They exude joy and gratitude, yes, even during a pandemic. They have a long view of life, knowing hard times will come and go, and that moments of light erupt in even the darkest of times. They look for the light and find it.

When you hear about someone doing something good have you, like I, become a little cynical? Assume a student volunteer is padding the college application resume? Wonder if a large business contribution is to repair an ethical breach? Watch askance as a church donates to a social service agency, whose clientele will never see the inside of the church? I find my own first response to a hurricane disaster is to clean out closets and pantry of unused items rather than buy items for distribution. What is REAL goodness, and how do we achieve it?

Rushworth Kidder (1944-2012), author, professor and founder of the Institute for Global Ethics, concluded from a world-wide study of cultures that shared values are love, truthfulness, fairness, freedom, unity, tolerance, responsibility, respect for life.1 Ernest Boyer, former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, cited as core virtues for the successful Basic School, honesty, respect, responsibility, compassion, self-discipline, perseverance, and giving. Students were encouraged to learn these virtues in the classroom and to apply them in the world around them.2 More recently, Nicholas Christakis made a case for ancient roots of goodness in human civilization in his book Blueprint. He demonstrated how natural selection produced a suite of beneficial attributes, the capacity for love, friendship, cooperation, and learning, that provides means to create a good society.3

These arguably secular sources of goodness look a lot like the fruit of the spirit in Galatians 5:22-23: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The Christian church is hardly the only place goodness happens. The Christian church IS, however, one of the places where these virtues are valued as evidence of our faith, encouraged in our faith practice, and reinforced in a repertoire of music coupled with texts based in Scripture developed over hundreds of years. This amazing treasure of goodness, text bound to music, helps us recall goodness and imbed it in our beings. Hymn writers through the ages have used scripture as a basis for the poetry that points to goodness and transcendent living.

Here are a few examples:

Martin Luther believed in music as a gift of God, second only to Scripture. He understood its power to inspire and teach through texts that could be sung by congregations. He captured hymns of prior generations, wrote new ones, and established hymn singing traditions that continue today. They are a source of goodness to form us from the inside outward. As the Rev. Dr. Stuart Baskin, one of our 2020-21 Lilly Scholars has said, “Imagine what it would be like to have our hearts trained to love the good so much that our words reflect a heart that is tuned into God’s way in the world. Then our words would reflect a heart that is pure indeed.”4

Dr. Don Saliers described a group of twenty people in a South Carolina congregation as they named their favorite hymns. He observed, “Through the practice of singing, the dispositions and beliefs expressed in the words of the hymns—gratitude, trust, sadness, joy, hope—had become knit into their bodies, as integral parts of the theology by which they lived.”5

Hymns aren’t the only way, but indeed one way to nurture goodness, by singing aloud or in our hearts. Now, to find that hymnal, or to order one. And a guile-o-meter that registers zero.

  1. Kidder, Rushworth. Shared Values for a Troubled World. San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 1994, p. 18-19.
  2. Boyer, Ernest. The Basic School: A Community for Learning. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1995.
  3. Christakis, Nicholas A. Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society. New York: Little, Brown Spark, 2019.
  4. Baskin, Stuart. “Taming the Tongue.” James 3:5b-12. Online Daily Devotional for October 19, 2020. First Presbyterian Church, Tyler, TX.
  5. Bass, Dorothy C., Editor. Practicing Our Faith. Chapter 13, “Singing Our Lives” by Don Saliers. San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 1997, p. 185.