Having spent a few years thinking about what a preacher's life ought to look like, this new opportunity in Texas has been a fresh chance to try to put my convictions into practice. One of the greatest challenges I've encountered so far has been the stark contrast of a contemplative way of life in the middle of an overcommitted culture whose effects are deeply rooted in congregational life. People are drowning in responsibilities, demanding bosses, overcommitted children, and everything else under the sun.
We had an excellent class in our Faithbuilders group last week about the perils of busyness. One of the passages we discussed I have been trying to adopt as a model for spiritually-centered ministry.
It is really counter-cultural for us to choose time alone with God while "Everyone is looking for you." Even as Jesus had many opportunities to perform more miracles in the towns where crowds were already gathering, he opted to move on and keep preaching in new places. I believe he must have done this in part because he was experiencing a clarification of mission and purpose during his time alone with God, and therefore deciding how he would use his time. Jesus lived by acting instead of by reacting.
A couple of weeks ago, the elders honored a request I had made as I began this new ministry. I asked that every year in the fall I be granted one week without any teaching responsibilities. The purpose of this week would be for me to pray, to read, and then to plan some for what I should preach in the following year. If God is to speak through my lips to his people, I must listen much before I dare to speak. I invited the congregation to pray for me and the elders as we would dedicate time the following week to seek God's path for our congregation.
During my week, I had a harder time than I expected finding solitude. But as a result of my searching, I was blessed with a couple of new locations that have already provided great options for these purposes whenever I need them.
After my week of prayer and planning, I resumed preaching. I was really humbled by how many people let me know that they had sincerely been praying for me during my time of preparation, and even long before then. But I also had a telling moment when a couple of gentlemen joked with me about my previous week. "It must have been nice getting paid without having to do anything." The people who said it are friends, only humor was intended, and no offense was taken. I was grateful for the reminder of the culture I'm preaching to. They provided me with clarity about the value that people generally place on prayer and contemplation. Specifically, very little.
People will tend to think:
- If "keeping busy" is a sign of personal virtue, then the preacher--if the preacher is virtuous--must be the busiest of all.
- If hard work is what determines one's worth, then the preacher must be the biggest workaholic in the room; obsessed with getting things done.
- If prayer is nothing more than a benevolent yet ineffective thought, we should quit praying so much and tend to all these people who are looking for us. Praying's nice, but do something instead! If everything depends on you, you can't miss an opportunity.
And so respectfully, and gently, I am trying to be a leader who embodies the values that I think our culture is missing, even as people may resist or be puzzled a bit along the way.
- I am committed that praying might be the most important work that a minister ever does--if the minister is a righteous person!--and I will give time to prayer before I try to rely on my own ability to solve problems. Like the apostles, people may occasionally interpret prayerfulness as laziness, but I hope to be the kind of person that only a prayerful life can produce.
- I am committed to being a spiritually-centered person, who can thoughtfully choose the God-directed path like Jesus, rather than constantly chasing the multitude of expectations that never cease.
- I am committed to being present, so that wherever I am, I am in the moment, valuing the people God has placed in my path, and being mindful of the significance that every moment contains when it is used for the purposes of God. No conversations need be insignificant. Coupled with this, I accept that I will not manage to be everywhere at all times with all people, and will sometimes fail to do everything that people will wish I would do.
I can post just as much about my failures to achieve these things as I can about my good intentions. Even so, I'm going to make a few more posts about some of the nuts and bolts of what I've been doing here in Texas, hoping that some of them might provide you with some fresh ideas, or at least some encouragement to remember what you already know is important. I hope you'll respond; I'm a better person through your willingness to share.