These last few weeks have been a reminder of the frustration that comes with being busier than you ever intended to be. In the midst of it all came news of the death of Eugene Peterson, who has probably shaped more of my understanding of church work than anyone else (he gives hands and feet to things that you get a sense of from thinkers like Nouwen or Bonhoeffer). One of Peterson’s best short pieces (and there are many) is “The Unbusy Pastor,” which I read in The Contemplative Pastor and which started making the rounds again online in the wake of Peterson’s passing. It’s a convicting piece that I’d thought I’d gloss on some over the next few days.
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“The Unbusy Pastor” begins with a declarative worth thinking on often: I refuse to give my attention to someone who encourages what is worst in me. Here Peterson is talking about an imaginary piece of mail, but the sentiment is strong. The mail would be addressed “to the busy pastor,” something that Peterson sees as an oxymoron. He asserts that pastors (and I would argue extending that to anyone who works with people in broader strokes) often find themselves busy because they are either vain (Peterson: I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy?) or lazy (I let people who do not understand the work of a pastor write the agenda for my day’s work because I am too slipshod to write it myself). That’s a sobering assertion, one that does it’s job even if you don’t feel all that vain or lazy. And then, before he gets to the heart of the essay, Peterson poses the question of great significance:
How can I lead people into the quiet place beside still waters if I am in perpetual motion?
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One of the things I appreciated most about Peterson was his acknowledgment of “spirituality” as something vital to the Christian faith, particularly from a contemplative disposition. His kind of “spiritual theology” is the thing that should complete the church’s program and parish life . . . but is all too often stunted or non-existent in any kind of mature practice.
That’s something I’ve felt the effects of for a long time. People like Peterson and Nouwen and Tozer and Crabb have kept the flame going, even as a flicker. But the more I’m around institutional Christianity, the more I get the sense that “the quiet place beside still waters” doesn’t matter all that much to the church at large. At most, you get a sense of it in quiet time language (or in those who hold the church liturgy to be somehow “spirited”). But as Peterson continues to consider what it means to be “unbusy,” you get a real sense of something deeper, necessary, and too often absent from the Christian life (something like Tozer’s assertion that we demand the fruit without tending to the root of the Christian life).
This semester has been very “non-stop or nothing” for me: either it’s go-go-go or it’s this weird absence of both activity and the presence of others. That should be ripe ground for good devotional time, a real shaping of the spirit by the Spirit. And sometimes that has been the case. But there’s also a kind of “spiritual whiplash” that such an experience has led to that makes the secret and quiet place less meaningful, especially when the go-go-go is particularly Christian (both in who it is for and who it is supposedly with). It hasn’t been a particularly fun place to be for me. Plus, it’s a place that is difficult to articulate because maybe, just maybe, we’ve lost the language and the interpersonal framework for it. Reading Peterson reminds me how “do or die” all of this is, and how all this doing can lead to the wrong kind of dying.
Tomorrow: “Deepening conversation . . . Disciplined detachment.”
Also, you can read “The Unbusy Pastor” in its entirety here. Definitely worth the read.