From the Shepherd’s Nook: The Unbusy Pastor

John W. Frye

This Moby Dick episode pops up in a few of Eugene H. Peterson’s books. Here it’s from The Contemplative Pastor: “In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, there is a turbulent scene in which a whaleboat scuds across a frothing ocean in pursuit of the great, white whale, Moby Dick. The sailors are laboring fiercely, every muscle taut, all attention and energy concentrated on the task. The cosmic conflict between good and evil is joined; chaotic sea and demonic sea monster versus the morally outraged man, Captain Ahab. In this boat, however, there is one man who does nothing. He doesn’t hold an oar; he doesn’t perspire; he doesn’t shout. He is languid in the crash and the cursing. This man is the harpooner, quiet and poised, waiting. And then this sentence: ‘To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil.’” EHP adds, “Melville’s sentence is a text to set alongside the psalmist’s ‘Be still, and know that I am God’ (Ps. 46:10), and alongside Isaiah’s ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength’ (Isa. 30:15).”

What do you think of Peterson’s marks of the “unbusy” life? What are its characteristics for you?

We’re attempting to grasp Eugene H. Peterson’s taxonomy of pastor. The story by Melville vividly paints the value of the disciplines of solitude and silence for the pastor. I get more out of Melville’s graphic paragraph than from the trendy books on spiritual disciplines. If you read the popular stuff on pastoral work these days, the pastor is to be Captain Ahab, an oarsman, the spotter, the cook and a frantic harpooner. Pastors who buy into our “success” culture have to appear busy and important. EHP traces this “need to succeed” to two malignant motivations: vanity and laziness. Vanity shouts, “I am important!” and laziness reveals a pastor who is an empty suit, letting others direct his ministry. To put busy in front of the word pastor is like putting the word adulterous in front of the word wife. So, the question arises: what do unbusy pastors do? Three things.

Pastors pray. Pastors cultivate their own first hand experiences with the living God. “I want to awaken others to the nature and centrality of prayer.” This cultivation of the art of prayer takes time. It cannot be rushed. EHP actually believes in a personal relationship with God. Many say they believe it; EHP lives it. “I don’t want to live as a parasite on the first-hand spiritual life of others, but to be personally involved with all my senses, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good.” What’s so big about prayer? Well, what’s so big about being personally involved in conversation with the living Creator, Trinitarian God of all?

Pastors preach. “I want to speak the Word of God that is Scripture in the language and rhythms of the people I live with.” EHP isn’t interested in “delivering” bright, inspiring sermons from sound outlines with snappy illustrations. When pastors preach the Scriptures, EHP wants the people “to hear its distinctive note of authority as God’s Word, and to know that their own lives are being addressed on their home territory.” EHP’s admiration for the writings of Wendell Berry creates EHP’s insistence that local church ministry is fiercely contextual.

Pastors listen. “I want the energy and the time to really listen to [others] so that when they’re through, they know that at least one other person has some inkling of what they’re feeling and thinking.” I enthusiastically add here EHP’s chapter on “The Pastoral Work of Story-Making: Ruth” in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. That one chapter helped me reimagine the nature of the congregation. “Pastoral listening requires unhurried leisure, even if it’s only for five minutes. Leisure is a quality of spirit, not a quantity of time.”

In Mark’s Gospel, we read about one very long, busy day in the life of Jesus. Jesus serves late into the evening hours. Yet, here is what we read next: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35). Why? Hadn’t Jesus earned the right to sleep in? Why get up so early? Here’s why: “The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed. The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears; I have not been rebellious, I have not turned away” (Isaiah 50:4-5 emphasis mine). The Gospels at one level present a passionate, kingdom-driven, needs-meeting, on-the-move Jesus. Beneath the flurry of his public ministry, however, was the subterranean, solitude-and-silence-life of Jesus the Pastor.

Peterson denounces laziness in pastoral work; he also denounces busyness. He knows the demands on one’s schedule; he knows of the tedious administrative dimensions of pastoral work; he knows the expectations to have “pastor” pray at the African Violent Ladies Guild; he knows the call to saturate his heart and mind in serious study of the Scriptures; he knows the pressures of budgets, buildings and bodies. Yet, he will not allow anyone or anything to sabotage his call to pray, to preach and to listen from the heart.

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