A pastor's spirituality: Balancing Ministerial Priorities
Who touched me?" Jesus asked. When they all denied it, Peter said, "Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you." But Jesus said, "Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me" (Luke 8:45,46).
One of the occupational hazards of pastoral ministry is constant brushing and bumping against Jesus without the benefit of spiritual power from the contact. Like Peter and the careless crowd, we blindly bang against Jesus yet find no power flowing into us.
Not long ago, in an attempt to arrest some of the superficiality seeping into my own soul, I sought out some of the passionate portions of Scripture. I marveled at Abraham's agonized pleas for Sodom (Gen. 18:22-33). I heard Moses sing with Israel on the far side of the Red Sea, '"Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?'" (Exod. 15:11).! saw David dancing as the ark came home (1 Chron. 15). I wondered at Daniel's tears for Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 4:19). I found Ezra tearing his clothes and hair in anguish at the sins of his people and gathering those who would tremble at God's word (Ezra 9:1-6). I listened to the passion in Paul's voice as he wrote to the believers in Thessalonica: "Brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you... for what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy" (1 Thess. 2:17-20).
I read the familiar cries of the psalmist: "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?" (Ps. 42:1, 2). "O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water" (Ps. 63:1). "My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God" (Ps. 84:2).
Danger of superficiality
At the time I was reading and marking these passages in my Bible, I was also reading Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline. His opening lines sharpened the contrast between the passionate people of Scripture and my own often bland brushes with Jesus. "Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people." 1
David Watson in a foreword to the same book makes a painful evaluation of Western Christianity as "flabby" with a "sad decline in true spirituality." Perhaps in the nearly twenty years since Foster wrote, the decline has spread beyond North America and Europe and threatens to characterize too many more of us. "We have forgotten how to be still before God, how to meditate, trapped as we are in the vortex of modern life. We have lost our sense of direction; and, confused and bewildered, we know little of the exuberant joy of celebration enjoyed by God's people down the centuries, even in tough and depressing situations. There is little to attract the unbeliever in the traditional, organized Church."2
If this analysis is even half true, perhaps we pastors need to take inventory of our own spiritual lives. Have we been numbed into a "professional pas tor role" that can blandly bang together the things of God? Is the result little better than "a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Cor. 13:1) that has little impact on the unbelieving world?
So, what can we do? How can we touch Jesus and receive power? Actually, those are the wrong questions. Our actions will never produce the change. Even our attempts at devotional connection with Jesus may still leave us empty. Ellen White said it so well: "Many, even in their seasons of devotion, fail of receiving the blessing of real communion with God. They are in too great haste. With hurried steps they press through the circle of Christ's loving presence, pausing perhaps a moment within the sacred precincts, but not waiting for counsel. They have no time to remain with the divine Teacher. With their burdens they return to their work."3 These people know all about bumping into Jesus. They do it every day! They've checked in with Him for the day but gotten about as much good from the contact as the crowd that banged into Jesus but didn't know which bump was from Him and which came from the encircling crowd.
So, is the answer to double or triple the time in devotional pursuit? Will that bring about the power connection? Again, the wrong question! Our actions will never produce the change! The actions of the bleeding woman were not all that different from the actions of the casual crowd. The difference was her hunger for healing. "In that one touch was concentrated the faith of her life."4 The touch was merely an expression of her intense hunger.
Hunger for God
Where does that hunger come from? Not from my actions. Not even from an act of my will. Hunger for God is a gift a gift of grace. Jesus said it so plainly," 'No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him'" (John 6:44). "'But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 12:32). Hunger for God is a gift! Jesus is lifted up, and we are drawn. The Father declares, "T have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness'" (Jer. 31:3), and we hunger for Him. We cry out in response, "I spread out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land" (Ps. 143:6).
As pastors, I think we minimize or overlook this gift. Too often we are too preoccupied with finding a three-point outline that we miss the voice of our Father. We are crafting words, planning projects, advancing the kingdom, and forgetting that we are little children, like everyone else, desperately in need of a Father's love that is lavished beyond imagination.
Hunger for God is a gift purely of grace, born of the Father's love. I cannot will it. I cannot manufacture it. I may embrace it. I may also embrace those attitudes and actions that nurture this gift and resist those that destroy it.
My experience has shown me how easily I forget that hunger for God is a gift of grace. My experience has also shown me how slow I am to embrace those attitudes and actions that nurture the gift and resist those who destroy it.
One of the attitudes I am embracing is my identity as a son. I am God's son, His little child, before I am pastor (or teacher or counselor or administrator or anything else). I am His little child. I am precious to Him without performance. I am vulnerable without His help. I am just as vulnerable to a divided heart, a distracted mind, a diminished love, as any of the people to whom I minister. My role as a pastor gives me no "corner with God" nor does it excuse pretense or hypocrisy. I am a child, like those I serve, desperately in need of daily drawing from my Father. As I embrace that attitude, I embrace the gift.
Integration of life
Other embracing attitudes flow from this primary one. I am learning an integration of my life (emotional, social, family, physical, spiritual, vocational). Keith Miller, in The Taste of New Wine, expressed it well ten years after his conversion. "All the different personalities I had projected in the various areas of my experience were somehow being melded into one. I didn't have to have a separate vocabulary, a different kind of humor and a different set of ethics for my business life, my church life, my family life, and my prayer life. It was as if Christ had taken his fist and begun to knock out the partitions in my soul which had made my life so fragmented."5
I am also learning to "put myself under the authority of the Word" instead of just using it as a tool of my trade. I am learning to think in terms of God's church, God's work, and God's perspective instead of my congregation, my job, and my plans. I am learning (painfully at times) vulnerability, transparency, and authenticity. I am learning more of the meaning of grace in the Sabbath even for pastors! And that, like all God's gifts of grace, the Sabbath as well, can be destroyed or enjoyed because of the boundaries I am willing to live within.
Waiting on Him
All these attitudes that nurture my hunger for God overlap with actions that embrace and nurture that passion. For me, the most significant actions are those that teach me the art of waiting. More than a dozen Hebrew words are translated into the familiar "wait" of the King James Version. Those words have root meanings of silence, ceasing, standing still, waiting earnestly, waiting with hope, staying, expecting, looking for, observing, watching, etc. and are translated as such in other versions of the Bible. Sometimes the word rest is used, as in Psalm 62:5, "Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him."
Ironically, the art of waiting, or finding rest, seems to take great effort! It is so contrary to our nature, if not our environment! Yet it is the single most important skill I have discovered to embrace the gift of grace the gift of hungering for God. So, I have struggled to carve out times and places and ways to learn to rest to wait on God. I have tried to take a clue from Ellen White in her statement about those who hurriedly check in with Jesus and return to work with their burdens. She says, "These workers can never attain the highest success until they learn the secret of strength. They must give themselves time to think, to pray, to wait upon God for a renewal of physical, mental, and spiritual power. They need the uplifting influence of His Spirit. Receiving this, they will be quickened by fresh life. The wearied frame and tired brain will be refreshed, the burdened heart will be lightened.
Not a pause for a moment in His presence, but personal contact with Christ, to sit down in companionship with Him this is our need."6
I am learning the art of waiting in daily unhurried time with Jesus. I am learning the value of days or half days spent alone in silence at the ocean or in the mountains. I am learning to listen as well as talk in prayer. I am learning to express more of myself and my emotions as I pray through the psalms and reflect on each day from God's perspective. I am learning new ways to journal and listen to God for insights. I am learning (slowly) a language of adoration, surrender, and trust.
I am learning that here, in the art of waiting, actions and attitudes intersect like no other place! Richard Foster says it so pointedly, "We must come to see, therefore, how central the whole of our day is in preparing us for specific times of meditation. If we are constantly being swept off our feet with frantic activity, we will be unable to be attentive at the moment of inward silence. A mind that is harassed and fragmented by external affairs is hardly prepared for meditation... . With our tendency to define people in terms of what they produce, we would do well to cultivate 'holy leisure.' And if we expect to succeed in the contemplative arts, we must pursue 'holy leisure' with a determination that is ruthless to our date books."7
I will mention briefly a few other actions that are allowing me better to embrace the gift of hunger for God. One powerful habit is accountability to a prayer partner(s). Twelve years ago I began praying and opening my life to a handful of other Christian men. Topping the list of many benefits from such prayer-partnering is this: I never come away from one of those sessions without a sharply increased hunger to know God better.
Other significant practices that nurture my hunger for God are: responding to the exact challenges I preach to the congregation, putting myself under the teaching of those more spiritually mature than I, worshiping with music at "off times," and studying the classic spiritual disciplines.
Have you bumped into Jesus lately? Are you hungry for something more? " 'Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled' " (Matt. 5:6). " 'Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, 'If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink . . . streams of living water will flow from within him'"(John 7:37, 38).
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* All Scripture passages in this article are
from the New International Version.
1 Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline
(Toronto: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980), 1.
2 David Watson, in Foreword to Celebration
3 Ellen G. White, Education (Nampa, Idaho:
Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), 260.
4 White, The Desire of Ages (Nampa, Idaho:
Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), 343.
5 Keith Miller, The Taste of New Wine
(Waco, Texas: Word Books,1965), 65.
6 White, Education (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific
Press Pub. Assn., 1952), 260, 261.