Oftentimes pastors become so busy and enthralled in keeping their church or churches functional they seldom have or take time to commune with the Lord of the church. To spend time contemplating the Divine when things more measurable need to be done and should be done may seem inappropriate or an anachronism. In the light of the pastor’s busyness, they view contemplation of God as an extravagance that can be postponed for a more convenient season.
Men and women, in antiquity and the twentieth century, of deep Christian renown have been Christians who made space for God a priority.1 From Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to Madame Guyon, George Müller, David Brainerd, and Ellen G. White, these men and women had a communion with the Divine that was enviable and equally attainable. But how might a pastor in the twenty-fi rst century, with a multiplicity of responsibilities, make time to develop a vital, functional, and subsistent spirituality? In other words, how can they be contemplative?
Consider this question: between handling the various functions of the church, as well as school board, church board, Bible studies, prayer meetings, counseling, preparation for sermons and worship services; then add to that a family consisting of piano recitals, parent-teacher meetings, Pathfinders, children’s events, and other activities, when are pastors to develop a spirituality that transcends the mundane normative (nominal) Christian experiences often found within their congregations?
One might think that Sabbath would afford opportunities for the pastor to slow down and drink in the presence of God like an emaciated and parched camel that has struggled across the desert to an oasis. However, once arriving at church, whether early or late, almost immediately some well-intended person wants to lay another burden on the proverbial camel’s back. And this appears as an omen of what will come from weary saints throughout the congregation who have not had the good fortune of speaking with the pastor all week.
If pastors do not, with some forthright intentionality, make a concerted effort to nurture their own spirituality, sooner or later they will discover that the emptiness of their spiritual life is mirrored in the lives of the congregation and they no longer have a passion for ministry. Nor are they equipped to have an effective ministry.
One of the telltale signs of this unenviable posture is insatiability—a lack of real happiness—exemplified by attempts to gain pleasure through extremes or overstimulating thrills. This may include worship practices, addiction to technological gadgets, or even complacency with minor sins in their lives that they thought to be inconsequential.2
Empty bucket and thirsty souls
A well-known fact: one cannot give out of an empty bucket. Like the camels with Abraham’s servant (Gen. 24:46), our parishioners kneel down near the well and wait for a drink to quench their thirst. Dare we bring the bucket up empty or approach the well without it? What would happen if we saw ourselves as empty vessels going daily before a full fountain and removing any hindrance that might prevent us from gaining access to the refreshing Water of Life? Jesus gives us a hint in John chapter four when he says, “[B]ut the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14, KJV).
When we make time to come to the Well, some amazing things happen. It was at a well that Eliezer got his prayer answered. It was at a well that Jacob discovered the love of his life. It was at a well that Moses procured for himself a helpmeet in ministry. It was at Jacob’s well that the Samaritan woman who previously had fi ve husbands fi nally met the Man who could not only quench her thirst but make her a well of water.
When we make it a habit of going to the Well as an empty vessel and coming away filled, we, too, will be satisfied with the results. And, by doing so, our ministry will be enhanced. But, that recognizable question fl ares up again: How can I find time to get to the well to develop a vital, functional, and subsistent spirituality?
With Eliezer, Jacob, Moses, and the Samaritan woman, they came to the well in the midst of their daily activities. As a pastor, I, too, have discovered that I can come to the well, commune with God, and find strength and subsistence for the hours ahead even in the midst of my daily activities.
Seeking a spiritual rhythm
At all times our spiritual lives are either being formed or deformed. Because of the fallenness of humankind, we naturally gravitate toward degeneracy. Hence, pastors find it essential to have a plan of action that nourishes the soul toward wholeness and Christlikeness. Benedict of Nursia would call this plan a “Rule.”3 This rule allows for a spiritual rhythm that assists one in practicing the presence of God through various spiritual practices. For example, the practice of solitude allows for a balance of fellowship and affords more time for meditation and prayer.
This rule also allows one to be very intentional about the day, week, month, and even the year. A carefully orchestrated rule will allow one to incorporate various spiritual disciplines into his or her life of daily routine as compared to a thread in Persian tapestry.
Dallas Willard, in his book, Spirit of the Disciplines, asserts, “We can, through faith and grace, become like Christ by practicing the types of activities he engaged in, by arranging our whole lives around the activities he himself practiced in order to remain constantly at home in the fellowship of his Father.”4
The operative words in Willard’s cogent statement are “by arranging our whole lives.” The objective of spiritual rule is to assist us in arranging our lives by making space for the creative activity of the Holy Spirit by placing ourselves in the path He travels. We can learn this path by observing the disciplines that Christ practiced and taught in the Gospels.
In Walden, Thoreau says, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately. . . . I wanted to live deep.”5 In the woods, he was able to focus his attention upon the things before him without time restraints and other considerations. Usually, pastors are not afforded the luxury of a two-year sabbatical. But we can live deliberately and deep. The objective should not be to get caught up in the swift current of multitasking, hurry, and busyness; I believe this trinity was concocted in the devil’s laboratory. Each causes us to adjust our devotedness and energy and thereby “limit the Holy One of Israel” (Ps. 78:41, KJV).
To extricate one’s self from this insidious grip, first, annihilate the urge to multitask and seek to give one’s self to the moment. This is the beginning of contemplativeness that leads to space for God. According to Kees Waaijman, “Contemplation, accordingly, is the act of entering into an observational space in which, with full attention, to observe the movements of the divine.”6 Hence, be fully involved with and devoted to whatever activity or inactivity is being done. Do it with an undivided heart and pray as the psalmist prayed, “Give me an undivided heart” (Ps.86:11, NIV). Whatever we do, it ought to be done with the devotedness of our full attention. As a result, I believe we will see God moving in all of our affairs in ways we have never noticed.
Second, work to eliminate hurry by deliberately slowing down. Get in the longer line at the post office. When at the grocery store, let the person behind you go ahead of you. Refuse to race with the clock. Drive slower, speak slower, walk slower, and you will be amazed at how this will aid your growth in patience and a contemplative lifestyle.
Third, busyness becomes a scourge to the interior spiritual life. “Thomas Merton once said that the biggest spiritual problem of our time is efficiency, work, pragmatism; by the time we keep the plant running there is little time and energy for anything else.”7 He was right. In the busyness of keeping up with all personal responsibilities, technology, family, work, world events, continuing education, and the list goes on and on, we push God to the periphery. Thus, our spiritual lives become very shallow. Sermon preparation becomes our Bible study. Prayer at church, and with others, takes the place of personal prayer.
We become too busy doing the work of God that we have little time for the God of the work. “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God,” says Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions . . . we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God.”8
Contemplation as praxis
Living contemplatively is antithetical to contemporary Western culture. Those who have become contemplative have done so because it was intentional. Difficult decisions had to be made not to embrace the prevailing norms that have a tendency to inundate one’s life. Such a decision shifts the paradigm radically with a countercultural endeavor that has eternal benefits. It is radical, because it flies in the face of conventional wisdom.
Living contemplatively means to trust God in all things, ignoring the tyranny of the urgent, living in rhythm with nature, noticing the not-so- noticeable, observing and listening with compassion and an appreciative eye. It can be called a planned journey, equivalent to traveling across the country with plans to stop at as many historical sites as possible and occasionally going out of one’s way to revel in some attraction or monument.
The contemplative person’s schedule is planned with the idea that God may want to break in and alter a few things. Though planned, the schedule allows for flexibility. The contemplative is not opposed to intrusions; they are seen as challenges and opportunities; occasions in life from which one may get a glimpse of the Divine. These moments are embraced and like a piggybank turned upside down and shaken to get everything valuable out of it. Ellen White encourages us in Steps to Christ:
Consecrate yourself to God in the morning; make this your very first work. Let your prayer be, “Take me, O Lord, as wholly Thine. I lay all my plans at Thy feet. Use me today in Thy service. Abide with me, and let all my work be wrought in Thee.” This is a daily matter. Each morning consecrate yourself to God for that day. Surrender all your plans to Him, to be carried out or given up as His providence shall indicate. Thus day by day you may be giving your life into the hands of God, and thus your life will be molded more and more after the life of Christ.9
A few suggestions
Start with your evening, because a good night makes for a good day. Seek to retire as early as possible. Working or playing with electronics late into the evening can be an impediment to family time and a devotional life. Set a definite time when all electronics are off—preferably a couple of hours before bedtime. Before retiring, read a psalm and take a few moments of soul cleansing by asking yourself some questions: When did I best represent Christ today? When and/ or where did I least represent Him? How was I with my family today? Have I been negligent today? Is there some minor sin or un-Christlike habit that I continue to practice? Be compassionate with yourself as you review your day in blocks of time (6:00 – 10:00 A.M.; 10:00 A.M. – 2:00 P.M.; 2:00 – 6:00 P.M.; and 6:00 – 10:00 P.M.). Talking with God during this process of review and owning up to your weaknesses can be very cathartic.
Start the day with devotional time. Devotional books such as A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants by Rueben Job or My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers, may prove to be an excellent choice. Twenty to thirty minutes each morning in uninterrupted communion is ideal. Spend at least three to five minutes of that time in silence (mental as well as physical), just sitting before the Lord.
Plan to meet God again for a few minutes of prayer in the middle of your day. If needed, set your alarm clock as a reminder. (I have gotten in the habit of carrying five small smooth polished colorful stones to remind me to pray. As I pray, I remove one stone from my right pocket and rub it in my fingers. When I have finished praying, I place it in my left pocket.)
Throughout the day, look for opportunities to be Jesus in the flesh through service. Space your appointments so that you have some downtime in between. Plan to listen more than you talk, get in the longer lines when waiting for service and enjoy the wait, park farther from the door and have a good walk—exercising and praising God as you go—eat lighter meals, and drink plenty of water. Plan one or two early evenings for study of the Scriptures and the Spirit of Prophecy.
When engaged with the family, devote your full attention to each event and/or experience. By giving yourself wholly to the experience, you will begin to see, hear, and experience God more forcefully in the voice, touch, smile, advice, and laugh of your loved ones. God often moves in the midst of common things; surely, He moves in the family circle that He has ordained. Additionally, set regular times for family worship (a song or two, a spiritual reading, it does not have to be the Scriptures, but a few moments for sharing and prayer).
To free more time for your renewed, unhurried pace, develop the art of delegation. Trust others to do what you might think only you must do; exterminate any messianic complex you might have. Be a pray-er, not a fi x-er. See your role in the fuller context as the one who should pray for the people so that God’s grace will operate in their lives to the extent that Jesus is continually glorifi ed. At the same time, look and be aware of the presence of Christ in each person you encounter.
Finally, seek God’s face for companionship. “When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, LORD, will I seek” (Ps. 27:8, KJV). Go to the Well and draw Living Water each day so that you can live deliberately and intimately with your God. Develop a contemplative lifestyle with times for meditation as you trust God and, as a result, live in rhythm with Him. As you arrange your life to include space for Him, your passion for an effective ministry will increase—resulting in Christlikeness for yourself, your family, and your parishioners.
1 James Gilchrist Lawson, Deeper Experiences of Famous
Christians (New York: Pyramid Books, 1911).
2 Archibald D. Hart, Thrilled to Death: How the Endless Pursuit
of Pleasure Is Leaving Us Numb (Nashville, TN: Thomas
Nelson, 2007), xi–xiii.
3 Timothy Fry, Timothy Horner, and Imogene Baker, eds., RB
1980: The Rule of St. Benedict (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical
4 Dallas Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How
God Changes Lives (San Fransisco: Harper & Row, 1988), ix.
5 Henry David Thoreau. Walden: Or Life in the Woods (New
York: New American Library, 1960), 72.
6 Kees Waaijman, Spirituality: Forms, Foundations, Methods,
trans. John Vriend (Paris: Peeters, 2002), 343.
7 Quoted in Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search
for a Christian Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 32.
8 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W.
Doberstein (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 99.
9 Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ