Shepherd’s Care: Time To Be With God

In his book, ‘Working the Angles,’ Eugene Peterson noted that among all the expectations placed upon him by his congregation and denomination, there was not an expectation that he pray.  It was assumed that he did (and of course, he did), but he found it strange “that among the considerable demands on my time not one demanded that I practice a life of prayer.  And yet, prayer was at the very heart of the vocation I had entered.” [1]

Far from all performance-oriented expectations, Peterson found a deeper question in play, “When is your sabbath?”  Sunday obviously wasn’t it, so the question remained unanswered.  He faced the fact that he was regularly and flagrantly violating one of the ten commandments, and when he spoke about it with other clergy, he found them expressing similar struggles.

He resolved to do something about it.  He resolved to give himself to prayer and help others to do so.  Many of us are the beneficiaries of his effort.

It is odd, isn’t it, that finding time to be with God is a challenge for pastors.  The struggle is the pull between being an ecclesial manager and a shepherd of the flock.  The two are not polar opposites, and they do overlap in places.  But they are sufficiently different to create a soul-deep tension.  

And like Peterson found himself doing, we easily find ourselves immersed in the tasks of ministry (performance-orientation) more than to the trajectory of ministry (prayer-orientation).  The former is more measurable and public (visible); the latter is more mysterious and private (invisible)–and because the expectations of others fall into the category of what they can see us doing, we easily try to meet them.  We can wake up one day and find ourselves way out of balance.  Time with God suffers neglect.

I am not writing today to propose a plan for you to follow.  This is an area where we all must “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.”  There is no one-size-fits-all program, and the witness of the saints reveals there is variety in sabbath-keeping and prayer.  What we see in the saints is not a certain kind of praying, but a common witness to its centrality.

 I am writing today only to keep the questions alive: “When is your sabbath?”……….”How is your prayer life?”  These questions take us into parts of ourselves and our ministries that performance-oriented questions never do.

I see Jesus himself having to deal with the questions in Luke 5:15-16.  Luke begins by telling us that his ministry had many demands and was producing many observable achievements.  But then Luke adds the note which shows us the accompanying counterpart to his activities, “But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” [2]

We are familiar with Luke 5:15.  We live in our versions of it every day.  The question is whether we also live in 5:16?

[1] Eugene Peterson, ‘Working the Angles’ (Eerdmans, 1987), 44.  His whole section on Prayer is a gem to guide us into a life of prayer in the context of professional ministry.

[2] The phrase ‘would withdraw’ in both English and Greek speaks of his regularity in doing this, with the emerging rhythm between his working and his praying.

About jstevenharper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 31 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church
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