There is a God . . .

by | Sep 6, 2021

Jesus said to the apostles, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Mark 6:31

A couple of weeks ago, I was getting ready to go on vacation, including the first time I was to fly in almost two years. I was thinking it was a really good time to go, because I had noticed that my general outlook was suffering from burnout. Not only was I getting fatigued, I think it was impacting my ministry. I was jumping to conclusions too fast, and getting irritated even more than my usual irritable self. As I wrote in my column a couple of weeks ago, I was starting to worry that I wasn’t listening for God in Scripture, or in the voices of God’s people.

The impact of burnout for many of us church types is that we can get so busy doing God’s work that we start confusing the work that we think we should do for God, over the work that God is guiding us to do.

I thought on this as I took the luxury of doing nothing for days at a time during this vacation. I thought about the justification for doing nothing—is it rest? Or clearing my mind long enough to be able to approach life and ministry afresh? Or giving folks a break from me or my opinions? Or was it acknowledging that the running of the world (or the Presbytery) is not my work, but God’s?

One big blessing of the vacation was the relatively few emails and texts I got. I trust that either life has gone back to that summer pace we always wish for, or most likely, folks are quite able to lead freely without me. We will have an even better opportunity to prove this next year, as I hope to take a sabbatical next summer.

As I shifted gears to neutral, two stories came to mind. One was not really a story, but a comment made by Walt Gerber, the well-known pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (whose first call, by the way, was right here in San Gabriel Presbytery). For all the planning and musical gifts and technology that went into their five weekly worship services, Walt reminded us seminarians that any worship they planned was a “dead, limp body until the Holy Spirit fills it.” For all of our hard work and competence, anything we do is minimal—perhaps even problematic—without God’s guidance and blessing.

The other memory is only partial. It came from a famous Christian writer whose name I cannot remember. He mentioned how he managed to take time out of his very busy and important schedule of speaking and preaching, and spent a season at a Trappist monastery. When he was about to leave, the monks gave him a two-handled mug. They told him that when one holds both handles of the mug, it is hard to do anything other than drink from the mug. Rather than living a high-speed, multi-tasking existence when it can be difficult to slow down long enough to appreciate what God offers us—even a simple drink—he was advised to do one thing at a time, with the undivided gratitude for whatever we are doing in that moment.

Even as I write this, I wonder if people question the feasibility of such a slow, deliberate approach to life. Honestly, when I think of the old ways of cloistered monastic life, when it seemed that there was little or no interaction with the outside world, I am challenged to accept that this form of faithful living is just as God- honoring as a busy life of work for charity and justice. But I do believe that, and I remember times in my life when I benefited from time doing nothing but prayer and worship.

I make no promises whether I will be any easier to live with when I get back–! Sometimes re-entry from vacation can be so difficult that I wonder why I went away at all. But I pray that this will not be true this coming week, and even if problems do arise, I will have enough peace in my mind and heart to respond with Christ’s compassion, having been reminded that God is in charge. As the saying goes, “There is a God— and I’m not Him.” (Sorry, I haven’t found a non-gendered way to say this effectively.)

I pray that my ministry will be less of me and more of God, speaking through the collective “we.” I pray that I will have the ability to keep to a pace of peace, even if this means I may not be as efficient or as responsive as I like to think I am. And I pray that I will appreciate how we all discern the rhythm that is God’s, even when it does not match our own.

May God’s peace fill you as we enter the fall season.