The Pastoral Skill We Must Reclaim
“The whole point of listening is that you are given things you would never come up with on your own,” says Paul Pastor, author of The Listening Day and deacon of spiritual formation at Theophilus Church in Portland, Oregon. But according to Pastor, we’ve forgotten how to listen because we’re so focused on the past and the future—on what we’ve done and what we have left to do. “God cannot be known in the past,” he writes. “He cannot be known in the future. … The Father invites us to join him, to know him, now.”
The Listening Day is a 90-day devotional written to help readers listen to God’s voice. Pastor recommends that people read his book slowly, a tall task for a culture that prefers its insights in 140-character tweets and 18-minute TED Talks. But listening requires dedicated time and presence, whether we’re listening to God or to a struggling congregant.
We sat down with Pastor to ask why, when it comes to Christian formation, pastors should choose presence over pragmatism. We also discussed the bountiful metaphors nature yields for the Christian life and what to do when you have to take a passage of Scripture out of context.
Throughout your devotional, you challenge readers to focus on their present time with God. Why is this important for those in ministry?
This is a monolithic question. Pastors are great at using presence language—“find God today”—but it is so hard to actually live that. Humans are uniquely poised to live outside of the moment. You know the old adage: “I’ve never seen a dog with a day planner.” As thinking creatures, we have the ability to recall and forecast our presence throughout time. I’m not saying those efforts are fruitless, but the Bible again and again invites us to take a different approach.
There’s a piece of wisdom from Christian history that says you can’t know God in the past or the future. You aren’t there; you can’t do it. He can only be known in the present.
If we’re always striving to recreate something with God from our past, we will miss where we are today. And it’s the same with the future. If all of our vision is forward looking and none of it is present looking, if all of our actions seek to be only pragmatic—what we’re going to do, what we’re going to achieve, what we’re going to produce—we quietly, numbingly sever our connection to right now, and therefore, our relationship with God.
A great metaphor for this is taking your phone to dinner with a spouse or a friend. You are either looking into the past by examining your photo roll or Instagram feed, or you’re planning ahead on your calendar or frantically looking to see if there’s an important email you might have missed. That yanks you out of the moment. Not only do you lose that time, but there’s also a small severing of relationship. Something else was more important than your friend in that moment. Presence is the pastoral skill we need to reclaim these days, and one that our generation will struggle with deeply because of the realities of modern life.
To borrow a word from the title of your book, “listening” requires presence. You can’t listen well if you’re stuck remembering or thinking ahead.
Absolutely. And we get really good at false listening. We develop strategies to act like we’re listening to reduce the work of true attention. Listening is a paradox: on the one hand it’s rest and it’s receiving, and on the other hand it’s active and it’s giving. We’re receiving, but we’re doing that by giving our attention to someone else. It’s a process that innately brings out our worst insecurities, our worst fears about belonging, submission, and putting ourselves up to the opinion and views of other people.
It’s hard enough to stay present with another human being over dinner. How can we stay present with God when we can’t see him or hear his voice?
Christians have responded to that in different ways. The mystics and contemplatives eliminated distractions and severed connections with the people around them—for instance, the monk in his cell quieting himself. But there are also ways of listening that move us through the distraction. Presence with God is not just about eliminating distractions. It’s about where we put our attention and how our inner spiritual life is being ordered. The classic example of this is from Practicing the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence: washing dishes can become heaven if God is there with you.
For pastors, focusing on presence with God might mean creating space in your schedule, finding balance, finding rest. But it might also mean approaching your day-to-day work with a sense of inner peace and balance. That’s not easy to do, but you’ll feel it when you do it, and it will be easier next time. You can practice your way into that.
In the introduction, you write, “A [devotional] necessarily pulls verses from their context.” That reminds me of what pastors have to do every single week when they preach on individual passages. Is there a way to do that well?
Pulling verses out of context feels really funny to me, and yet there’s a time and a place for it. It’s like pulling a tapestry apart a little bit so you can look at each individual thread and then gain an appreciation for the whole. What I never want to do is pull it apart to the extent that a reader can never weave it back together.
We need to present passages in a way that is consistent with their original settings. No verse exists in isolation. The classic example is Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” That’s a true statement when applied to individual people, but Jeremiah didn’t intend it for that purpose. If you teach people to read that passage and passages like it in that way—“This is what God says; now apply it to your life”—you’re going to confuse people about the differences between the community of Israel addressed there and us in our churches today.
One of the most important things we can teach anybody is that this book matters to their life. It will positively impact their imagination, their thinking, their whole person. Read it, breath it, eat it, drink it, love the Bible. But if we allow these small habits to creep into our teaching, we set them up for failure because we’re not playing by the Bible’s rules. Ultimately we’re undermining our own work. You can make the same point you’re trying to make with the Jeremiah passage by going to Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” Applying that verse to individuals’ lives is consistent with Paul’s intention. You get the same meaning without undermining your people’s habits of Scripture reading.
Your poetic style matches the mood of each theme you’re trying to convey in a way that is rare for devotionals. Is there any advice you can give pastors as they conduct services in the art of matching form to function?
Spend time with people who do it well, whether it’s in reading or listening. Many of us in ministry don’t think in aesthetic categories. I remember Skye Jethani saying, “Evangelicals are nothing if not pragmatic.” Look at our architecture, our writing, our preaching. We try to get the maximum out of production with the minimum of investment.
I don’t mean to denigrate us by saying that, but it is in contradiction to how most Christian thought has progressed throughout history. From the very beginning, Paul integrated poetry into his letters. The Bible is a book of songs and poems and rich literature, and I think it’s an indictment to us that we spend nearly all of our time in epistolary discourse literature.
We get malformed, sort of like that Far Side cartoon of this guy getting ready to arm-wrestle. He’s this shrimp with a tiny arm above the table, but under the table, his other arm is this hunky, muscular thing. We have exercised one muscle so much that it’s all we know how to do anymore, and we’ve skipped leg day over and over again. Then we’re called to go into a squat, and we fall over if there’s any pressure on us.
We can exercise our aesthetic muscles by finding forerunners and mentors to show us better. I think of John Piper here. One thing he’s done well is to advocate the people who influence his work, like Johnathan Edwards. You can see the clear influence Edwards has on Piper’s work, like the weeping drama of his oratory and his commitment to Scripture and theology.
If you want beauty in your service, look at people from the past who have done beautiful services. If you want to be a great preacher, read the homilies of John Chrysostom. He was a Bishop in the early church, a pastor of pastors, and people called him “The Golden Mouth.” His homilies contain a beauty and immediacy. Let him be your mentor. Or if you’re longing to articulate the little evidences of spiritual life, find Therese of Lisieux. She was a young Carmelite nun from France called the “Little Flower” who found God through the frustration of doing chores around the convent. Find somebody to learn from and exercise those muscles. There’s no other way to get better at something.
This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows you, but your book is full of nature metaphors. Why are you so drawn to that kind of imagery?
I spent my formative years outside. I grew up and live now in a rural place. I’ve done my time in urban and suburban places, but I’m a country kid. I want to encourage people who feel stuck, feel called to, or feel like they have to be in this culture that doesn’t value nature. These days you hear terms like “nature deficit disorder,” and kids have this conception that nature is a perilous place and if you come inside without washing your hands you are in mortal danger. You are a part of nature, and God put you in nature to be with it and to learn from it and to harness its powers. It’s no accident the Bible is full of that.
Macarius, a desert monk from the 300s, was once asked how he could live in the Egyptian desert without any books. He said—I’m paraphrasing here—“No books? Nature is God’s book, and I have it always open before me.” God’s hand is writing to us through the Book of Nature. He uses that book to teach us lessons about the way the world works, about how systems work. And the glory of that is you’re never going to reach the last page.
Do you think those analogies are lost on people living in urban settings?
One of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve read is Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, a nuanced, gorgeous book where you get a sense of Annie in the wild of Virginia, days from a paved road. She wrote it when she was living in a suburban apartment complex. Tinker Creek is not this idyllic stream; it’s more like a pond behind a grocery store. That’s encouraging to me. She is able to encounter nature and the Creator in that type of setting. There is no place you can go where nature isn’t present. By the way, people are nature too.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell pastors about your book?
It’s important to me that people don’t read this book in isolation. It can be a personal devotional, but my heart comes alive when I hear people are buying two or three copies and reading it with friends. A very nourishing experience happens when God speaks to you through his Word when you’re with another person. In your devotional life, ask someone to walk part of the pilgrimage with you. God will speak to you through them, and to them through you. It’s an integrated type of listening—Bible, Holy Spirit, and voices of the church—that lets us fully hear God’s voice.
Paul Pastor is author of The Listening Day and deacon of spiritual formation at Theophilus Church in Portland, Oregon.