I am annoyed because of the demands which are thrust on me to write, arriving unannounced from here, there and everywhere. They interrupt and hold up all the other things we have so neatly lined up in order. They never seem to stop and can’t be put aside.
— Augustine of Hippo, from a letter to Possidius
About halfway through my second year of seminary, I found myself deep in the throes of a major research paper. I don’t remember exactly what the paper was about, but I am sure it was a matter of some great exegetical and theological import. At the time, I was also meaningfully involved in the shepherding ministry of our local church, so it was no surprise when I received an urgent call asking for my help.
A young husband (let’s call him Jack) wanted me to intervene after a tense confrontation between him and his new wife (we’ll call her Kate). This conflict had been simmering for some time. It included challenges related to mental health and suicidal tendencies, which I was far from comfortable with or capable of addressing.
When the call came, I am ashamed to say, my gut response was, No, not now! It was not that I did not want to attend to the need per se, nor that I could not spare a few minutes. Rather, it was because I knew the crisis would need much more than a few minutes—it would throw my plans for the day into shambles.
Despite my frustration, I agreed to come over. As I walked into their apartment, I saw food that had been thrown against the wall in anger during their fight. Jack sat alone on the couch with no sign of Kate. Compassion and adrenaline immediately kicked in. I did the only wise thing I could do: I picked up a towel, began cleaning the walls, and listened to Jack explain what had happened.
Many phone calls followed—to the pastoral staff of our church, to friends who might know Kate’s whereabouts, and to local authorities. Eventually, through the Lord’s goodness and provision, we located her. We met with her and persuaded her and Jack to seek further help. By evening’s end—or was it early morning the following day?—I found myself in the mental health wing of the local hospital speaking with nurses and doctors. After arranging things with the hospital staff, I slumped down in the waiting room to watch the end of Ratatouille on cable television, my seminary paper no closer to completion than when I’d gotten the call from Jack.
As I have reflected on that episode in the years since, one thing that has continually pressed upon my conscience is my initial heart response: No, not now! Without trying to impute every manner of sinfulness and selfishness to my immediate reaction, I now see that there were a number of foolish impulses present then that I am prayerfully seeking to grow out of today. But it took an encounter with Augustine of Hippo to recognize those impulses for what they were and to articulate their disordered nature.
Lessons from Augustine
In the epilogue to the second edition of Augustine of Hippo (2000), Peter Brown discusses primary source material from Augustine’s life that was discovered after Brown first published his biography of the church father in 1967. When Brown was first writing, the limited evidence available on Augustine’s later life led Brown to characterize him as a tired old man—burnt out, rigid, and crotchety.
In the 1970s and 1980s, with the discovery and publication of 29 of Augustine’s personal letters from roughly the final decade of his life, new light was shed on the venerable African theologian, which allows us to set his other writings from that time into a proper context. According to Brown,
[Augustine’s] letters are marked by an inspired fussiness, and by a heroic lack of measure when it came to the care of endangered souls. There is nothing “burnt out” in the seventy-year-old man who would spend the time to interview a young girl terrorized by slave-traders and who would go out of his way (as part of an effort to encourage the father to accept Christian baptism) to ask to see the school exercises . . . of a teenage boy. The letters make plain that the old Augustine was prepared to give his unstinting attention to any problem that might trouble the faithful, no matter how busy he was, no matter how trivial or how ill-framed the problem seemed to be, and no matter how remote from Hippo, or how eccentric, its proponents were.
These newly discovered letters reveal a man who was, in Brown’s words, “characterized by constant quiet acts of self-sacrifice as Augustine lent his pen, again and again, to the defence of the Church, at the expense of intellectual projects that engaged him more deeply.”
I first read Brown’s biography about a decade ago, a few years out of seminary and just prior to accepting my first full-time pastoral position in a local church. The book was a gift of divine providence preparing me for my calling and helping me understand the significance of my inclination toward No, not now! Augustine, as revealed in these late-in-life letters, has challenged and inspired my pastoral labors. With God’s help, I hope my ministry will resemble Augustine’s in three important ways.
Global Significance, Local Priorities
First, Augustine challenges me to root my priorities in the local church. Before reading Brown’s biography, I viewed Augustine primarily as a theological giant whose writings were the most significant aspect of his service to the church. But the letters from Augustine’s later life reveal that his writings were only one element of a much broader devotion to the church. Despite how busy he was with other projects, his habit in later years was to give his attention quickly and particularly to the interruptions of mundane and local needs, even if he approached them with “a constant sigh of resignation,” as Brown writes.
Encountering this Augustine has been crucial in shaping my pastoral imagination. Here was a theologically incisive leader of the global church who also attended to the ordinary needs of a specific time and place. He did his best not to pit his writing for the wider public against, for example, aiding a young woman in his community who was harassed by slave traders. In fact, it seems that attentiveness to immediate and concrete needs was his first priority. Augustine apparently took the warning of Proverbs 17:24 to heart: “A fool’s eyes wander to the ends of the earth.” Augustine’s eyes remained fixed on the people and needs before him, and for that reason, arguably, he had something worth saying to those in different places and times.
Developing theological acumen, tackling global needs, and laboring to change the world are all high and holy work. For that reason, these aspirations can beguile us into thinking that local and pressing needs are distractions from what’s really important. I was blinded at first to the true importance of Jack and Kate’s on-the-ground crisis because I had an “important” paper to write. But the pastor’s chief calling is always, first, to speak the truth in love to a specific brother or sister, to serve neighbors and neighborhoods, and to minister for the good of a particular place.
Augustine’s life has been a lodestar in my calling to be a faithful pastor-theologian, even as it has also served as a rebuke when I buy into the lie that the needs of my local body are distractions from the “real” theological labor of sermon preparation, programmed catechesis, personal reading and research, conferences, and writing.
Self-Sacrifice and Ministry
The second lesson I have taken from Augustine’s life has to do with the self-sacrificial nature of the call to shepherd God’s church. For Augustine, theological reflection and writing were not isolated explorations of intellectual niceties; they were expressions of love and service to the church, troubled as it often has been. Since the universal church is always visible as local congregations, the needs of the hour occasionally forced Augustine to lay aside personal writing projects and plans, many of which “engaged him more deeply.”
A constant theme of the final third of Brown’s biography is Augustine’s writing of The City of God. As important as that book was to Augustine, he found himself again and again having to halt work on it to attend to other urgent needs. In a letter to a friend, Augustine revealed his irritation at the sacrifices he had to make: “I am annoyed because of the demands which are thrust on me to write, arriving unannounced from here, there and everywhere. They interrupt and hold up all the other things we have so neatly lined up in order. They never seem to stop and can’t be put aside.”
I can’t help but chuckle as I imagine Augustine fretting over constant interruptions to the plans he’d “so neatly lined up in order.” It’s an oddly comforting thought because I can empathize! At my best, my plans for a day (or week or season) are established for the good of others and the glory of Christ. Their disruption is no light matter. Similarly, Augustine didn’t shrug off interruptions with a glib “No problem!” or a superficial appeal to providence. Neither did he ignore the interruptions, attend to them half-heartedly, or minimize their importance relative to his plans. In self-sacrificial love, he gave his whole attention and energy to ministry needs as God set them before him.
This convicts and challenges me. Part of my inclination to ignore interruptions—in fact to perceive them as “interruptions” in the first place—is based on an implicit belief that the church is in the service of my agendas rather than that my calling is service to the local church, whatever its specific needs may be.
Augustine’s writing involved self-sacrifice. But he was given his writing abilities in the first place because he was called to shepherd the flock God had entrusted to him and to use his gifts to serve and defend where he was needed. Thus, he turned aside from personal plans (which surely were meant to serve God’s people) in order to address immediate needs.
Fuel for Theology
Self-sacrificial love is not only a pastoral calling. It is pastoral and theological fuel. Our commitment to meet the needs in front of us can inspire Christlike wisdom of enduring and universal value. That is the third lesson I learned from Augustine.
I doubt Augustine’s famous theological writings could have existed without his mundane local labors. The only theological reflection worth attending to in all times and places is that which has proven itself valuable in a particular time and place. What if faithful service and genuine attentiveness to our local church drives any voice we might have for the global church? If so, then even though Augustine felt hindered from writing The City of God by the many pressing needs of his flock, and even though they seemed at that time to be mere interruptions, they may have actually fueled much of his thought.
That has certainly proven to be the case with my own pastoral labors. As the credits to Ratatouille began to roll in the hospital waiting room many years ago, two things dawned on me. First, in that single day, I had learned much about society and pastoral practice (calling local authorities, communicating with hospital staff), ecclesiology (seeing a pastoral leadership team work together), and shepherding in marital conflict. Second, I was spurred to learn still more: to press into questions of mental health and spiritual formation that I hadn’t known to ask until that day, to read further on the topic, and to pursue more help from pastoral counseling classes than I would otherwise have sought.
As a college-and-20s pastor, I have found that practical engagements with the young adults in my local church have stirred up as much robust theological reflection on the nature of technology and the challenge of technological culture as any seminary course I have taken. I have asked, and have been asked, more profound questions about the theology of marriage and sexuality in an hour of premarital counseling with a young couple than I have discovered in days of pouring over theological texts.
None of this is to deny the value of time spent reading, writing, and studying. But for the pastor, supposed “distractions” from the work of theology, insofar as they are for the sake of the local church, are not really distractions at all. Because of them, I have become a better listener, a better inquirer, a better thinker, a better theologian, a better counselor, a better preacher and teacher—a better pastor. We may have to make some sacrifices for the sake of local church ministry, but God will more than repay them for our good and for the good of the church. That conviction has helped me, with the testimony of Augustine’s life at hand, to receive ministry “interruptions” willingly, with humility and hope.
Daniel J. Brendsel is pastor of college and 20s life and corporate worship at Grace Church of DuPage in Warrenville, Illinois.