Little Foundation Left

Michael Metzger

There’s an old joke—pastors only work an hour a week. Clergy object, claiming to work as much as anyone else. And therein lies a problem.

A few weeks ago, I met a group of pastors who gather to discuss improving their preaching. Many described sermon prep as hard work, arduous. Preachers do work hard, sometimes over 20 hours a week coming up with a sermon. That’s a problem.

Pastors didn’t used to work. They were called to the contemplative life, which is not work. It’s leisure. Leisure in Greek is skole, and in Latin, scola, the English “school.” Leisure is not going to school, or God, to “learn” or “get” something, like a sermon. It’s God schooling us, giving us fresh experiences of him. Leisure is not laziness or idleness, lounging around doing nothing. It is contemplation, opening yourself to God.

This is why leisure is the basis of culture. Perceiving who God is, as well as how the world ought to be and is, is foundational for culture, since ought and is are the first two chapters in the “four-chapter” gospel. It’s the basis for making cultures. When pastors abandon contemplation, little foundation is left for making flourishing cultures.

“Contemplation means to open one’s eyes receptively to whatever offers itself to one’s vision,” Pieper writes, “and the things seen enter into us, so to speak, without calling any effort or strain on our part to possess them.” God gives those called to the contemplative life experiences of him and pictures of the world as it ought to be and is.

This was common knowledge through the Middle Ages. The ancients believed knowledge is simultaneously ratio and intellectus. Ratio is the power of logical thought, of searching, examining, and drawing conclusions. It’s work. Intellectus, on the other hand, is reality offering itself “like a landscape” writes Pieper. It comes to us without effort. It’s wondrous, like a sunset. The contemplative vision of the intellectus is not active but passive, receptive. It’s perceiving the deep mysteries of the universe. It’s not “going after God” but giving yourself up to God, to whatever he deems to reveal.

Few contemporary pastors understand the contemplative life. They’re good people but products of the Enlightenment, where knowledge is observation, interpretation, and application. But “observing” implies we are beginning to count, to measure, to weigh up. It is what Ernest Jünger called an “act of aggression.” It’s the active life.

This is primarily an evangelical problem. The evangelical tradition owes some of its thinking to Charles Finney, who actively jiggered the environment to increase the so-called “spiritual fruit.” Pastors and evangelists adopted the active life as their calling.

That’s why Eugene Peterson says American pastors are abandoning their posts. They “observe texts,” which is the language of the active life. They go to God and scripture to “get” something, like a sermon. They treat scripture passages as texts, which, as Peterson notes, they “most emphatically are not.” It’s the living Word of God.

Peterson, a former pastor, says pastors “have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries.” I know this firsthand. I was a pastor for eight years. But I often felt like an outsider. Sermon prep and preaching did not feel like work. I felt a little embarrassed at how often sermons sort of “came to me.” I’d be somewhere and God appeared. Of course, I had to work to ensure the pictures aligned with scripture. But it didn’t feel like work.

Now I often hear preachers saying they find sermon prep and preaching exhausting. This is the bitter fruit of the Enlightenment, which is exhausting itself. It’s also exhausting those who operate inside it. We see this in recent findings in neuroscience.

Only the right hemisphere is receptive. This is where we experience the world as live, complex, forever in flux, forming and reforming. It’s where we experience God. This is the contemplative life, where we receive life. This enables us to give life to others.

The left hemisphere does not have direct contact with the world. This is the active side of the brain that “re-presents” the right’s experiences. It likes to “pin things down” inside what it already knows. But the mere act of observing a text, narrowly focusing on it, invariably preconditions you to only see what you already see. It’s exhausting.

My sense is most pastors are left-brained. They keep teaching the same stuff over and over as “biblical principles” and “concepts”—Enlightenment terms. It’s exhausting. But it explains how religious “nones” and exiles feel. Nones check “none of the above” when it comes to available religions. They’ve exhausted the options and checked out. But they want to know God. Exiles still cling to the Christian faith, but feel like outsiders in church. They find the faith exhausting so they’ve checked out. Is this due to pastors abandoning their posts as contemplatives?

Iain McGilchrist feels “the Western Church has been active in undermining itself.” Note the word active. There’s little foundation left for making flourishing cultures when those called to the contemplative life have forgotten what leisure is all about. Every believer is to be contemplative and active. But callings are a different matter. We are called to the contemplative or the active life. The first calling is not work. The second one is.

It’s not just pastors who have forgotten the contemplative life. So have those called to the active life. We’ll continue this next week… but at a leisurely pace.


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  1. Mike,

    Perhaps you will get to this, but where do you see meditation fitting into this? Psalm 1 and other texts seem to indicate that there is choice, intentionality and activity involved, that meditation is the integration of left/right.

  2. Mike,

    This seems to be a good explanation as to why I’ve struggled with my faith at times. It is exhausting to hear a pastor deliver a sermon and see another “to-do” list in the form of a fancy acronym. I don’t know about you, but I can’t keep up with 52 “to-do” list a year (much less 52 acronyms). Furthermore, how can you work on any of them at such a rapid pace? Most of the topics Christians discuss on Sunday take a lifetime to work out, and a GREAT deal of practice.

  3. Yes, yes and yes!

    But there is work, is there not, in putting those receptions into shareable format?

    I continue to be amazed at how “leisure” came to mean such a different thing than it apparently started out, meaning. . . . This is such an important point. You’re right, I see evidence of our active-life work in almost every facet of church life. Probably yet another example of the “it’s-all-about-me” syndrome we suffer from.

    Thanks for the jolt.

  4. Great point, Adam! To which I would add that those acronyms assume that the Holy Spirit will not bring to mind what we need to remember, just when we need to remember it! No. The acronyms have a better plan. Remember the acronym and then we won’t need the Holy Spirit to remind us.


    We’re like kids, worried if there will be food tomorrow.

  5. Mike – I agree that leisure is about receiving and we do that effortlessly via the right brain.
    But what pastors do for their flock to prepare food is not a leisure-based activity ALONE. I will agree that some of that is needed.

    But to conclude that pastors are not meant to prepare through active thinking, study and writing to exhort and encourage and herald the good news is wrong.

    Paul spent a lot of effort reasoning with people. He knew scripture frontwards and backwards and thought about apt connections and illustrations TO his particular audience.

    I’m a teacher. I have to prepare as well. I can’t ‘wing it’ based on what I’ve contemplated during my leisure time.

  6. Maria:

    As I noted above, in preparing sermons, I had to work to ensure the pictures I received aligned with scripture. But it didn’t feel like work. Nor was it considered work in terms of calling.

    My larger point is that most sermons strike me as preachers explaining “concepts” that are beyond their experience. Or I continually hear them describe the living word of God as “texts.” Ugh.

  7. Excellent Mike, noting Latin roots. Hebrew and Greek often demonstrate an essence beyond the Limitations of translation.The language of creation itself being beyond words.

  8. And it’s not just Sundays — many “evangelical” churches seem bent on filling up as many weekday evenings as possible with “learning” opportunities (usually of the “sage-on-the-stage” format), which seem almost designed to foreclose any possibility of a contemplative life.


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