Laugh and Pray

By Bob Hiller

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Well, dear readers, I come to you this lovely Friday confessing my shame. I am just returning from a brief vacation and, I have to admit, I am quite upset with how I acted while away. Let me explain: after having a wonderfully jagged time with the crew at the Theological Symposium in St. Louis, I traveled to Washington to attend my cousin’s wedding (where you were basically required to have a beer in your hand before you could sit down…best wedding idea ever) and then headed up to Vancouver, BC to see the in-laws. Everything about the trip was fantastic! It was nice to get much needed break from work. Except, well, that is where the rub comes in, I didn’t exactly leave work behind. I didn’t exactly take a break. No, I had my iPhone with me the whole time so I could keep up with emails and check up on what was happening at church. I continued to read theology and work through ideas for future preaching and teaching endeavors. Though I set out to rest and enjoy the time away, I never really quit working. For this, I am ashamed.

Now, “ashamed” may seem to be a bit of an extreme word here. But, you see, by continuing to work, I was not fully invested in the time I spent with my friends and my family. My body was on vacation, but my mind was still in my study, thinking about the pulpit, working through congregational issues. Unfortunately, there is a part of me that thinks this is necessary on vacation. After all, what if I were to completely disengage for a whole week?  What would happen to the church? Things could get out of control! Minor problems may become major uprisings! Congregational crises could become catastrophes! The church building could burn down or flood or be decimated by a plague of locusts! In order to keep peace and, more to the point, to maintain control I needed to stay in touch.

And that is why I am ashamed. Because I have forgotten one very important thing about my church: it isn’t my church. It is Christ’s church. He’s in charge of it not me. And, if He wants it to be destroyed by a plague of locusts, my presence there won’t prevent that from happening (though it may perpetuate it …).  The problem for me, and I would bet most pastors, is that we have begun to take ourselves much too seriously. The proof is in the fact that we have forgotten how to play, and along with that, we have forgotten how to pray.

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A number of months ago I was struck by a line in Eugene Peterson’s book Working the Angles in which he expounds upon W.H. Auden’s entreaty for us to be better at prayer and play. He says, “In our own time the poet WH Auden was alarmed that we are losing two of our most precious qualities, the ability to laugh heartily and the ability to pray, and he pleaded on behalf of a sane world for better prayer and better play.” By taking ourselves too seriously, we pastors have left a sane world.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe we should take our call to the office seriously. We should hold the office of Holy Ministry in the highest possible regard! The Lord Himself has called pastors on express orders to deliver the life and salvation which He purchased with His blood into the ears and hearts of His bride. Nothing matters more than this. But you and I, dear brother pastors, are a different story. I’m sure you’re great. But, the church’s existence and her salvation do not depend on you. You are there to tell Christ’s church what He has to say to her and to get out of the way. Her existence depends on His Word, His presence, not yours.

But, somewhere we lost this. So, instead of praying, pastors spend their time planning. Planning isn’t bad, but if you are spending more time behind the computer scheduling out your next sermon series than you are praying through (oratio) and meditating on (meditatio) the Word of God, you are forgetting who runs the show. A lack of prayer is proof that I as an individual have a higher view of myself than I have of my calling. If we pastors actually took one minute to consider what sort of weight was placed upon our shoulders at our ordination, we would find ourselves in fear and trembling at the foot of the cross with the Lord’s Prayer pouring from our trembling lips. Our prayer should flow from the sermon of John the Baptist, “He must become greater, I must become less.” (John 3:30). The office demands prayer because prayer is trusting God to accomplish His purposes for His flock. Prayer means I decrease and trust God to work through me in spite of me.

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Further, then, if I am not trusting God to care for His church in prayer, how in the world am I ever going to be able to relax and have a good time? I will never be able to “laugh heartily” if I am always worried about ruining Christ’s bride. If I begin to believe that the church runs well because of my presence, my skills, and my gifts then I am going to burn out like the Kansas City Chiefs in the fourth quarter. If I can’t pay attention to my kids because I have to attend to one more email from some board chair, then both the board chair and I need to reevaluate what my role is as a pastor.

I am honestly becoming frightened that I have forgotten how to pray and play. Pastors, we are called to deliver Christ’s goods, not micromanage a religious organization. Let me free you with these words (that I too need to hear): I absolve you for your overinflated view of yourself. You are free from saving Jesus’ church! This is Christ’s bride, not yours. He loves her more than you ever will. Preach His Word to her, deliver His gifts to her, pray for her, and have a good time! Tonight, go play! Leave your cell phone off and watch a movie with the kids or take your bride out for a cocktail or call up an old friend and grab dinner. And laugh heartily! You are free to do it because the Lord is taking care of everything!

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7 thoughts on “Laugh and Pray

  1. Nice personal anecdote, however, I think it is silly to write about your being “ashamed” for having a brief vacation and enjoying yourself. You inject guilt into an otherwise normal activity. Even Martin Luther, with all his duties, found time to have a beer and talk with people….and from what I have read about him and in his own words…he enjoyed a vacation from his ministry. What is the big deal? God is not an ogre who demands you never enjoy some pleasures in life, unless you go further and become a hedonist.

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    1. Let me add this….when you start to feel your singular importance to the running of your ministry is so essential and incomparable…..be humbled by the fact that all the cemeteries of the world are filled with indispensable men….or at least who thought of themselves that way.

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    2. Um, you completely missed the point. The “ashamed” referenced not unplugging to be with family and friends, thereby undoing the point of taking of vacation.

      Bob, I’m guilty as well.

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  2. The key is to learn how to delegate (which includes training) and to trust. Also, we don’t turn off our brains or our first love on vacation, so reading God’s Word and theology is great and refreshing on vacation.

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    1. I agree. Reading the word every day is part of who we are, and staying “in touch” with Our Lord in our hearts. Enjoy vacations….but bring along a pocket New Testament with the psalms, or your Bible. My pocket New Testament is always in my left trouser pocket, my car keys in the right pocket. It is always with me….and my advice…”Don’t leave home without it.” Even in a vacation hotel, there is some time in the evening or before bedtime to read the word and pray.

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  3. No one ever on their deathbed stated that they should have been at work more. It’s a hard balance of life and work with the smartphone in our pockets. I had to recently remove my work email from my phone because it would take over my family time, my dinner meal and even my sleep. We need to give ourselves daily rest as well as real “vacations” away from our vocations. I encourage you Bob to daily leave work at work. I know that as a Pastor, you’re never not the shepherd, but you have to draw a line somewhere for you & your families sake. I pray that you find some time, Brother. May it be so in Christ’s holy name. Amen!

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