In Praise of Idleness

We gave ourselves to the water and it carried us.  (Andreas Weber, Matter and Desire)

Today is the close of my fourth week away since starting my new position as the interim pastor at the Congregational Church in Littleton, New Hampshire.

Not sick time away although I’ve had those weeks as well this fall, leveled by a couple of nasty non-COVID viruses. Not vacation time either, those weeks will come later this year. 

Instead, these weeks away are part of my new schedule and routine of pastoring three-quarter time. Three weeks full-time at the church followed by one week and a weekend away. 

When I talked to the search committee last summer it was clear that they couldn’t afford a full-time pastor. They could, however, have a three-quarter time pastor and a schedule that I felt could work well for them and me. 

For the past year since their pastor retired, the church had done a good job of running and being the church. They’d coordinated worship and pastoral connection and care. Made decisions about moving forward. I didn’t want them to lose that muscle of leadership they’d been developing. It would be an easy time for a full-time pastor to take over and take away the empowerment that the church was learning to claim and live for itself. 

Four weeks in, I’d say this new rhythm has been good for all of us. I support members in planning and leading worship during my weeks away, support and supplement the card and pastoral care ministry they continue to provide, help frame conversations and decisions they need to make. By regularly being away and not solely doing their ministry for them, their own leadership is growing and deepening.  

It’s been good for my soul as well. My first week away I hiked 60 miles on the Appalachian Trail with a friend. I spent my second week writing about my discoveries on the trail and exploring the North Country with my nephew. In early December I attended a silent retreat. I just returned from a week with my family in Maryland and helped my parents navigate their first trip down to my sister’s house in eight years. On Sundays I’ve had the chance to worship and be led by beloved and new church communities. I’ve been able to attend significant events like the final worship service for the pastor at my home church. 

Each time I’ve  been away I’ve returned feeling like I do on this Monday morning. Rested, renewed, enlivened, full of inspiration and insights from the experiences I’ve had. I see things here differently because I’ve stepped away. Bring a renewed curiosity and questions to this still strange place I call home. I’m looking forward and am ready to step into the responsibilities of the weeks ahead. 

And I do so with an awareness of the opportunity and invitation to be in time differently here during the coming weeks. Perhaps it comes with living in the North Country of Northern New Hampshire. Perhaps being on the cusp of turning 61. Perhaps, an intuition of what is needed here. But ever since I arrived here, I’ve sensed a call that the way forward means going slower and deeper. A feeling that the issues before us are so complex and critical that they require a new way of seeing and being. A way that only going slower and deeper will provide.  

As much as I feel the pull to a certain slowing, an idleness, for the sake of uncovering what action is required, I don’t find it easy.

In times of struggle and turmoil in my own life I have found such slowing to be near impossible. Instead, I’ve pushed myself hard, sought to power through, figure things out, see what I cannot yet see. Do something, do anything. Carried a weight of self-judgment that if only I was smarter, wiser, a better person or pastor I could have figured this out, solved what I haven’t known how to solve.  

As an active man who has led with my enthusiasm and energy, my passion and commitments to community and connection, I’ve found it downright disorienting to step into the call to go slower. To take time and and put things down. To not fill in all the empty spaces on my calendar with more doing. I’m still trying to figure this out – or let it be figured out in me. 

I have loved my little lists and making my way through them. Loved the familiarity of living by a scheduled day and week. I bring a strong work ethic where I use energy, passion and commitment to move ideas into actions. Not that it was bad – lots of good work got done and that time served its purpose. And that way of being at times led former colleagues to comment in exasperation that they needed to set up an appointment to see me. I just nodded and said they did.  

I have known the adrenaline rush and high of being carried away with action. During COVID I remember a colleague saying that we needed to approach this time like a marathon instead of a sprint. Despite knowing she was right, I sprinted ahead in the need to work with church leaders to reinvent and re-imagine everything about being the church. It was exciting and exhausting but mainly exciting.  

And I remember six months later, in the fall of 2020 when that spur of excitement and newness grew old and familiar and I wanted things I couldn’t yet have, namely how things were and I wanted them to be again. I missed having real connection with real people in real time on Sunday morning and not speaking across an empty sanctuary to the camera at the the top of the sanctuary door. I wanted to sit down at kitchen tables with tea to hear stories and not at my kitchen counter looking at a computer screen.  

New ways of being grow slowly and not without grief. I came to United Parish in Brookline last spring filling in for a colleague’s sabbatical with a thousand ideas of all we might do in this time. However, in my first week there it became clear that what they didn’t need was new energy or programs. Instead they needed their own sabbatical time while their senior pastor was having his. Instead of all these things that we could have done, early conversations confirmed that it was a time to go deeper.  I needed more time just to be present and take time for conversations that needed to take place. Needed to use the gift of this time to focus on a few particular relationships where listening, encouraging, clearing away barriers was needed. A time to focus on doing more by doing less. It made the work simpler, freeing, clearer. I knew, the church knew, what they wanted this time to be about. I never felt so relaxed and free as a pastor.  

I draw hope that I’m not alone hearing and heeding this call to walk differently through these present times. Three community groups I am part of have all declared a sabbatical time for themselves these past months. Several community leaders and friends have also said yes to that same call to step away from their ordinary responsibilities in order to discern what is being asked of them.  

Sometimes, I hear in the back of my mind King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I can well place myself in the company of those white ministers who critique King’s actions as “unwise and untimely.” As injustice was there, injustice is here. As I sit here on yet another “unseasonably warm” January day, unlike anyone I’ve talked to remembers around here, I know that the climate crisis is not out there, but right here. Racism is here. Poverty, hunger and domestic violence are here. A church seeking to determine its way forward is here.

Its not that action is not needed, it is. But a different way to step into and approach that action needed as well.

Today before stepping back into the next weeks of work that begin tomorrow, I take this time to listen to what it is I am to be about. To discern with others what action to take and the inaction and listening we need to make space for. To let the work of idleness work in me and the community for the sake of deeper seeing and transformation. 

And so, put down this piece and head out to the woods for a walk when part of me just wanted to finish this. As always seems to happen in stepping away, I came back renewed and regrounded. 

So this year, on the second day of a new year, a commitment, a resolve to make room in my soul for idleness. 

Do you have the patience to wait 

Till your mind settles and the water is clear?

Can you remain unmoving 

Till the right action arises by itself?

(The Tao Te Ching, verse 15, Stephen Mitchell translation)

3 thoughts on “In Praise of Idleness”

  1. I love the Ta de Ching questions: do you have the patience to wait till you mind settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving tell the right action arises by itself? Peter you always leave us with much to ponder

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  2. Peter, I love this reflection, almost more than any you’ve written. Welcome to the unfolding of life in your 60s and beyond. Going deeper is the work of the second half of life and that work involves a lot of shifting and letting go and viewing things in new ways and simply being and waiting for “whatever is next” to reveal itself. Blessings and love on this journey.

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