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Contemplative Preachers in a Troubled World

Contemplative Preachers in a Troubled World
Image: Oliver Rossi / Getty

He lived in a time much like our chaotic age. A time of social unrest, high inflation, rural decay, panic, rioting, and a crumbling political order. (Sounds familiar, right?) In the late 6th century, while preaching a massive series through the prophet Ezekiel, he told his fragile flock:

Now the world is a barren desert … Everywhere there is death, mourning, desolation; we are struck on every side, on every side we are filled with anguish; and yet with blind minds we love the bitterness of the things our flesh desires. We pursue what is fleeting, we cling to what is failing … Once the world held us with its delights; now it is so full of woes, that the world itself calls us to God.

His name was Gregory the Great, a man with a magnanimous mind and heart for God. Although he lived in urgent days, Gregory never lost the source of power and depth in his preaching—the practice of contemplative prayer. One biographer called him “a contemplative in a troubled world.”

Gregory thought hard and fought hard his whole life to integrate the two sides of his pastoral ministry—the contemplative side and the active side. For Gregory, contemplation simply meant being with Jesus, growing in our ability to see the beauty of the Lord, to desire the goodness of the Lord, and to receive the love of Jesus. Like many leaders in the early church, Gregory lived into the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10. “The contemplative life,” he said, “is to cling with our whole mind to the love of God and our neighbor, and to desire nothing beside our Creator.”

The two sides go together. As Gregory wrote, “By contemplation we rise to the love of God; by preaching we return to the service of our neighbor.” The preacher always needs time and space to return to the “fire of contemplation” or else their heart will grow cold and their words will fall flat. For Gregory, sermon prep, exegesis that is, can actually feed the contemplative side of the preacher’s soul. “For throughout the whole of the sacred Scriptures,” he taught, “God speaks to us with this one end, that He may draw us to love of Him and our neighbor.”

I’m pondering Gregory’s words, but even deeper, I’m seeing the need for the two sides of my life—contemplation and action—to integrate fully. They are always in tension, but our hyper urgent, activist age tends to smother the fire of contemplation. There is no time, we say. That is a lie. As Gregory would teach us, “From speaking in the public forum, we must return to the court-room of the heart.”

These days I am working on a simple spiritual rhythm: going to bed 30 minutes earlier so I can wake up 30 minutes earlier for time alone with Jesus. It is simple time. I sit on my front porch with a cup of dark roast French press coffee. I may read a Psalm or a Gospel reading. I say “thank you” and “I am sorry” to my Father for many things. I may repeat, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I am accomplishing nothing. I am not being efficient or busy. In my small way, I am trying “to rise to the love of God.”

So, where is your heart these days? How often do you return to the court-room of the heart? Remember, the Lord Jesus is already there, waiting for you, his beloved. Be a contemplative in a troubled world.

Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.

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